By popular demand the RHSV has extended the dates of its current exhibition: Nail Can to Knighthood : the life of Sir Macpherson Robertson KBE.
The exhibition, in the Society’s Gallery at 239 A’Beckett Street, Melbourne, will now close on Friday 4 March 2016. Opening times are Monday to Thursday: 10 am to 4 pm; Friday 10 am to 3 pm.
David Robertson, grandson of the well-known Melbourne businessman and philanthropist, launched the exhibition last year. The following is an edited transcript of Mr Robertson’s opening speech.
“My grandfather died when I was only three so unfortunately I don’t really remember him but, despite his obvious flair for promoting his business, I think he might have been a fairly private person. I do remember being told that he regularly attended the cinema with my grandmother and that croquet was one of his favourite pastimes. Only a few visitors were invited to his home and that was usually for croquet tournaments. His love of croquet lead to the establishment of the MacRobertson Shield International Croquet Tournament and that competition survives to this day.
His other hobbies were his horses and boxing. He spent many hours teaching his Arab ponies, Captain and Sultan, all sorts of tricks and his preferred way of keeping fit was by regularly working out by punching a speed ball.
After having worked in the confectionery industry for several years, he decided that confectionery was his future and that he wanted to go out on his own.
In 1880, he commenced manufacturing sugar confectionery in an improvised boiler in the family home in Fitzroy. I can imagine the trepidation he felt for the future of his ambitious venture on that first day. After having worked most of the night, he set off the next day with a tray of sugar novelties on his head, walking through the streets of the surrounding neighbourhoods, his first sale for two shillings not coming ‘till late in the day. Despite the disappointing start he persevered, manufacturing on the first four days of the week and devoting Friday and Saturday to selling, walking as far afield as Footscray, Richmond and Malvern with the tray on his head.
Over the ensuing years the business continued to prosper despite the ending of the land boom of the 1890s and two world wars. MacRobertson was the largest confectionery manufacturer in the Southern hemisphere until the Cadbury takeover in 1967. He cared greatly for his staff and was rewarded with their loyalty. Industrial unrest was not an issue. At its peak, the business employed over 3,000 staff and exported to over 15 countries. There were agency and distributorship agreements with many other companies, including MacIntosh, Mars, Wrigleys (chewing gum) and wholly owned subsidiaries Life Savers and the Australian Liquorice Co.
The story of my grandfather building his business from boiling sweets in a nail can to ultimately owning seventeen factories in Fitzroy – “The Great White City” – is beautifully told in this exhibition.
As you tour the exhibition you will see the original nail can and pannikin he used to boil sugar for his first confections. As finances allowed he expanded into chocolate confectionery and you will see packaging for a variety of products that became household names. MacRobertson will be remembered for the brand names that became part of our heritage:- Old Gold chocolates, Cherry Ripe, Freddo Frogs, Snack, Cinderella Bon Bons, Columbine Caramels, Tip Top Toffees, Milk Kisses, and Scorched Almonds, to name a few.
I think one of my grandfather’s greatest attributes was his tremendous understanding of the value of attractive packaging for his products and devising ways to promote them. Many of the colourful packages featured poems or stories, like the boy who stole the cherries on the back of the cherry ripe wrapper. His trademark signature was another great example. One promotion involved importing 300 bicycles from America and utilising the popularity of cycling to promote his products.
He appreciated the enormous challenge of distributing products around Australia and was keenly aware of the need to keep abreast of the developments in transport, progressing from delivering his products on foot, to bicycle, to horse drawn transport and then to motor trucks.
As the exhibition illustrates MacRobertson was far more than a “Chocolatier”. In 1929, Sir Douglas Mawson was seeking funding for an Antarctic Expedition. Turned down by the Australian Government, the Prime Minister, Stanley Bruce and Sir Douglas appealed to my grandfather to fund the expedition. Following a contribution of £16,500 he was rewarded by having a 291,000 square mile piece of Antarctica named ‘MacRobertsonland’ and he was appointed a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
To draw attention to the logistics problems presented by the huge area of Australia, he financed the MacRobertson Round Australia Expedition with two six-wheel Karrier trucks. The success of the expedition in proving that the Australian tyranny of distance could be overcome on land lead to the purchase of an eight passenger DeHavilland aeroplane to further improve transport within Australia.
Following the success of the DeHavilland, he financed the MacRobertson Miller airline that commenced operating mail runs between Adelaide and Perth and went on to operate passenger services throughout West Australia and the Northern Territory until taken over by Ansett.
My grandfather’s philanthropic generosity is best demonstrated by his gift of £100,000 to help celebrate Melbourne’s centenary in 1934. As a result of the federal government deciding to tax the Victorian government £42,000, he decided to pay the tax himself in order that the gift remained £100,000.
Examples of the projects financed from this gift include the 1934 London to Melbourne air race, designed to show how air travel was becoming a viable means of transport between Europe and Australia and to promote the city of Melbourne.
Other notable projects include the MacRobertson bridge, The National Herbarium, The MacRobertson Fountain and of course probably the best known of all, The MacRobertson Girls’ High School.
The success of his business and the generosity of his gifts to the people of Victoria show what a truly great entrepreneur and philanthropist he was and in June 1932, King George the fifth created Sir Macpherson Robertson a Knight Batchelor.
I commend the Royal Historical Society of Victoria for so carefully nurturing, caring and curating their magnificent collection of MacRobertson material. They have become MacRobertson headquarters. Their aim is to make this collection accessible and I am delighted that the RHSV and Culture Victoria have worked together to present some of the story of MacRobertson online.”
David Robertson, 14 July 2015; reproduced from History News (Royal Historical Society of Victoria), Issue 319, August-September 2015, p. 5