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Kitchen, John Ambrose (1835–1922)

by Damian Veltri

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

John Ambrose Kitchen (1835-1922), businessman, was born in February 1835 at Watlington, Oxfordshire, England, second son of John Kitchen (1799-1890), grocer, and his wife Ruth, née Freeman. Raised at Reading, Berkshire, John Ambrose became a solicitor's clerk there, but after his mother's death and his father's business failure the family migrated to Victoria in 1854.

Arriving ahead of his father and two brothers (Philip and Theophilus), Kitchen sold newspapers and second-hand books at the Caledonian diggings. He prospected unsuccessfully at Mount Blackwood, before returning to Melbourne, where his father was managing a candle factory. The family began making tallow candles from butchers' scraps in the backyard of their Emerald Hill (South Melbourne) house. Ordered out as an offensive trade, the business removed to Sandridge (Port Melbourne) in 1858. On 11 December 1860 at the registry office, Melbourne, Kitchen married Scottish-born Catherine Miller Sandeman (d.1874).

Fire destroyed the company's premises in 1860, but they were quickly rebuilt and a Melbourne office was opened. In 1870 the Kitchens bought Gossage Bros' soap and candle factory at Footscray, to which they transferred their boiling-down operations. Manufacture of stearine candles commenced in 1871, when the Duffy government increased the protective tariff. The driving force in the subsequent expansion of J. Kitchen & Sons was John Ambrose, who established a factory in Wellington, New Zealand (1876), and bought out competitors at Sandhurst (Bendigo) in 1878, Echuca (1887) and Wangaratta (1887). By the early 1880s the firm employed some 300 workers in Melbourne. The merger with the Apollo Stearine Candle Co. made it the pre-eminent soap and candle manufacturer in the eastern mainland colonies, with a factory in Brisbane and a half-interest in the Sydney Soap & Candle Co.

Baptized a Wesleyan Methodist, Kitchen joined the Plymouth Brethren in Victoria, but by 1870 belonged to the Church of England. On 3 September 1875 at Kew he married with Congregational forms 21-year-old, Irish-born Gertrude Walker. Having left his Sandridge cottage for Kew in 1868, in 1876 he acquired the mansion Elsinore. Kitchen also developed an apple orchard at Pakenham from the late 1870s, set up the Melbourne Coffee Taverns Co. with William McLean and (Sir) Matthew Davies in 1878 and co-founded the Royal Bank of Australasia (1888). Financed by the Commercial Bank of Australia, Kitchen speculated in real estate during the 1880s. After the bank crashes, he made a secret composition for his £167,507 debt in July 1892, resigned briefly from the board of J. Kitchen & Sons, and moved to a modest, eight-room villa in East Malvern. All company property was mortgaged when the banks threatened foreclosure, and in 1894 the New Zealand business was sold.

Kitchen's company had expanded to Western Australia and South Australia by 1902, and in 1907 began producing copra oil from a plantation at Milne Bay, Papua. Velvet soap was introduced as a brand name by 1906 and Solvol by 1915. The firm was employing 1000 workers across Australia when it merged with the British firm Lever Bros in 1914; the Australian subsidiary, however, remained under Kitchen family control.

John Ambrose died on 24 May 1922 at Malvern and was buried in Kew cemetery, survived by his wife and their two sons and by three sons and four daughters of his first marriage. His estate was valued for probate at £46,014 and he made substantial bequests to charities. One son, Frederick William (1879-1940), succeeded him as managing director and another, John Hambleton (1862-1925), managed the Sydney company. Lever had fully acquired the business by 1924; in 1976 John Kitchen & Sons was renamed Unichema, and Lever and Kitchen soaps became Lever Rexona.

Select Bibliography

  • G. D. Meudell, The Pleasant Career of a Spendthrift (Lond, 1929)
  • M. Cannon, The Land Boomers (Melb, 1966)
  • G. Serle, The Rush to be Rich (Melb, 1971)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Victoria), 1883, vol 4, paper no 50, 1894, vol 2, paper no 37, 1895-96, vol 2, paper no 3
  • Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1906, vol 4
  • Industrial Australian and Mining Standard, 31 Oct 1918, p 684
  • Unilever Australia Reporter, Sept 1956
  • Victorian Historical Journal, 64, no 1, Apr 1993, p 46
  • Argus (Melbourne), 25 May 1922, p 6.

Citation details

Damian Veltri, 'Kitchen, John Ambrose (1835–1922)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kitchen-john-ambrose-13027/text23553, published in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 22 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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