Macpherson Robertson was born in Ballarat, Victoria. He was a son of a Scottish carpenter, David Robertson and his Irish wife, Margaret (née Browne). The family came to Ballarat in search of gold, but fell on hard times, with the father abandoning them and moving to Fiji. In 1869 his mother returned to Leith, in Scotland with Macpherson, his three siblings and one other child on the way.
In Scotland at the age of nine, Macpherson started working to support that family, eventually taking an apprenticeship with the Victoria Confectionery Co. In 1874 the family returned to Australia at the request of the father, living in the Melbourne working class suburb of Fitzroy. Using skills he acquired in Scotland, in 1878 at the age of 19, Macpherson set up a confectionery manufacturing operation in his mother's home bathroom. He made confectionery on Mondays to Thursdays and sold them around Melbourne on Fridays and Saturdays.
His business quickly grew as Mac Robertson Steam Confectionery Works. By the late 1880s the business employed thirty people. The company introduced chewing-gum and fairy floss to Australia as well as well known confectionery names including Freddo Frog, Cherry Ripe, Old Gold Chocolates, Milk Kisses and Columbines. By 1900, it had become the largest confectionery works in Australia with agencies in every state. As part of his marketing strategy, Macpherson maintained a distinctive whiteness to everything he could - the buildings in the Fitzroy factory complex were all painted white and all of his several thousand employees wore white uniforms. Macpherson himself ensured he was always seen in public dressed immaculately in white and rode in a carriage behind two white ponies. The factory complex became known as White City.
In 1967 MacRobertson's was acquired by English confectioner Cadbury's which in 1969 merged with Schweppes Australia to become Cadbury Schweppes.
Philanthropy and marketing
Growth continued through innovative marketing and sponsorships as well as philanthropic donations:
- In 1921 he promoted a romanticised book of his enterprise entitled A Young Man and a Nail Can.
- In 1925 he presented a silver mounted shield to establish the MacRobertson International Croquet Shield. The event is now played every three or four years in rotation between Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.
- In 1928 he sponsored a circuit of Australia in two Karrier trucks. The five month expedition departed from Parliament House in Melbourne on 12 April and returned on 12 September 1928.
- In 1929 he financed a combined British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic expedition. Sir Douglas Mawson named Mac. Robertson Land in his honour, and Robertson's 1932 knighthood specifically recognised his support for this expedition.
- In 1933 he contributed to the Melbourne centenary celebrations, including £40,000 towards the establishment of the Mac.Robertson Girls' High School. He contributed towards other public works projects as part of the centenary celebrations including the MacRobertson Bridge over the Yarra River at Grange Road, a fountain in front of the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance and the herbarium in the Royal Botanic Gardens.
- In 1934 he co-founded Western Australian airline MacRobertson Miller Airlines (MMA) with pilot Horrie Miller. In the same year he sponsored the MacRobertson Air Race with a prize fund of $75,000, an air race from London to Melbourne.
Robertson was appointed a Knight Bachelor on 3 June 1932, for services to Antarctic expeditions. On New Year's Day 1935, he was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE), for philanthropic services in Victoria.
- Lack, John, 'Robertson, Sir Macpherson (1859 - 1945)' Australian Dictionary of Biography Volume 11, Melbourne University Press, 1988, pp 418–419.
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