This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005
John Paul Sennitt (1851-1922), engineer and ice and ice-cream manufacturer, was born on 12 January 1851 at Stretham, Cambridgeshire, England, son of David Sennitt, wheelwright and carpenter, and his wife Martha, née Paul. John was apprenticed to an engineer and later moved to South Africa where he worked as a refrigeration engineer. On 24 November 1875 at Port Elizabeth, Cape Colony, he married Harriett Coulbeck (1852-1941). Sennitt established refrigerating works at Durban, Natal. The family, including five children (two had died in infancy) reached Melbourne in 1888; two more children were born in Australia.
Sennitt was employed as engineer to the Victorian Cold Accumulator Co. Pty Ltd in La Trobe Street. The business was transferred in 1894 to 'centrally-situated, prominent and commodious premises'—a big, white building looming large on the south bank of the Yarra, between Princes and Queens bridges. About 1896 he took over the enterprise with the financier and former hardware merchant Edward Keep; in 1899 Sennitt acquired the firm, in partnership with his eldest son William John Coulbeck Sennitt, although the premises and land were retained by Keep (d.1901).
On the company's incorporation in 1906 as J. P Sennitt & Son Pty Ltd, the Keep estate retained a controlling interest. John Sennitt was employed (at a salary of £6 10s. per week) as manager, to 'do the outside work of the company that is to say by calling upon existing customers . . . getting new customers . . . and endeavouring to develop in every way the business . . . as Ice Manufacturers and Cold Storers'. William was employed as engineer (on £4 per week). The businesses of cold storage and ice-making grew rapidly. Expansion and the acquisition of substantial new plant resulted in a dramatic reduction in the cost of ice to the consumer—from 5s. per hundredweight in 1894 to 1s. 6d. in 1904. About that year the company began to manufacture ice-cream.
In 1901 John had been elected for Fawkner Ward to South Melbourne City Council and appointed a justice of the peace. He sat from time to time in the local Court of Petty Sessions, was elected a council-member of the Honorary Justices' Association and was a Freemason in the Admiral Collingwood lodge. His youngest son Alfred Josiah was killed in action in France on 1 September 1918.
Photographed in 1912, Sennitt appeared severe and moustached, with a cleft chin. He died at his Middle Park home on 8 April 1922 and was buried in Coburg cemetery. His wife, four daughters and one son survived him. He left no estate for probate purposes, 'only an old desk with one drawer full of worthless mining scrip and another full of IOUs from friends'. The Sennitt family acquired the Keep estate's interest and the business remained a private company with William as managing director. In the early 1930s, when the firm proclaimed itself the 'oldest-established manufacturer in Victoria of Quality Ice Cream', he introduced the popular polar bear trademark. A huge neon sign on the roof of the South Melbourne factory showed a moving bear vigorously licking an ice-cream cone. William died on 29 January 1940 at Malvern. The ice-cream part of the business was acquired by Unilever in 1961 and merged with Street's. Soon after, the Sennitt brand and its polar bear disappeared.
Andrew J. Ray, 'Sennitt, John Paul (1851–1922)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sennitt-john-paul-13190/text23879, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 31 January 2015.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005