ROBERTS & SONS, BENDIGO to CHALLENGE WINDMILL & FEED MILL, ILLINOIS
The blue 2½d ‘STAMP DUTY’ QV stamp of Victoria is postmarked with a BENDIGO/ 3 F/ AP 24/ 00 duplex, and the cover is addressed to Challenge Wind Mill & Feed Mill Co., Batavia. Ill (Figure 1).
The reverse has a blue printed double oval ‘A. ROBERTS & SONS/ BENDIGO/ VICTORIA/ ENGINEERS’. There is a transit SAN FRANCISCO CAL/ JE ( )/ ( ), as well as an overlying indistinct postmark which does not look like an arrival Batavia, Illinois postmark (Figure 2).
A colorful advertising logo for the Challenge Company, Batavia Illinois., U.S.A., Branches Kansas City Mo., Minneapolis Minn., Omaha Neb. in the oval which has a knight with a shield and sword. At each corner there is an advert for the types of equipment manufactured by the company starting in the top left hand corner: Wind Mills, Towers, and proceeding clockwise: Gas, Gasoline Engines; Grinders, Tanks, Silos, Lawn Swings, etc.; and, Village, Farm and Railway Water Supply Goods (Figure 3).
Abraham Roberts, ironfounder, was born on 13 July 1819 in Cornwall, England, son of Abraham Roberts, blacksmith, and his wife Mary. Nothing is known of his education and early training but it is likely that he served an engineering apprenticeship and worked in engineering workshops in Cornwall. Undoubtedly he observed much machinery among the tin mines of Cornwall and absorbed the principles of sound engineering design and high-grade workmanship, which bore fruit in his later years in Sandhurst (Bendigo). On 19 August 1841 he married Elizabeth Tonkin at the parish church at Paul, Cornwall.
Roberts arrived on Bendigo in 1853 with his family and engaged in gold-prospecting, then about 1861 opened the United Iron Works, a small engineering shop in Williamson Street, making forge and hand tools. With expansion the business moved to Mitchell Street, until by 1880 it absorbed an entire block covering three acres (1.2 ha) in the heart of the town and employed nearly two hundred men. Three of his sons, William, Abraham and Arthur, helped to run A. Roberts & Sons.
As well as being a skilful and enterprising engineer, Roberts was a shrewd businessman, who anticipated that the market for machinery on the local goldfields would diminish, and widened the sphere of his activities accordingly. Though the requirements of the mining industry maintained the firm, no class of foundry work was ignored. Roberts secured orders for machinery for the two major Broken Hill mines and built steam winding engines for several Western Australian mines, as well as undertaking orders for machinery in South Africa and New Zealand.
He introduced poppet-heads constructed of steel to the Bendigo goldfield and the 105-head stamp battery for Lansell’s Big Blue mine was the largest quartz-crushing battery in Australia at that time. The pair of steam winding engines built by his works for the Hustler's Royal Reserve Co. were the largest on the Bendigo field. The company also carried out steamship repairs, bridgework and many important railway contracts and in 1891 supplied the largest outlet valves in Victoria at Laanecoorie weir.
A staunch Anglican, Roberts was a member of the building committee of the Church of England at Kangaroo Flat, Bendigo. His leisure activities were reading and letter-writing. He took no part in local government matters. Roberts died at his Bendigo home on 11 August 1897 and was buried in Bendigo cemetery. His wife, six sons and three daughters survived him. His son Abraham assumed the management of the business and in 1902 toured England and the Continent inspecting new machine tools. The company produced much of the irrigation equipment used in northern Victoria and in 1917 the giant cranes for the electrification of Melbourne's suburban railways. The family sold the business in 1918. The overhead foot-bridge at Bendigo railway station bears the company's name-plate and some of their machinery is preserved in working order at the Central Deborah mine, Bendigo. A picture of the buildings of Roberts & Sons is seen in Figure 4.
One can readily understand that a large engineering company like Roberts & Sons would have contacts with large overseas engineering firms like the Challenge Company in Batavia, Illinois. I was interested to find that a large retail business like Anthony Horderns in Sydney might sell some of there smaller items, such as pumps for I found an item that was doubly labeled with a Challenge Man’f’d by Challenge Company Batavia, Ill. U.S.A. H.P. 6 NO 6935, as well as an additional Anthony Hordern & Sons, Universal Providors, Brickfield Hill, Sydney (Figure 5).
Most of the text on Roberts & Sons, Bendigo was taken from the Australian Dictionary of Biography.