1893 Uncle Toby’s Oats trademarked

Uncle Toby's Oats advertising 1929

The Uncle Toby’s company of today has a number of parents which perhaps accounts for the rather confusing history of the brand on its own website. The company traces its origins back to 1861, but also mentions the birth of the brand in 1893. On this timeline, I’ve selected 1893 as the starting point for the brand as that is when the name and the famous trademark were first registered by Clifford, Love and Company in Sydney. That company had been established in 1864 as ” tea importers, eastern and commission merchants” and by 1879 had offices in both Sydney and Brisbane.

It’s not clear whether Clifford Love had branched out into cereals prior to registering the Uncle Toby’s trademark. According to the story on vintage packaging, the name was suggested by Clifford Love’s daughter, Nellie. It was inspired by the kindly Uncle Toby character in the 1759 novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne. Nellie, it’s said, also drew the two figures that became the long-lasting Uncle Toby’s Oats trademark.

From the very early days, the firm vigorously promoted its products. Early editorial-style announcements heralded the ability of Uncle Toby’s Oats “For building bone and muscle”. By 1900, they were promising ladies “cheeks of peach and ivory” and a 1904 advertisement declared: “Scientists say that Uncle Toby’s Oats will develop perfect womanhood”. A brave claim indeed.

Clifford Love died in 1919 and his sons continued in the business which was publicly listed in 1922. The company continued to advertise extensively over following decades. In the 1930s,  they assured people that “It’s hopeless looking for weevils in Uncle Toby’s Oats”. Appetising! In the 1940s, they latched onto the newly discovered benefits of vitamins while in the 1950s the mother of the famous Lucke quads was employed to extol the oats’ benefits.

In 1965, Clifford Love & Co. was sold to an American company, Corn Products Co. (CPC). But it’s thanks to another round of company acquisitions in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s that there are links back to 1861. That was the year the Parsons brothers, not long arrived from England, began trading in Melbourne. Parsons Bros. dealt in a lot more than oats, over the years developing interests in coffee, cocoa, chicory, spices, pickles and even jam-making. Around 1899, they began branding their oats with the name John Bull.

These two famous brands were brought together under one ownership by a Victorian oat farmer named Doug Shears. In 1972, he set up an oat-milling company called InterCity Mills and, in the late ’70s, set out on a round of acquisitions. Among the companies he bought was the Australian operation of the US-owned General Foods, which had acquired Parsons Bros. in 1963 as part of its takeover of Associated Rural Industries (which had, in turn, bought Parsons in 1953). Are you still with me?

In 1982, InterCity Mills’ foods division was merged with Clifford Love & Co. in an entity called Best Foods, which was jointly owned by InterCity and the Clifford Love parent, CPC. In 1986, CPC sold their share to InterCity and Best Foods became wholly Australian-owned. It now owned both Uncle Toby’s Oats and John Bull Oats as well as many other food brands and, by 1990, was Australia’s largest privately owned food manufacturer.

Best Foods launched a range of other foods under the Uncle Toby’s brand, including muesli bars in 1983, and Fruit Roll-Ups and Le Snak in 1988. In 1990, it was renamed the Uncle Toby’s Company. The company also acquired several cereal brands including Weeties and Vita Brits.

Of course, the ownership merry-go-round hadn’t finished.  In 1992, Uncle Toby’s was sold to Goodman Fielder Watties which, in turn, was sold to Burns, Philp & Company in 2001. In 2006 Burns, Philp sold Uncle Toby’s to Nestlé’s  Cereal Partners Worldwide, a joint venture between Nestlé and General Mills.

By 2023, it seemed Uncle Toby’s had acknowledged 1893 as its true birth year, with a catch cry of “130 years of Aussie goodness”. The major manufacturing operation remains at Wahgunyah, on the Murray River in northeastern Victoria. Almost all the oats are harvested within a few hundred kilometres of the factory.

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