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Inventor of Freddo Frogs was Australia’s own Willy Wonka

Jen Kelly, October 14, 2019 6:45PM Herald Sun

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Australia's own Willy Wonka, Sir Macpherson Robertson. media_cameraAustralia's own Willy Wonka, Sir Macpherson Robertson.

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Reading level: green

Australia had its own Willy Wonka long before Roald Dahl dreamt up the incredible character from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

The real one was every bit the eccentric* genius of the fictional version.

His name was Sir Macpherson Robertson and he started cooking up little mouse-shaped sweets made of sugar in his parent’s bathroom in working class Fitzroy — an inner suburb of Melbourne, Victoria — in 1880.

Within 20 years his company, MacRobertson’s, was the biggest confectionery works in Australia.

At the height of production in 1939, when World War II began, he had 5000 staff and 19 buildings over five blocks in Fitzroy.

Women packing Life Savers into boxes at MacRobertson’s chocolate factory. Picture: State Library of Victoria media_cameraWomen packing Life Savers into boxes at MacRobertson’s chocolate factory. Picture: State Library of Victoria

Robertson created beloved treats such as the Freddo Frog, Cherry Ripe and Old Gold chocolate and introduced fairy floss and chewing gum to Australia.

MacRobertson's chocolate and sweets. media_cameraMacRobertson’s chocolate and sweets from history.

He was a whiz at self promotion and a colourful eccentric, that later helped earned him the nickname of “Australia’s Willy Wonka”.

Ben Oliver, a history enthusiast who takes tours around Melbourne, said Robertson was beloved by the public both for his generosity and his many eccentricities*.

Macpherson Robertson (right) welcomes Professor Moody to his Macpherson's chocolate factory in Fitzroy in the early 1900s. Picture: State Library of Victoria. media_cameraMacpherson Robertson (right) welcomes Professor Moody to his Macpherson’s chocolate factory in Fitzroy in the early 1900s. Picture: State Library of Victoria.

Mr Oliver said each factory building was painted white to contrast with the grimy industrial streets of Fitzroy, earning the MacRobertson empire the nickname of “White City”.

Models of MacRobertson's chocolate factory in Fitzroy in the early 1900s. Picture: State Library of Victoria. media_cameraModels of MacRobertson’s chocolate factory in Fitzroy in the early 1900s. Picture: State Library of Victoria.

“All his staff had to wear white uniforms to portray this image of cleanliness and wholesomeness*, and MacRob himself became an iconic* figure in a white suit and hat,” he said.

“And he would often be seen in public riding in a carriage through the streets of Fitzroy pulled by two white ponies.”

He owned two Arab horses, which he trained to lie down, kneel, sit and shake hands, and one, Sultan, was once called “the finest educated horse in Australia”.

Packaging chocolates at MacRobertson’s chocolate factory. Circa 1910-40. Picture: State Library of Victoria media_cameraPackaging chocolates at MacRobertson’s chocolate factory around 1910-40. Picture: State Library of Victoria

He was a fitness fanatic who worked out in his gym daily and could still jump a 142cm bar in his 60s — at a time in history when going to the gym just wasn’t a common thing to do.

He was an early adopter of new technology, buying a car in 1902, soon after the first cars arrived in Australia. Unfortunately, he also made history by being the driver in the first car crash in Australia in which someone died.

While Robertson may not have matched Willy Wonka’s golden ticket contest from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he often staged beauty competitions that called for “pretty Australian children”.

He also frequently ran competitions inviting the public to submit ideas for sweets and marketing jingles.

The MacRobertson empire was bought by Cadbury’s in 1967.

Macpherson Robertson being welcomed home by staff at his Fitzroy factory for MacRobertson's chocolate in 1935. Picture: State Library of Victoria media_cameraMacpherson Robertson being welcomed home by staff at his Fitzroy factory for MacRobertson’s chocolate in 1935. Picture: State Library of Victoria

GLOSSARY

  • eccentric: unconventional and sometimes seen as strange
  • eccentricities: behaviours that are eccentric
  • wholesomeness: behaviours that show you are a good and moral person
  • iconic: a symbol representing something much bigger

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QUICK QUIZ

  1. What was the first type of treat he made?
  2. Name some lollies and chocolates he invented or brought to Australia.
  3. Why were the factories called “White City?
  4. Why was it strange that he went to the gym?
  5. What sort of competitions did he run?

LISTEN TO THIS STORY

CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Write a biography
Summarise the information about Sir Macpherson Robertson into a short biography about him.

Make sure you include important details about his life and personal characteristics, his career and his contribution to Australian business.

There is a lot of information in the article, however you may like to do further research to assist you.

Time: allow 30 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Humanities and Social Science – History

2. Extension
If you have read about Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl or have seen the movie adaptation of this story (either the 1971 or 2005 version) you will remember his eccentricities.

After reading about Sir Macpherson Robertson, how does he compare to the fictional Willy Wonka? Draw up a chart titled SIMILARITIES and DIFFERENCES and list the things that are similar between these two men and the things that are different.

Make a note of which version of Willy Wonka you are basing your ideas on as they may differ slightly between movies and the original book.

Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Critical and Creative thinking, Humanities and Social Sciences – History

VCOP ACTIVITY
After reading the article, with a partner, highlight as many wow words or ambitious pieces of vocabulary that you can find in yellow. Discuss the meanings of these words and see if you can use them orally in another sentence.

HAVE YOUR SAY: Describe a treat you’d like to invent. What would it look and taste like? What would you call it?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

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