BEFORE World War I, metal moulds for chocolates in Australia were imported from Germany. When war stopped this trade and the regular supply of many sweet-making ingredients, MacPherson Robertson, founder of MacRobertson’s Steam Confectionery Works in Fitzroy, Melbourne, saw it as an opportunity for his confectionery business. By 1922 his factory was producing a huge variety of moulds in-house and his company employed more than 2000 people.

Robertson was a generous philanthropist, donating funds for a girls high school in Melbourne, the herbarium in the city’s botanic gardens and £15,000 prize money for the MacRobertson Centenary Air Race in 1934, in which contestants flew from London to Melbourne within 16 days. He supported the minimum wage, trade unions and the Eight Hour Day, contributed to Mawson’s expeditions to Antarctica, resulting in MacRobertson Land, and he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in 1931 and knighted in 1932.

But to most Aussies perhaps his best-known achievement is the Freddo Frog. Conceived as a chocolate mouse until employee Harry Melbourne convinced Robertson a frog would be less confronting for women consumers, it was introduced in the early 1930s.

It looked more froglike than it does today, was unwrapped and had the MacRobertson’s signature on the back. Advertisements featuring Freddo appeared in the press and on radio, and a nationwide chocolate-frog craze followed. People were imprisoned for stealing them and there was a frog-eating endurance competition, with 32 being the winning record. They were given away to encourage the vaccination of children and as prizes in competitions for everything from bonny babies to fancy dress.

In 1962 Freddo became Australia’s first animated cartoon TV character when the Freddo the Frog series, sponsored by MacRobertson’s, appeared on Channel Nine. Created by artist Gus McLaren, he was joined by Drongo, Flash Jack, Kanga and Wocka. For the first four episodes, Freddo had teeth.

MacRobertson’s was sold to Cadbury in 1967, but the link between the frog and its founder continues to be honoured by the Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies at the Queensland University of Technology, which gives Freddo Frogs to acknowledge students and alumni for “particular kindness, a job well done, an occasion of note or to say, ‘You’re in our thoughts.’” 

This article was originally published in Issue 161 of Australian Geographic, out February 25.