Sir MacPherson Robertson
“The man behind the Shield”
MacPherson Robertson was born in 1860 at Ballarat, Victoria. His father, a carpenter, was wild with the idea of creating Wealth—in a hurry—so had come to find his own “Welcome Nugget”.
When gold lost its steam the father, David, talked the mother, Margaret, into going to Rockhampton Qld. to build a new hospital as the Main Contractor. However, with the money in the pocket, Dad departed for Fiji on a wild urge. This left the mother to return to Leith, Scotland, with four small children, and one on the way.
It fell to MacPherson—“Mac”—to go to work to support the family at age 9. He was up at 3am to pick up and deliver newspapers over ten miles and by 6am he was lathering faces at a barber shop until 9am. Then school until 3pm and back to lathering faces until 9pm. Unfortunately, this work load did not bring in sufficient income, so Mac had to give up schooling to work full time.
In time, the father desired the family to return to Australia. Mac made up his mind to “Succeed in Life” and be responsible for his entire family. On arrival in Australia he apprenticed himself to a confectioner in Fitzroy, Melbourne, and began his long journey which would see him as the most successful entrepreneur—and the highest taxed person—in Australia.
At age 19 he set up a small factory in his mother’s bathroom with a “nail keg for a stove, a tin cup for a kettle and some sugar”. His total capital was about 2 pounds—probably about $200 in today’s money. He made the confections on Mondays to Thursdays and sold them around Melbourne on Fridays and Saturdays.
Originally, his business was called the Mac Robertson Steam Confectionery Works, and by 1925 MacRobertson’s Chocolates employed 2,500 people. Mac had built so many factories in Fitzroy that the block was known as “White City” for he had painted all his buildings white.
Although unions were trying hard to bring manufacturers under their thumb for exploiting workers, his works never had a strike. He often said that he should liked to have done more for his workers but the union made it too difficult. Nevertheless, he instituted an innovative pension scheme. His annual turnover in 1880 was 300 pounds and by 1925, it was 2,000,000 pounds (almost $200,000,000 per annum of 1998 money).
He was not one to indulge himself with fine homes, yachts and beach houses, as others of his status did. However, he did have an obsession with keeping fit both physically and mentally. For the former he punched a boxing speed ball each day. For the later he choose croquet because the strategy required to excel relieved his business mental stress and reinforced his own business psychology.
After World War he saw the new entertainment of cinema as a new outlet for his lollies and chocolates. He enlisted veteran servicemen to take up these concessions. Most of the young vets had no idea of running a business and some failed, owing Mac money for his stock. He realised that he would have to train them and his other concessionaires in business management (or street smarts). He realised then and there the value of the thinking sport of croquet and had them all take it up to play whenever they were free. Croquet proved a wonderful teaching aid for training them in self discipline, risk management and a host of other attitudes which had to be changed. Eventually, Mac had more than enough veteran croquet players to run tournaments with very good prizes.
In 1925, wishing to do something spectacular to create more media interest in his products and for his veteran players he sponsored the MacRobertson Shield between Australia and England in their beloved sport of croquet. Initially the team was comprised of vets who wanted to return to the United Kingdom to visit the graves of their mates they had left behind. (In some cases to marry the girls they had left behind.) This Shield is still the most skilled and prestigious Tournament Series on the International Croquet scene—now played with the addition of the New Zealand and USA national teams.
In 1927, he co-founded MacRobertson-Miller Aviation Co. and sponsored an around Australia Expedition by two motor lorries in 1928. Then, in 1929–30, Mac sponsored the British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition which ensured Australia's hold on the Antarctic mainland.
Sir Douglas Mawson named MacRobertson Land (on Antarctica) after him and he was awarded a Fellowship of the Royal Geographic Society in 1931. He was Knighted in 1932 and appointed K.B.E. in 1935
With the great depression beginning, he was able to go against the trend and put on even more employees as his “Old Gold” Chocolate Box and Columbines were exceptionally well sponsored and advertised. Mac supported charities and unemployment relief and was often disappointed at the wretchedness and demands of the poor together with the stupidity and avarice of federal politicians.
At this time Mac re-evaluated his charitable actions and financial support to the individual poor which simply encouraged others to ask for a free handout. He found the idle poor were malicious and ever demanding while despising and abusing the prosperous and hard working. He resolved that in future he would cease indiscriminate donations to the individual poor, and concentrate on worthwhile projects that created wealth for the nation.
In 1933, he donated 100,000 pounds to Victoria for its Centenary Celebrations. Asked what to do with the money he suggested, a Girls High School; a much needed bridge over the Yarra River at Grange Rd.; a fountain in front of the Shrine of Remembrance on St Kilda Rd. and a Herbarium in the Melbourne Botanical Gardens. These new building projects would help to employ many of the unemployed who wanted to work rather than criticise the rich.
To advertise Australia, and Melbourne in particular, he organized and sponsored, with part of the donation, the great London to Melbourne Centenary Air Race. This was the most gallant and gruelling air race of all times and bought to Australia unprecedented publicity. The top aviators of the world competed and it made the future participation of Australia in international commercial aviation assured.
The federal government, in the politician’s wisdom, demanded 42,000 Pounds ($4.2M) from the 100,000 Pounds donated as tax. Mac paid the tax, but vowed to investigate this iniquity and bring it before the highest court in the land. He was, at the time, the highest tax payer in Australia, besides one of the biggest employers of labor—and possibly the person least interested in party politics.
From this and other responsible interpretations of our Australian Federal Constitution, sponsorships would, in future, be dealt with as a tax deduction. Donations would have to be made to prescribed charities in order to be tax deductible. Gifts would have various interpretations, particularly if made to a political party. Grants would have other strings attached, particularly if from a political party in power.
Sir MacPherson Robertson was, without a doubt, the greatest entrepreneur and philanthropist in contemporary Australian History.
His contribution to the sport of croquet will live forever wherever thinking men and women gather in harmony and fellowship within this, his beloved sport.
Sir Mac loved Australia and patriotic Australians and made “rich” a proud and honourable accolade. It is said that, whereas Ned Kelly is the Patron Saint of the Australian poor, Mac is the Patron Saint of those who are prepared to learn, work hard, persevere and who never give in. The true Aussie Battlers!
Born 1860, at Ballarat Victoria, Sir MacPherson Robertson, a rich croquet player, died in 1945, happy and successful at age 85.
(Poor Edward Kelly, horse thief, born Wallan Victoria 1854, was hung as a thief and murderer at age 26)