MacRobertson confectionery had humble beginnings in the Fitzroy, Victoria, home of Macpherson Robertson. Born on the Victorian goldfields in 1859, Mac Robertson worked in various part-time jobs during his school years, at 15 becoming an apprentice at the Victorian Confectionery Company. There he spent five years learning his trade.
In 1880, according to his own account, Robertson improvised a boiler from a nail can and began making sweets in his bathroom. He began to sell them door-to-door to shopkeepers around the suburbs. Still a young man, among his early successes was winning a silver medal at the 1880 Intercolonial Juvenile Exhibition. Eight years later, he was showing off his wares at the Melbourne Exhibition, where, the Daily Telegraph reported:
Mac. Robertson’s big bright copper, turning out crisp, hot lollies, is a great trusting spot for candysick girls and lovesick boys.
Before long, Robertson had merged his first and last names into the distinctive signature of the MacRobertson brand. He acquired land in Argyle Street, Fitzroy, where he built his first factory. Over the years, the factory expanded. All the buildings were painted white, the workers wore white uniforms and the complex became known as White City.
In 1893, as part of a world tour, Robertson spent time in the United States, where he visited the new Wrigley company. Chewing gum had become a craze in America in the 1880s and, on his return to Australia, he wasted no time in introducing it to his range. MacRobertson also began to make fairy floss (America’s cotton candy).
A Melbourne newspaper’s description of the factory, in 1894, details the many processes involved in producing lozenges, boiled lollies, chocolates, chewing gum and more. It speaks warmly of the firm:
Of the many manufactories which surround Melbourne and give life and vitality to the springs of employment and consequently the circulation of money, there is not one we think of greater importance than the subject of this article – Mac Robertson’s confectionery establishment in Argyle-street Fitzroy.
The article lists some of the special inscriptions made on conversation lollies to mark the visit to Melbourne by General Booth of the Salvation Army: “Halleluja”, “God bless the General” and “In the sweet bye and bye”.
MacRobertson went on to develop many iconic Australian products, including Freddo Frogs, the Cherry Ripe bar and Old Gold Chocolate. By 1923, the Fitzroy factory was producing around 700 different confectionery lines and employed 2600 people. In 1926, the company secured the major shareholding in Lifesavers (Australasia) and the manufacture of Lifesavers was relocated to their Melbourne factory.
Macpherson Robertson (later Sir Macpherson) was renowned as a philanthropist. He supported many worthy enterprises including several Antarctic expeditions, and MacRobertson Land in Antarctica is named in his honour. He also financed MacRobertson Girls’ High School and the MacRobertson Bridge across the Yarra River. He died in 1945 and the business was carried on by his sons and grandsons until it was sold to Cadbury in 1967. Some products continued to carry the MacRobertson brand until 2002 when Cadbury consigned it to history.