Unlike many early margarines which were made from or included animal fats, Nuttelex has always been a purely vegetarian spread. It was created in Melbourne in 1932 by Hugh Halpin. The business was bought by Gordon McNally and Ted Mayes in 1941, with the backing of Unilever. The partnership dissolved in 1947 and the McNally family became sole owners of the Nuttelex brand.
Nuttelex was not the first Australian margarine. According to the Australian Oilseeds Federation, Australia’s first margarine factory was opened in 1892 in Leichardt, NSW, by Tom Hannan. It was made from whale oil, coconut oil and palm oil and was flavoured with cultured milk.
Nuttelex, it seems, has always been an all-vegetable product and was probably the first of its kind. The name and the original squirrel logo suggest it originally contained nuts, but the “Original” product is now made from sunflower oil with, according to the manufacturer, “a small amount of sustainable palm fruit oil (to make the product spreadable) along with a fraction of GM free Canola Oil (which adds to the texture & taste)”.
In 1928 Hugh Halpin obtained space in a portion of a former confectionery factory in Gordon Street, Richmond, Victoria. He began the manufacture of Nuttelex Margarine in 1932 and by 1935 occupied the entire factory. Nuttelex later had premises elsewhere in Richmond and is now being manufactured in Windsor, Victoria.
In the late 1930s, Halpin was involved in a long-running legal battle after he was convicted of failing to make his margarine saffron-coloured. A 1936 law decreed that, to distinguish it from butter, all margarine had to be tinted to match a specified shade from a publication known as the British Color Council’s Dictionary of Color Standards . Halpin’s appeal against his conviction was upheld, but the decision was later overturned by the Victorian Supreme Court.
The dairy industry called the margarine business “a menace to the dairy industry” and a range of licences and quotas were applied in Australia to protect butter sales. These laws persisted until the 1990s. Halpin didn’t do himself any favours with advertising that promoted his product as “Equal to Butter and Cheaper”.
After the partnership between Gordon McNally and Ted Mayes was dissolved, Mayes acquired the Meadow Lea business from its founder, Oliver Trigg. Gordon McNally took over at Nuttelex and ran the company until his death in 1996, aged 91, when his son Ian succeeded him. The brand is still in family hands.