Australia's own Willy Wonka gave us chewing gum and fairy floss

It always surprises me how simple little memorials or headstones can sometimes represent the most amazing lives of people who have long stopped walking this planet. This is certainly the case of Sir Macpherson Robertson whose tiny headstone marks the final destination of his ashes in Springvale Botanical Cemetery in Springvale, Victoria.


He was born the eldest of seven children to Macpherson David Robertson, a carpenter and his wife Margaret, nee Brown on 6 September, 1859 in Ballarat, Victoria. The family came to Victoria from Leith in Scotland during the Australian gold rush period. If Macpherson senior wasn't making ends meet finding gold, he was working as a builder.


When it got too difficult Mac senior sent his family back to Scotland in 1869 while he went to Fiji. Mac junior blamed his father for forcing him to leave school and become the breadwinner for the family. They were all reunited in Melbourne in 1874 and Mac junior became an apprentice with the Victoria Confectionery Co.


Sir MacPherson Robertson's tiny plaque at Springvale Botanical Cemetery, Springvale. Courtesy Findagrave


His interest in all things sweet burgeoned and in 1880 he started making novelty lollies in his bathroom at home in Fitzroy. He would then sell them to local shopkeepers. His business grew quickly and he employed most of his family. Within 10 years the MacRobertson's Steam Confectionery Works was employing over 30 staff.


A family disagreement caused him to leave the business and he founded the American Candy Co. However, he soon returned and was the driving force behind the firm's amazing expansion. On a world tour in 1893, he showed off his skills in promotion, eye-catching packaging and product innovation as he worked in the United States. He introduced chewing gum and fairy floss to Australia and employees and customers were offered prizes for designing lolly wrappers and advertising jingles.


Robertson's reputation was established by the 1900s for high quality and good variety in the confectionery market. He was 'eating' into the English stronghold whose goods were imported into Australia. His market share grew through the First World War when imports were interrupted. He launched the 'Old Gold' line of chocolates and had agencies in every state. His company is also known for current favourites such as Cherry Ripe (1924), Crunchie (1929), Freddo Frogs (1930), Rose boxed chocolates (1938) and Picnic Bar (1958).


Robertson dressed in his immaculate signature colour of white and presided over his Great White City in Fitzroy where the factories were all painted white and the employees dressed in....you guessed it, white. Grey draught horses pulled his delivery vans, which he also lent out for public processions.


Sir MacPherson Robertson. Courtesy Findagrave


Known as MacRobertson he looked after his employees, referring to them as 'co-workers'. 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.

He became renowned for his generosity and it is estimated that by 1933 he had given away around £360,000. This included gifts to the British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic expeditions in 1929 and 1930. MacRoberston Land in Antarctica was named in his honour by Sir Douglas Mawson. He was knighted in 1932 for his services to the Antarctic expeditions.

It's believed Robertson once refused an offer for the business of £2.5 million. He died at his Kew home on 20 August 1945, and was cremated after an Anglican service. 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.


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