2013 Rosella closed down – then revived

In March 2013 the one remaining factory of iconic Australian brand Rosella closed down after the receivers failed to find a buyer for the business. Much had been made of the return of Rosella to Australian hands when Unilever (who acquired it in 1963) unloaded it to Stuart Alexander & Co Pty Ltd in 2002. The business was sold again in 2006 to Gourmet Food Holdings, but receivers were appointed in December 2012. By then Rosella was reduced to one Sydney factory with 70 employees. In April 2013 the brand (but not the business) was bought by local company Sabrands.  >>See Rosella Preserving Company founded, 1895.

Sabrands said they were committed to making Rosella all-Australian again – for example, replacing imported tomato paste with a locally made product. They were manufacturing a range of products at their Dandenong Ranges location outside Melbourne, creating many local jobs.

In 2014 I heard from Aubrey McLaren, who was pretty sure he was the oldest living ex-employee of Rosella. He lived in a Melbourne suburb and was 92. Aubrey wrote:

“I started work at Rosella Richmond Vic in November 1936   just a few days before my 16th birthday. I was employed as a Junior Chemist. From the age of 20, I had five years’ military service and returned to Rosella after the war. I had studied Chemistry for 4 years at Melbourne Tech and had gained a very good knowledge of every aspect of the manufacture and quality control of all the Rosella products.

“In my time Rosella was a really big company. In Richmond, the factory occupied over 10 acres.  They had factories in four states. They rivalled H J Heinz who boasted 57 Varieties.  Rosella countered with ‘Over 100 varieties’. The laboratory was very well equipped and it was a pleasure to work there.  By the age  20, I had done four years’ night school and was quite knowledgeable  of every aspect of food production.

“After two hard years in an Infantry battalion, mostly in Queensland, the Air Force was given permission to recruit for Air Crew from the Army.  I applied, sat an examination in a tent in Caloundra, passed, was sent back to Somers, Victoria,  and from there to Canada for a year and two years in the UK. When the war ended there were no ships to take us home, so the Air Force in their wisdom, decreed that we prepare for our return by either getting a job and/or doing a correspondence course. I did several jobs, one of which was as an ‘Extra’ on the film Caesar and Cleopatra.

“I wrote to Rosella and requested a ‘Letter of Introduction’ to their importers in London.   It came and they arranged for me to visit food factories and laboratories.  I summarised my work and took it to the RAAF and requested that they send me home via the US to do further study.   They made a deal.  I could take three months’ leave without pay if I could support myself.  I wrote to Rosella, put my case, and they sent me $500.    I sailed from Southampton on the Queen Mary with 10,000 Canadian soldiers.  I was the only Australian.  I  was met by an RAAF Officer who arranged my accommodation in New York. I had some contacts with Americans who had been in Australia and set about my project.   The three months were most fruitful. I did not need a letter of introduction over there. With ‘ Australia’ on my shoulders, doors were opened. I lived in YMCAs and survived on hamburgers and coffee.

“I returned to Rosella put on my white coat and looked for the ladder, but there was no ladder there.  Industry were not ready for our return. I stayed a few years but wages were low and industry was changing. My Junior stayed on and when Unilever took over, he saw them decimate the Company bit by bit.  Now it has gone !!!!! ”

The aroma of Rosella tomato soup and sauce used to drift across the river to South Yarra from the cooking vats on the third floor of the factory. Aubrey added that the ventilation was so good that the train travellers got the full blast.

“It was said that workers coming into the City from Frankston could safely go to sleep as the smell (lovely aroma) of tomato sauce would waken them and they would know that Richmond was the next station,” he wrote.

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