Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Robert McCracken (1813–1885)

by George Parsons

This article was published:

Robert McCracken (c.1813-1885), brewer, was born in Ayrshire, Scotland, son of Robert McCracken, farmer, and his wife Martha, née Earle. He arrived at Melbourne in January 1841 with his brother Peter (1818-1892). With James Robertson as partner the brothers started the brewing firm of McCracken & Robertson in Little Collins Street West in 1851. The partners began with only two labourers and at first their output was four barrels of beer at a time, but they benefited from the increasing industrialization of brewing which resulted from the urban growth in the Melbourne area. From the start the firm 'tied' publicans and by 1870 it controlled a large share of the outlets for beer in the metropolis. The company also adopted the latest technology; when James Robertson retired in 1861 he was wealthy, although the firm had only just started its growth.

The 1860s were reasonably profitable but the success of the firm, then R. McCracken & Co., came in the 1870s. These boom years brought even greater demand for the company's product, especially as Robert had realized that Victorian drinkers wanted a light, bright-coloured beer. The new product sold well, and the tied house system gave the McCrackens a guaranteed market not only for beer but also for such things as wine, tobacco and sweets bought at a large discount and sold at an even larger profit. From the beginning the McCrackens had been interested in scientific brewing. Robert anticipated Pasteur by enforcing extremely high standards of cleanliness in the brewery. In 1873 the company secured the best available brewer, R. K. Montgomerie, a Tasmanian who was an early student of biochemistry; under his control 'bad' beer became a thing of the past. Montgomerie's brewing skill and McCracken's business acumen led to a quadrupling of output. By 1884 the firm was producing 500 barrels at a brew and its average annual output was between 90,000 and 100,000 barrels, and profits were extremely high. Montgomerie was paid on result and was reputed to earn as much as £12,000 a year in the early 1880s. This is probably an exaggeration but his income cannot have been less than £8000 when he left McCracken's in 1884 to open his own brewery.

Throughout the 1870s McCracken had improved his plant and increased the number of hotels tied to his firm. As a leader in labour conditions, he was the first brewer in Melbourne to introduce the eight-hour day in 1879. An avowed protectionist, he encouraged the malting industry and was reckoned one of its best customers. He was also one of the first brewers to realize that cane sugar could balance the instability of colonial malts, an innovation which was perhaps the greatest technical achievement of Victorian brewers.

McCracken showed little interest in public affairs but was widely recognized as a fair businessman, a good father and a generous employer. Aged 72 he died at his home in Ascot Vale on 17 February 1885, and was buried in the Melbourne general cemetery. He was survived by his wife Margaret, née Hannah, and by a daughter and four sons of their ten children. His estate was valued at £141,487. His firm continued under the control of his son Alexander and nephew Coiler who had been admitted to partnership in June 1884. It retained independence until 8 May 1907 when it became a part of Carlton and United Breweries.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • Australian Brewers' Journal, 3 (1884)
  • Age (Melbourne), 18 Feb 1885
  • History of the Carlton and United Breweries (University of Melbourne Archives, and National Library of Australia).

Citation details

George Parsons, 'McCracken, Robert (1813–1885)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Ayrshire, Scotland


17 February, 1885 (aged ~ 72)
Ascot Vale, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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