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Robertson, Sir Macpherson (1859–1945)

by John Lack

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Sir Macpherson Robertson (1859-1945), industrialist and philanthropist, was born on 6 September 1859 at Ballarat, Victoria, eldest of seven children of Macpherson David Robertson, carpenter, and his wife Margaret, née Brown. His father, born in Uruguay of Scottish parents, came to Victoria from Leith, Scotland, and the family lived precariously while he moved between gold-seeking and work as a builder. In 1869 he dispatched his family to Scotland, while he went to Fiji. Macpherson blamed his father for the penury that forced him to leave school and become a breadwinner. When the family was reunited in Melbourne in 1874, he served an apprenticeship with the Victoria Confectionery Co. and gained experience with other confectionery firms.

In 1880 Robertson began making novelty sweets in the bathroom at home in Fitzroy, hawking them to local shopkeepers. The business expanded quickly, drawing in most of the family. By the late 1880s MacRobertson's Steam Confectionery Works with over thirty employees had begun to expand by acquiring and demolishing nearby housing. A family disagreement followed his marriage on 8 July 1886 to Elizabeth Alice Hedington (d.1932) at North Carlton, and he left the business to found the American Candy Co. His skills, however, were indispensable and within a few years he returned, although bitterly resenting presentation of the enterprise as his father's. Robertson was the driving force behind the firm's phenomenal expansion. Some of his flair for product innovation, eye-catching packaging and skilful promotion reflected his world tour of 1893, when he worked in the United States of America. His impressions of 'Colossal America' were published in the Ballarat Courier in 1894. Robertson introduced chewing-gum and fairy floss to Australia, promoting Pepsin Gum through his cycling school, and through testimonials from prominent sportsmen. Employees and customers were offered prizes for sweet-wrapper designs, advertising jingles and messages for 'conversation lollies'.

By the early 1900s MacRobertson's had established a reputation for quality and variety and had taken a large share of the confectionery market, previously monopolized by English importers. Federation gave access to an Australia-wide market and the disruption of imports in World War I allowed Robertson to make further inroads. He established his own engineering department to manufacture plant, and launched the exclusive 'Old Gold' line of chocolates. The largest confectionery works in the Commonwealth, with agencies in every State, it was known by the distinctive MacRobertson signature. After his father's death in 1909, Robertson claimed a half-share, and assigned the remainder of the business to three brothers. In public the man and the enterprise were synonymous. Dressed immaculately in white, he presided over his Great White City at Fitzroy, a complex of white-painted factories housing several thousand white-uniformed employees. His delivery trucks were drawn by prize grey draughthorses, which he readily lent for public processions and drove himself on Eight Hours Day. His assiduous promotion of the romanticized tale of his business, A Young Man and a Nail Can (1921), gave Melbourne an equivalent of the Dick Whittington legend.

'Mr Mac' inspired widespread loyalty and affection, taking a fatherly interest in his 'co-workers'. Welfare provisions cemented the harmonious relations. Robertson appeared before the royal commission on the Commonwealth tariff (1905) on behalf of the industry and the Victorian trade union. He sat on the confectioners' wages board (1900-22) and, though suspicious of state intervention and opposed to a proliferation of boards, he refused to join fellow manufacturers in blacklisting unionists and other 'troublemakers'. Robertson looked benignly on unionism, encouraged the Female Confectioners' Union, and observed the closed shop from 1919.

Robertson was the instigator of and major partner in Maize Products Pty Ltd, which pioneered the Australian manufacture of glucose, and in the Federal Milk Co., which made condensed and powdered milk. Subsidiary companies handled his container, paper and printing requirements. In 1926 he bought a controlling interest in Life Savers (Australasia) Ltd, and transferred its factory from Sydney. Acknowledged as the doyen of Australian confectioners, Robertson mounted a dazzling display at the 1924 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, England. When three English firms combined as Cadbury-Fry-Pascall to manufacture in Tasmania from 1926, MacRobertson expanded his product range and redoubled his promotions. He joined aviator 'Horrie' Miller in the MacRobertson-Miller Aviation Co., Adelaide, and financed the MacRobertson Round Australia motor truck expedition in 1928.

Robertson became renowned for his generosity; by 1933 he estimated that he had given away some £360,000. He made substantial gifts to the British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic expeditions (1929, 1930); Sir Douglas Mawson named MacRobertson Land in Antarctica in his honour. Robertson was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, London, in 1931 and was knighted in 1932. During the Victorian centenary celebrations he provided the £15,000 prize money for a London to Melbourne air race (1934) and £100,000 for public works to create employment and provide much-needed facilities. After controversy which Robertson found distressing, the money was spent on MacRobertson Girls' High School, a herbarium in the Botanic Gardens, a bridge over the Yarra and a fountain. In 1935 he was appointed K.B.E.

An able sportsman in his youth, Robertson was a non-smoker and very moderate drinker. He worked out daily in his gym, and in his sixties could still jump a 4 ft 8 ins (142 cm) bar. He cut a dapper, upright and serious figure, with silver hair and clear complexion. He lived unpretentiously and his tastes were simple: croquet, films and boxing at the Melbourne Stadium (sometimes in company with John Wren) were abiding interests. He rarely holidayed, but was an ardent motorist from 1902 and owned a fleet of Packard cars.

He died at his Kew home on 20 August 1945, and was cremated after an Anglican service. On 27 August 1932 at Scots Church, Melbourne, he had married Elizabeth Siebert who predeceased him in 1944. His estate, which was sworn for probate at £584,266 and consisted almost entirely of government bonds and shares in his business, was left to his descendants. A son and a daughter of Robertson's first marriage predeceased him. His sons Norman Napoleon and Eric Francis and grandsons Mervyn Macpherson Brewer and Geoffrey Robertson Brewer were closely involved in the business, which in 1967 became part of Cadbury Schweppes.

Select Bibliography

  • MacRobertson, A White Australian Industry (Melb, 1905)
  • I. MacLaren, Pen Portrait of Macpherson Robertson (priv print, 1921)
  • MacRobertson Abroad: A Reprint of Mr. Mac. Robertson's Diary Written During his World Tour of 1926-1927 (Melb, 1927)
  • G. Taylor, Making it Happen (Melb, 1934)
  • A. Pratt (ed), The National Handbook of Australia's Industries (Melb, 1934)
  • N. Palmer, Fourteen Years (Melb, 1948)
  • A. G. Price, The Winning of Australian Antarctica (Syd, 1962)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1894, 2 (37), 1902-03, 2 (31)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1906, 4 (12)
  • Lone Hand, 1 May 1912
  • Rydge's Business Journal, Dec 1935
  • Business History, 26, no 1, Mar 1984, p 59
  • Age (Melbourne), 9 Aug 1909, 21 Aug 1945
  • Argus (Melbourne), 9 Aug 1909, 21 Aug 1945
  • Times (London), 21 Aug 1945
  • New York Times, 21 Aug 1945
  • W. McCaig, A Case Study of a Female Trade Union During the 1930s Depression: The Female Confectioners Union of Australia, Victorian Branch (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Melbourne, 1981)
  • Wages Board records (Public Record Office Victoria)
  • MacRobertson collection (Royal Historical Society of Victoria)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Lack, 'Robertson, Sir Macpherson (1859–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/robertson-sir-macpherson-8237/text14421, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 23 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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