The Robertson business - 1856 - 1933

John Robertson established the Victoria Saw Mills, LaTrobe Terrace, Ashby in 1852. The company first appeared in the Geelong Directory in 1856. 'John Robertson, Saw Mills, Victoria Terrace West', was listed in the directory in 1858 and thereafter.

A photograph of John's business taken in the late 1800s.

In the photograph above, John is third from the right. His sons (William, George, Robert, possibly Charles) are believed (based on a comparison with a photograph taken in 1902) to be the men: (a) first on the left, (b) third from the left, (c) second from the right, (d) possibly fourth from the right. The gentleman fifth from the left may be Tom Knight, the father of Margaret Knight, a carpenter who also appears in front of Richard Clement's butcher's store. Richard and Margaret's daughter Dorothy would later on marry George's son John Charles Robertson.

A tag, approximately 8 x 4 cm, from John Robertson's business from the late 1800s.

On 23 January 1897, a note was created announcing a change to the company. The following is a taken from a copy of the note:

COPY. Notice is hereby given that the partnership hitherto existing between John Robertson, William Croll Robertson, Robert Robertson and George Archibald Robertson as Saw and Moulding Millers at 34 Little Ryrie Street Geelong under the style or firm of John Robertson and Sons has ('this day' struck through) been dissolved by mutual consent as from January 1st 1897. The business will in future be carried on under the same style or firm by John Robertson, William Croll Robertson and George Archibald Robertson who will discharge all liabilities and are authorised to receive all moneys due to the later firm. As witness our hand this 23rd day of January 1897. Signed (John Robertson, William C Robertson, Robert Robertson, George A Robertson. Witness to all signatures this ... day of January 1897. H J Howard, Timber Merchant, Geelong.

John Robertson and Sons Pty Ltd was incorporated on 24 June 1912.

William Croll Robertson and his brother George Archibald Robertson had equal shareholdings in the initial £9,000 paid-up capital. Although Robert worked in the business, he was neither a shareholder nor a Director.

Charles Shannon subscribed £1,000 in 1918. The Robertons subscribed £1,680. This may have foretold some serious liquidity problems.

On 8 September 1919 a fire broke out at John Robertson and Son's store yard at the corner of Mercer and Little Skene Streets in Geelong. The Geelong Advertiser ran a story on the fire on 9 September 1919 under the headline 'MERCER ST FIRE : LOSS £8000 - Origin Still a Mystery'. It stated:

All of the buildings, with the exception of a small shed have been demolished and the galvanised iron roofing is now lying about twisted into all sorts of shapes. In the debris is standing the remains of a large timber jinker and dray which had been left in the stores. It will be a difficult matter to re-stock the timbers, which are stated to be extremely hard to obtain. Particularly will this be the case with the heavy supplies of American woods and dry kauri. This had been well seasoned. Chaff, which was stored in the main portion of the old cooperage at the south-east corner of the structured, is still smouldering. This was covered by a risk in the Queensland office for a small amount, and was the property of Messrs Lyall and Son, who at the end of last February had the misfortune to lose their extensive stores and contents in Brougham Place and Bailey Street caused by a fire believed to have been caused by lightning. The firm sent the chaff in Messrs Robertson's stores about 10 days ago, and on Monday made arrangements for its shipment to Queensland the following day.

Messrs Robertson estimate the damage at about £8000. The firm is chief agent for the Union Fire and Accident Insurance Company and the risk was covered in the agency. The firm has been in possession of the property for about nine years, and always regarded the stock safe from fire by sparks from engines working in the railway yards. They are quite at a loss to know how the fire originated. In some quarters it is regarded as the act of an incendiary. The police are inquiring. The recent fire, which occurred at Maguire's shop on the opposite corner, is quoted to supported this assumption; the origin of the outbreak was never discovered. (The rest of the article concerns insurance related matters.)

George Archibald Robertson made a mention of the fire in his personal Cash Book. He noted the value of the building was £685 (a total loss), the value of rolling stock £45 (also a total loss), and the value of the stock £8,230, of which £6470 in value was lost in the fire (£1,760 worth of stock was salvaged). The insurance company paid £6,233.0.9, including for the building and rolling stock, and £5,503.09 for the lost stock.

John Pettitt joined the company in 1920, amalgamating his own (lesser) interests. A further injection of capital of £4,000 from each of the two Robertsons and Pettitt was necessary in 1921. The company was briefly renamed Pettitt Robertson.

Some letterheads from the Pettitt Robertson business, 1929 (left) and 1931 (middle and right).

In the mid 1920s there was a serious strike at the works and a vessel belonging to the company bringing timber from Tasmania was lost. The depression was starting to have its effect. The company folded in 1929 but was continued to operate as late as 1933, presumably under receivership.

George Robertson appears to have taken a leading role in the final years of the company. On 23 June 1932, George received a letter from Harwood and Pincott, Solicitors and Notaries of 51 Yarra Street Geelong. The latter refers to 'You and Pettitt', and notes the following:

In connection with this matter our Mr Griffiths interviewed Mr R A Rankin in Melbourne yesterday. He had a long conference with him. Mr Rankin informed him confidentially that he doubted whether Pettitt Robertson business was holding its own and as soon as he could get his figures out and statement prepared he proposed to called the creditors together again. If the properties could be sold at anything like their true value there should be a substantial credit for Pettitt but if they had to be sacrificed by accepted say an offer of 10/- in the £ the creditors would be paid but Pettitt would not receive anything. As to Pettitt Bros - he thought this was on a better footing but again came the question of realisation of properties. As far as he knew Pettitt's only income was that which was paid to him as Manager and he did not know how long this would continue. As far as he was aware any surplus would belong to Pettitt and not to anyone else, such as members of his family, though he had no definite information on this point.

On 27 September 1932, George received a further letter from Harwood and Pincott stating that they had written to Mr J Pettitt again on 15th inst but have not heard from him. They noted that they would not take any action at present as they have received notice of a meeting of creditors on 30 inst., at which Mr Griffiths hoped to be present.

On 3 October 1932, Harwood and Pincott wrote again to George noting that Mr Griffiths had attended the meeting on Friday 30 September 1932. The letter states:

The Receiver stated that the Bank, owing to the loss it was incurring, did not intend to carry on the business but was quite prepared to consider a scheme for carrying on by the Creditors. The matter was fully discussed at the meeting and a Committee consisting of three of the largest Creditors - Watt, Hawkes Bros and the Kauri Timber Co., was appointed to consider the matter and confer with the Receiver and Mr Pettitt and report to an early meeting of the Creditors.

Finally, on 7 October 1932, Pincott and Harwood wrote to George noting that there had been a further meeting of the creditors that day 'at which the Creditors Committee of three tendered their report. They stated that they had gone into the question of carrying on the business but they could not recommend the creditors to put any more money into the business. To carry on they would want a working capital of at least £3000 and this would mean a cal of another 3/4 in the £ from the creditors. The Committee stated that they had conferred with the Receiver and he said that he reluctantly agreed with their decision that it was hopeless to endeavour to carry out.'

The letter goes on to note that:

We have roughly set out in pencil what the Committee estimated would be realised on a forced sale by the Bank. You will note that these figures only total £24,070 which would pay the Bank and preferential creditors and after providing for the Receiver's expenses leave very little for the other creditors. As everything depends on a good realisation of assets the Committee were thanked for their report, asked to continue and keep in touch with the Bank for the purpose of obtaining the best realisation possible.

The Robertson business ceased to exist.

Page created 11 December 2011, updated 15 November 2017. Copyright Andrew Warland. email: andrewwarland(at)