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.
Robertson created beloved treats such as the Freddo Frog, Cherry Ripe and Old Gold chocolate and introduced fairy floss and chewing gum to Australia.
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*.
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”.
“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”.
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.
- 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
- What was the first type of treat he made?
- Name some lollies and chocolates he invented or brought to Australia.
- Why were the factories called “White City?
- Why was it strange that he went to the gym?
- What sort of competitions did he run?
LISTEN TO THIS STORY
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
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
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.