NotesBorn at Pathhead near Kirkcaldy, Fifeshire, Scotland, William Arnott (1827-1901) had been apprenticed as a baker and pastry cook and emigrated to Sydney in 1848. On board ship he met Monica Sinclair whom he married in 1850. With his brother, David, they moved to Maitland, NSW, to work as bakers.
With the discovery of gold near Bathurst, NSW, in 1851, gold fever hit the colony. The Arnott brothers established a bakery on the goldfields selling pies and bread to the miners. In 1853 they returned to West Maitland and set up as baker and confectioner. The business thrived and soon had to move into a new bakery. Disaster struck with the floods of 1857. William's home and bakery were inundated and his customers were homeless and penniless. After four years rebuilding his business, floods struck again and Arnott was washed out for a second time. Then, in 1865, William's wife died and with five surviving children to support, he decided to make a new start in Newcastle, which was expanding rapidly as a port for coal shipping.
His first shop was in rented premises in Hunter Street selling pies and initially he had to rely on credit, but the business rapidly became a success and within a year he had repaid his debts to friends who had helped him re-establish his business. He married a second time and with Margaret Fleming added more children to the family. The hardworking Arnott, with Margaret, his brother David and worker, Moxey, baked bread at night and biscuits, cakes and pies during the day, sometimes assisted by the older sons after school. At first they produced five types of biscuits by hand. As demand grew, Arnott installed his first machine, a small hand-operated device which rolled the dough and cut the biscuits.
As his sons joined him in the expanding business Wiliam leased and then bought property in Melville (now Union) Street in the Newcastle suburb of Cooks Hill. There he built a large home in 1875 and his first substantial biscuit factory in 1877 in which he installed the latest bakehouse machinery, powered by a 10 hp horizontal steam engine. By 1880 William Arnott's Steam Biscuit Factory was employing 50 men and women and producing 1.5 tons (1,524 kg) of biscuits a day. To guarantee a supply of fresh milk, Arnott's bought two large dairy farms near Newcastle.
Eyeing the burgeoning market in Sydney, Arnott arranged to have his biscuits distributed in the city and established a depot on the Sydney wharves. In 1883 he repaid his debts to his surprised creditors from the West Maitland floods. He was not legally obliged to do so as they had accepted repayment of 10 shillings in the pound at the time. Bankruptcy was common and accepted as a way of life in the colonies. His grateful creditors awarded him a gold medal to commemorate his honourable deed.
Arnott's first iconic product, the Milk Arrowroot biscuit, still on the market today, was launched in 1888 and was heavily promoted with clever advertising as a nutritious food for babies at a time when infant mortality was high. Also registered that year was the famous parrot which has featured from that time in colourful advertising, packaging and on their distinctive red delivery trucks.
With the opening of the Hawkesbury River railway bridge in 1889, Arnott's biscuits could more easily be transported to Sydney by train in closed wagons to a depot with a siding leased in Ultimo. The first Sydney factory was opened at 13 Parramatta Road, Forest Lodge, in the inner city in 1894.
After William Arnott's death in Sydney in 1901 the company was run by his many descendants and exported biscuits to other Australian states as well as to Java, the Pacific Islands, Singapore, India and South Africa. The company expanded rapidly and in 1902 a new bakery was built in the Newcastle suburb of Hamilton to separate the bread and biscuit-making sections. Forming a limited liability company the Arnott brothers restricted the issue of shares to family members and concentrated on making biscuits. As well as Milk Arrowroot, some of Arnott's popular biscuits have been produced for over a century including SAOs cream crackers, Iced Vovos, and Scotch Fingers, originally called Keil Fingers, all of which have all been around at least since 1904.
As a new factory was needed to meet demand, land was purchased in 1906 in the western Sydney suburb of Homebush, conveniently located at the junction of the north, west and south-west railway lines. A large brick building was designed to house the latest machinery from England. Some key staff transferred from Newcastle to the new factory which opened in 1908. The factory had to be continually expanded and the business was very profitable.
World War I meant that not only did the company lose men who fought, there were problems acquiring materials. On the other hand, biscuits were needed for emergency supplies, both for the troops and civilians. The post-war boom led to further expansion and a new factory. By the 1930s, gas-fired ovens replaced coke fired ones which ensured a more even heat and produced a more uniform and reliable quality biscuit. By 1933 there were 2,500 employees and annual production exceeded 10,250 tons (10.4 million kg). The following year the first travelling band oven was installed, improving on the previous travelling-chain pan ovens. Other machine improvements increased productivity.
William Arnott's motto was 'the best pays best', but since the 1930s the company's slogan has been 'There is no substitute for quality'. Biscuits were sold loose in shops or in tins. Individually wrapped packets were introduced in the 1930s but the public was suspicious they would not stay fresh so the company developed a method of wax-dipping the packaging. However, with the onset of the Depression and then World War II rationing, the tins stayed. Many tin designs were hugely popular and kept by customers to use for storage at home, although the company relied on the large tins being returned by shopkeepers when new supplies were delivered. The tins were washed in boiling water and rinsed and after heat-drying, refilled and relabelled – an early example of recycling.
Arnott's found itself part of the war effort during World War II, having to increase production after a reduction during the Depression, although the range of products was curtailed. Priority was given to supplying the Armed Forces but the civilian market had to be rebuilt after the war.
The factory could not meet the rising demand for biscuits after the war and other capitals were considered. Other manufacturers were facing difficulties and amalgamations were seen as the solution. By 1964 all the famous names such as Brockoff, Menz and Guest, had combined to form the Australian Biscuit Company Pty Ltd which supplied 70 percent of the domestic market. The amalgamations were also a defensive attempt against foreign interests, particularly Nabisco and the name was soon changed to Arnott's Biscuits Pty Ltd. Nabisco did bid to take over the company but after many aggressive counter attacks and dealings on the share market, Arnott's survived.
When Halse Rogers Arnott died in 1961, the terms of the original company were terminated, as he was the last of the five brothers who had formed the company in 1904. The new company structure was headed by a great-grandson of the founder and other family members were still involved. The company diversified, acquired other businesses and in 1985 was again subject to a takeover bid which was eventually thwarted. A few years later the company attempted an unsuccessful takeover of its main rival, Nabisco. By 1990 six generations of the family had had controlling management positions and the company had 70 percent of the $700 million biscuit industry in Australia.
Late in 1992 Campbell's made a takeover offer. The battle took place not only in boardrooms but in public, through the media and involved the government. Eventually Campbell's obtained 58 percent of Arnott's and was in control although this was conditional on the company remaining an Australian listed company and its operations continuing to be based in Australia. The Homebush factory was closed in 1997 and relocated to Huntingwood, near Blacktown, and the old factory site has been redeveloped as the Bakehouse Quarter.
Rowe, Charlotte. Arnotts: 125 years of making and selling biscuits. Arnott's Biscuits Limited, 1991.
Boag, Charles. The story of Arnott's famous biscuits: a history and celebration. Lansdowne,1993
Judith Campbell, MAAS volunteer, under the supervision of Margaret Simpson, Curator,