Appointed a Knight Bachelor in 1935, and later a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire, Sir Macpherson Robertson was born on the 6th September 1859 in Ballarat, Victoria. He was a Scottish-Australian philanthropist, entrepreneur and founder of confectionery company MacRobertson’s.
Robertson was the son of a Scottish carpenter, David Robertson and his Irish wife, Margaret. The family came to Ballarat in search of gold, but fell on hard times with the father abandoning them and moving to Fiji. In 1869 his mother returned to Leith with Macpherson, his three siblings and one other child on the way.
In Scotland, Macpherson started working to support his family at the age of nine, eventually taking an apprenticeship with the Victoria Confectionery Co. In 1874 the family returned to Australia at the request of the father, living in the Melbourne working class suburb of Fitzroy.
Using skills he acquired in Scotland, at the age of nineteen Macpherson set up a confectionery manufacturing operation in his mother’s home bathroom. His business quickly grew as MacRobertson Steam Confectionery Works and, by the late 1880s, he employed thirty people. The company introduced chewing-gum and fairy floss to Australia, as well as famous products such as Freddo Frog, Cherry Ripe, Old Gold Chocolates, Milk Kisses and Columbines. By 1900, it had become the largest confectionery works in Australia. In 1967 MacRobertson’s was acquired by the English confectioner Cadbury’s, which, in 1969, merged with Schweppes Australia to become Cadbury Schweppes.
As part of his marketing strategy, Macpherson maintained a distinctive whiteness to everything he could. The buildings in the Fitzroy factory complex were all painted white and all of his several thousand employees wore white uniforms. Macpherson himself ensured he was always seen in public dressed immaculately in white and rode in a carriage behind two white ponies. The factory complex was quickly known as White City.
Macpherson Robertson is also known for his philanthropic contributions. In 1925 he presented a silver mounted shield to establish the MacRobertson International Croquet Shield. The event is now played every three or four years in rotation between Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. In 1928 he sponsored a circuit of Australia in two Karrier trucks. The five month expedition departed from Parliament House in Melbourne on 12 April and returned on 12 September 1928. In 1929 he financed a combined British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic expedition, and Sir Douglas Mawson named MacRobertson Land in his honour.
In 1933 he contributed to the Melbourne centenary celebrations, including £40,000 towards the establishment of the MacRobertson Girls’ High School. He contributed towards other public works projects as part of the celebrations including the MacRobertson Bridge over the Yarra River, a fountain in front of the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance and the herbarium in the Royal Botanic Gardens. In 1934 he cofounded Western Australian airline MacRobertson Miller Airlines with pilot Horrie Miller. In the same year he sponsored the MacRobertson Air Race with a prize fund of $75,000, an air race from London to Melbourne.
Having lived an exciting and rewarding life as one of Australia’s greatest philanthroptists and businessmen, Macpherson died in Kew on the 20th August 1945. He is one of the great examples of the many business savvy, community minded Scots that have helped to build the society that Australians enjoy so much today. Oh, and he gave us all that chocolate!