Royal Reels: Gambling


The illustrated cover was for MacRobertson Manufacturing Confectioner, Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane, Ballarat, Bendigo and it was franked with the red 2d and green 1d KGV Head stamps cancelled with FITZROY/ 9 AP 36/ VICTORIA. It was addressed to The Package Paper Company, Holyoke, Massachusetts, U.S.A. The reverse was not seen (Figure 1).

MacPherson Robertson, 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. His father came to Victoria from Leith, Scotland, and the family 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, and 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 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 U. S. His impressions of ‘Colossal America’ were published in the Ballarat Courier in 1894. A picture of MacRobertson’s Old Gold chocolates, with the well recognised signature, is seen in Figure 2.

Robertson introduced chewing-gum and fairy floss to Australia, promoting Pepsin Gum. 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. 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. 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 draught horses, which he readily lent for public processions and drove himself on Eight Hours Day.

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.

He died at his Kew home on 20 August 1945, and was cremated. 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. A picture of Sir MacPherson Robertson is seen in Figure 3.