The Royal Historical Society of Victoria have a fantastic exhibition at the moment that draws on their collection of material about Macpherson Robertson – the source (bless him) of Australia’s oldest, and my very favourite chocolate bar: The Cherry Ripe (now produced by Cadbury)
Titled “Nail Can to Knighthood”, this exhibition covers the life of Sir Macpherson Robertson and the significance of his factories in Fitzroy, Melbourne. Australians, it seems, are always being berated for their lack of philanthropy, especially in comparison with the American tradition, but Macpherson Robinson was a Philanthropist with a capital P, and several Melbourne landmarks associated with the centenary of Victoria in 1934 bear his name to this day.
A child of the goldfields, Macpherson Robertson was born in Ballarat in 1859 to a Scottish father and Irish mother. The family returned to Leith, Scotland when his father moved to Fiji in search of work and as a photograph in the exhibition shows, this was not a wealthy family at all. To help the family finances, Macpherson took odd jobs, including working in two confectionery factories. When the family returned to Melbourne in 1874, he started an apprenticeship at the Victoria Confectionery Company. At the age of 21 he started his own business in the family home in Argyle Street Fitzroy, using a nail can and tin pannikin to boil up the syrup that he poured into moulds and rolled in sugar that his mother wrapped in paper cones. Macpherson went on foot to distribute his lollies for sale. From these humble beginnings (and the original nail can and pannikin are on show), he built up a huge enterprise that dominated the suburb of Fitzroy and made him enormously wealthy.
He certainly had entrepreneurial flair and knew the benefits of good advertising. He realized that the name ‘Macpherson Robertson’ was too long to fit onto a lolly wrapper, and so he shortened it to ‘MacRobertsons’. Often his advertising and personal interests converged. When promoting chewing gum (which he brought to Australia after living in America for several years) he spruiked it as being of particular benefit to cyclists. He established a Cycling School, presided over by “Professor Eckenstein” who had taught no lesser luminaries than the Prince of Wales, the Duke and Duchess of Connaught and Lord Lennox! He was fond of cars and sponsored the Round Australia Competition in 1928, and established MacRobertson- Miller Airlines. A croquet aficionado himself, he contributed the land from his own estate in Station Street Fairfield to establish the Fairfield Bowling and Croquet Club, and the MacRobertson Shield is still the most prestigious tournament on the International Croquet scene. He knew how to market his own story as well, with several publications issued during his lifetime that drew on the legend of the nail can.
His philanthropy really hit its straps during 1934, the Centenary of Victoria. He sponsored the London to Melbourne International Air Race in 1934, Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School, MacRobertson fountain near the Shrine and MacRobertson Bridge. As you can see, he was not shy in having his name attached to his gifts, and Sir Douglas Mawson likewise thanked him for his sponsorship of the Antarctic Exhibitions of 1929 and 1930 by naming MacRobertsonLand in Antarctica after him.
The RHSV has a wonderful collection of material, supplemented by material on loan from a variety of sources. As well as the original tin can, there’s a cabinet of lolly samples which are displayed one drawer at a time for conservation reasons, showing the different sorts of lollies produced by MacRobertsons in test-tubes. There’s some fascinating video footage, complete with sound, and I was interested that, considering he left school at such a young age, he had acquired over his lifetime an upper class, albeit completely Australian, accent. Most intruiging of all was a bust of Macpherson Robertson that turned out not to be as it seemed.
The exhibition will be open until Friday 18th December, Mon-Thurs 10.00-4.00 and Friday 10.00-3.00. Gold coin donation entry
If you can’t make it, there’s an excellent site (so excellent, in fact that I wonder if it doesn’t pre-empt the exhibition?) at http://www.culturevictoria.com/stories/built-environment/macrobertsons-confectionery-factory/