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Book Review: MacRobertsonland by Jill Robertson

 Book Review: MacRobertsonland by Jill Robertson

From Year 9 through to Year 12 I attended the Mac.Robertson Girls High School, a small, austere looking place known amongst lovers of architecture and design for being one of the first Bauhaus buildings in Melbourne. Its students, on the other hand, had rather less reverence for it, nicknaming it the toilet block and bemoaning the fact that it looked nothing like its grand brother school Melbourne High.

We werent the only ones slightly wary about spending our days in this grim little venue. According to Jill Robertsons delicious little volume MacRobertsonland, the schools opening was met with complaints about the public thinking its students went to school at a chocolate factory.

Mac.Rob, you see, was named for the flamboyant entrepreneur Macpherson Robertson, a man who built an extraordinary business empire on the sticky but appealing foundations of glucose and cocoa. If youve ever eaten a Cherry Ripe, a Freddo Frog, or a block of Old Gold, youve played your part in helping to extend the legacy of this astonishingly driven fellow, a man whose wealth and reach was so impressive that he all but owned the suburb of Fitzroy, and was once the proud owner of the largest motorcar collection in the world.

But today the influence of Robertson seems negligible: his memory persists only across such strangely disparate things such as my school, the large fountain at the Domain Interchange, the Fairfield cricket club, and a chunk of land in Antartica. What, if anything, do these things have to do with a man who made his fortune through chocolate, and why is a man who wielded such influence only so faintly remembered today?

This beautifully designed, highly readable volume sets to work retracing Macpherson Robertsons life in order to find out exactly this, and the curiosities it digs up in its biographical exhumation are nothing short of fascinatingI admit to reading a good half of this book aloud to my poor long-suffering husband, so entranced was I by the colourful figure Jill Robertson paints of her subject.

If this book were a type of confectionery, its recipe would be one part rags to riches, one part Richard Branson, and one part Willy Wonker. Macpherson Robertson was extraordinary in his work ethic, desire to innovate, and his ability to assess the market, and it honestly seems quite reasonable that he went from selling boiled animal lollies made in the family bathtub to a successful businessman employing some several thousand employees in the space of a few decades.

The author paints a picture of a man always ahead of the game, and whose interests were as diverse as they were deep. Not content with business offshoots that included fairy floss, chewing gum and, bizarrely, cycling clubs, Macpherson Robertson also dabbled in aviation, logistics, and packaging on the side, along with whatever else took his fancy. Hed pick something up, turn it into a profitable endeavour, then sell it off when it showed signs of encroaching on his primary love: confectionery.

Perhaps its this multiplicity of interests, as well as the endless conflicts posed by his family, that has watered down his legacy into a few sad chocolate bars and architectural feats: Robertson wanted to be everywhere, to be everything, and in doing so spread himself so thin that there was little left to cling to.

Like all of Arcades books, MacRobertsonland is a gorgeous little volume. Printed across a veritable rainbow of paper, its brimming with pullout quotes, photographs and full-colour reproductions of advertisements for MacRobertsons confectionery, and its the sort of thing you cant figure out whether to dip in and out of, or devour all in one go.

Fortunately, unlike a block of chocolate, you can opt for the latter without any regrets. Highly recommended.

MacRobertsonland can be purchased from Arcade Publications


  1. Sounds like just the kind of book Id enjoy. Is it available in the shops or only on line?

    • Stephanie /

      Hi Sue, I think youd love this one! I thoroughly enjoyed it.

      As far as I know, you can buy Arcade books in a few independent book shops and gift shop style places throughout the Melbourne CBD, but you might want to check with them (theyre on twitter as @arcadegazette) for local distributors. They currently have a 30% off sale, so its worth getting in a buying a copy now. :) All of their books are about Melbourne figures, so theyd make a good little set for a school library, too.

      Ill be running a giveaway this coming week, as well, if you want to try your luck there!