Smelling history

Smelling history
Sylvia Black

Smells trigger memory just as effectively as old photos or objects.

Think of some of Melbourne’s more famous smells such as tomato sauce from the old Rosella factory in Richmond, or baking bread from the Capitol Bakery in South Yarra, or even roasting coffee from Quists in Little Collins St.

East Melbourne had its own famous smell emanating from the Victoria Brewery in Victoria Parade. Thomas Aitken had founded a brewery on the site in 1854, more than 50 years before CUB took it over.

But the smell must have been very strangely altered in 1868 when Charles Fisher Bates moved his cocoa mill and confectionary business to Albert St, behind the brewery.

According to the Leader of June 5, 1869, Bates had dared to challenge the apparently unchallengeable foreign product and had “imported the requisite machinery and materials, and established the first and, so far as we can learn, the only cocoa works ever established in the colony”.


The smell of the roasting “cocoanuts” mixed with brewing beer is hard to imagine but it certainly would have given East Melbourne an aroma all its own.


After roasting the nuts were sent to the “nibber” to be cracked, and then on to the “winnower” where the nibs were separated from the husks. Some of the nibs were packaged and sold to other manufacturers; most were processed on site.

Bates’ main, but certainly not only, product was cocoa: Homeopathic cocoa, Iceland moss and Vanilla cocoa. Later he added Dandelion cocoa. This latter was apparently very popular as a digestive aid, and Bates had to advertise for men to cultivate dandelion roots so great was the demand.

In 1883 Bates made additions to his factory and was thus able to introduce the production of maizena (corn flour) and mustard to his repertoire. In all Bates employed 50 to 60 people.  Men and boys were employed in the manufacturing and delivery service, while women, “clad in clean brown or white holland” attended to the packaging.

However, it was not entirely plain sailing for the business over the years. In 1871 his neighbour, Thomas Aitken, took Bates to court to “recover damages for a nuisance caused by a drain” from his premises.

This resulted in Bates’ insolvency, largely due to Aitken’s legal costs being awarded against him. Bates managed to denude himself of his property, and then sequestrated his estate, for the purpose of defeating the judgment against him.

Later, according to his probate papers (he died in 1894) his wife attested that she owned the business, and that he managed it on her behalf. The business by then had moved to Abbotsford, leaving the quality of East Melbourne’s air in the hands of the brewery.  •

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