At one point, Marchants was the largest manufacturer of soft drinks in Australia. As with many other manufacturers, its name has now vanished, kept alive only in our memories and by avid collectors of old bottles.
When I worked in the Melbourne advertising agency, Clemenger, in the 1960s, Marchants was one of our clients. It was the age of the jingle and a veteran copywriter called “Skip” Brennan was a master of the form. It was Skip who penned the words to the famous Marchants song:
Marchants Lemonade is sparkalarkalarkaling,
If you want something coolaloolalooaling
Just say Marchants please…
Advertising included live commercials on Channel 9’s evening variety show In Melbourne Tonight. In his book about the show’s presenter, Graham Kennedy, Mike McColl-Jones describes how Kennedy played one of his infamous tricks on the advertiser, arranging for water and then milk to be secreted in Marchants cans. When he opened and poured them on set, the contents were far from sparkalarkalarkaling!
I always assumed that Marchants was a Victorian brand but it originated in Brisbane and, until the late 20th century, was made in both Sydney and Melbourne. The company’s founder, George Marchant, arrived in Brisbane from England in 1874 at the age of 16. His father was a hotel-keeper, which had exposed the boy to “the evils of strong drink”. It made him an abstainer and led to his lifelong devotion to the temperance cause. An interview with Marchant on the eve of his 79th birthday, published in The Telegraph, revealed his belief in hard work and altruism as the keys to a successful life.
After some years as a gardener and shop assistant, Marchant began working as a carter for makers of aerated waters, the contemporary term for soft drinks. By 1886, he had the means to purchase the ginger beer factory of John R. Palmer in Elizabeth Street, Brisbane. Two years later he moved to a new factory in Bowen Street. In 1888, he opened a Marchant’s business in Sydney, and later in Melbourne, Adelaide and Newcastle.
By 1907, Marchants in Melbourne was advertising a range of flavours in The Herald. “MARCHANT stands for Purity, for Refreshingness, for All that is Best in Thirst-quenching Beverages,” the copy ran. The range at that point included Hop Beer, Lemonade, Kola Beer, Ginger Ae and Soda Water, all produced in the factory in York Street, Richmond
The Brisbane business closed in 1917 followed, in time, by those in Adelaide and Newcastle. The Melbourne business was sold to Marchant’s wife’s brothers and eventually became Marchants Drinks Pty Ltd. The Sydney business became a company, Marchants Ltd, with Marchant himself continuing as Managing Director at least until 1936. George Marchant died in 1941. Through the 1950s, the soft drink industry became more competitive, with Marchants Holdings Ltd listed on the stock exchange alongside Starkeys, Canada Dry, Passiona Bottling and Consolidated Beverages (Pepsi-Cola franchisees). The Newcastle Morning Herald wrote in 1954:
Altogether, the outlook for soft drink is not bright and when the accounts of other companies are presented later this year they will no doubt also show evidence of the fierce competition which has characterised the industry since the war.
In 1960, Shelley & Sons announced that they had acquired all interests in Marchants Ltd. “The renowned high quality of Shelley’s and Marchants drinks will be maintained and the public, through their SHELLEY-MARCHANTS retailer, may look forward to a new standard of speedy and reliable service,” they said. Just four years later, Shelley’s was bought by British Tobacco, which became Coca-Cola Amatil. The Victorian company was also acquired by Coca-Cola Amatil in the late 1970s. Although the brands continued for some years under the new ownership, they eventually disappeared in 2000 when, along with other interstate brands, the operations were consolidated under the Kirks brand name.