Weet-bix Origin: History without speculation and with facts
I am Yvonne Sainsbury, second daughter of Bennison and Dorothy Osborne. Due to an article I noticed on the internet in WordPress, entitled “Weet-Bix: The Early History,” dated 1/23/2012, written by John Baskerville Bagnall (to whom I refer in the following as “the writer,”), which contained many factual errors and substantial speculation, I am providing herein, documentation of my father’s history with Weet-Bix and his relationship with Arthur Shannon, to whom I refer in the following as “Uncle Arthur,” the name by which we always knew him, although he was not related by blood or marriage. He and my father (referred to as “Ben” or “Benn” below), became friends in their early days in the Seventh Day Adventist church in Stanmore, Sydney, and in 1963, he was a guest at my wedding.
I address the writer’s comments (in italics), as appropriate below.
To the best of my knowledge, the timelines and events involved in the development of Weet-bix are as follows:
1925: Bennison Osborne (Benn) invents the cereal “WEETBIX” in Sydney, testing it out on his nieces and nephews, until the product is perfected.
The writer contends in the opening paragraph that:
“The family story is that Arthur Shannon was . . . the inventor in Sydney during the 1920s of the famous breakfast biscuit now manufactured and marketed by the Sanitarium Health Food Company (SHF) . . . a bold claim is made that Weet-Bix was ‘invented by Bennison Osborne’ but that “his skills were largely in management and sales . . . .”
A letter from one of the nephews on whom my father tested Weetbix (Wallace Allum, a son of SDA missionaries Francis Arthur and Evaline Allum, nee Osborne), verifies that they did test the cereal for my father during its development and that Bennison Osborne was, in fact, responsible for its creation. The letter was written on 26th March, 1992, after others began to claim to be the inventor. It states in part:
“. . . At that time, my uncle Benison was experimenting at making a breakfast biscuit more palatable than Granose and more competitive on the market. Ben would bring biscuits over to us at Wahroonga and ask the families’ opinion on them. He eventually produced a biscuit he was satisfied with and we all agreed it was what Ben was looking for.
Ben found in Mr. Arthur Shannon, a wealthy business man, a person to finance the venture. The biscuit was called “WEET BIX”. Mr. Shannon provided the premises at 659 Parramatta Road, Leichardt, installing the equipment to manufacture the biscuit. WEET BIX became a good seller, so much so that the Sanitarium Health Food Company bought out Weet Bix from Mr. Arthur Shannon in October 1928.
Ben Osborne then left for New Zealand and established production of WEET BIX in that country, once again selling out to the Sanitarium Health Food Company in 1930. This was the origin of the WEET BIX and it is a well known fact today that it has become the top selling biscuit, out selling Vita Brits and all other brands.
We are very pleased that it was our mother’s brother and our uncle Benison who was the first person to come up with WEET BIX and market them. It is to his credit that WEET BIX has grown to first position on the Australian market. We can only thank him for the legacy that he has given to the country of such a fine product.
I do hope that what is in this letter will help to show the origin of WEET BIX, and how much we owe Benison Osborne for producing it in the first place. . . .
(Signed) Eni & Wal.” (Enid was Wal’s wife)
The writer provides as possible alternative inventors, Uncle Arthur, Mr. Norman Jeffes and Frederick Foots. Not one of these three, to my knowledge and to their credit, ever claimed to be the inventor of Weetbix. The writer quotes what would appear to be a correct statement “Success has many fathers . . . .” The writer also states that Weetbix “. . . would not have happened without Arthur Shannon.” While it was logical that my father accept financing from his friend, who was also a staunch member of the Seventh Day Adventist church, other sources of financing would no doubt have been available, as was shown when the British enterprise was established. Uncle Arthur does however, deserve credit for providing it. He was a good business man and saw a brilliant and viable opportunity in my father’s product.
1925: Arthur Shannon sets up a factory and a new company named Grain Products Limited to manufacture Weetbix and Benn is promised a financial stake in the business in return for his product. Production begins at 659 Parramatta Road, Leichardt.
The writer states: “The trademark and name ‘Weet-Bix’ was owned by GPL and not Osborne as claimed in the Wikipedia entry.”
1. The article in Wikipedia, states “. . . he registered the tradename “Weetbix.” No claim is made that my father owned the trademark, simply that he registered it. In the usual fashion, he applied for the trademark “Weetbix” through an agent, Griffith & Hassel of 77 Castlereagh Street, Sydney, on August 19, 1926. It was lodged and registered/protected at 2:30 p.m. on August 24, 1926, under Trade Mark No. 224289, Divisional Number 45320. The trademark “WEETBIX” was accepted on July 27, 1927. (I mistakenly entered the date 1928 in Wikipedia.)
2. The trademark was not owned by GPL. It was registered initially in the name of the financier, Arthur Governor Daniells Shannon (Uncle Arthur) and handwritten above this, very soon afterwards, is the name “Australian Conference Association.”
3. The registered name was “WEETBIX” (without a hyphen). I do not know when the hyphen was put back in.
The writer states that there were two versions of the naming of the product, the first being:
“our family story is that Iris Clarke . . . cast the deciding vote in a family discussion in favour of naming the new breakfast food Weet-Bix. . . .” The second states that a Mr. Evans recalled that:
“When Shannon came to name it, he brought two packets into the factory and showed the girls that were packing it. Two names . . . were Sun-Bix and Weet-Bix . . . The majority put their hands up for Weet-Bix. I can still see them doing it whilst they were packing.”
An affidavit signed by my father states, “The word WEETBIX was devised and registered by me in SYDNEY, AUST. . . .”
1926-28: The product is very successful and therefore a distinct threat to the Seventh Day Adventist church’s product Granose, and Uncle Arthur, a staunch SDA and Head Elder at the Stanmore church in Sydney, puts his church first and sells Weet-bix in Australia to the Sanitarium Health Foods Company in Australia without financial consideration for my father. Benn’s friend, Malcolm Macfarlane (Mac), suggests exporting Weet-Bix to New Zealand. Again, it was well received. Mac and Benn went to N.Z. (with funding and the promise of a stake in the N.Z. enterprise from Uncle Arthur) and established factories there for the production of Weet-Bix. The factory in Christchurch is the first Weet-bix factory outside Australia.
No doubt under pressure from the SDA church, Uncle Arthur sells Weet-bix in New Zealand in 1930 to the Sanitarium Health Foods Company, thus again depriving my father of any financial gain from his product and application for the N.Z. trade mark (No. 26231) is made on March 9, 1928, by the Australasian Conference Association Limited through the agent, A.J. Park. Benn and Mack go to South Africa to set up factories there as shipments of Weet-Bix to South Africa have been well-received. Uncle Arthur sponsors that enterprise too.
1931-2: Two factories are set up in South Africa and once again, the product is successful. Being aware from past experience that the promised financial interest in the business would likely not be forthcoming, Benn and Mack, exercising good business sense and with an eye to starting up a British enterprise, change their source of financing to another more favourable source than that previously provided by Uncle Arthur. It is quickly forthcoming from a syndicate set up by Mr. Temple, a local solicitor and the British & African Cereal Corporation is established. Since the trademark Weet-Bix is owned by others in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, Benn improves his recipe and chooses the name Weetabix for his product.
The writer’s article states:
“Shannon got wind of their plans and according to Allan Forbes, took the matter to Scotland Yard, presumably suggesting that Osborne and Macfarlane were potentially committing a fraud.”
After much investigation by myself, and others in England, no evidence whatever has been found to confirm the above speculation.
On April 29, 1932, the British & African Cereal Company is established under the Companies Act of 1929 and on that date, the name “Weetabix” is registered under Trademark No. 531457 with the proprietor shown as Weetabix Limited of Weetabix Mills, Burton Latimer, Kettering, Northants, NN15 5JR.
On August 13, 1932, Benn and Mack register the new company through solicitors Maxwell Batley & Co. of London as “British & African Cereal Company, Limited” to carry on business in Great Britain, Northern Ireland, the Irish Free State “or elsewhere howsoever as manufacturers and dealers of and in biscuits, . . .”
The writer states:
“Shannon, however, found a more effective way of dealing with the treachery of Osborne and Macfarlane. Osborne and Macfarlane were not very financial and so to establish the business in the UK they floated the shares in British and African Cereal Company. This meant that the shares were for sale to the general public and Shannon, through middlemen, purchased a significant parcel of shares, in fact over 50% according to a story told to Ross Forbes . . . Shannon learned details as a shareholder of a company meeting that was to be held in the UK and resolved to attend unannounced to face down Osborne and Macfarlane” and that at that meeting he said “I bought your shares and own most of them but go ahead with your meeting anyway. But you cannot call the product Weet-Bix”.
The Company was not “floated,” the Company was established as, and remained, a Private Company and shares were never available to the general public. Uncle Arthur was refused a financial stake in the Company. The shareholder meeting suggested by the writer never occurred and Uncle Arthur clearly did not hold a single share, let alone “most of them, and the name of the product had already been registered as Weetabix.” The “Articles of Association of British & African Cereal Company, Limited,” reads in:
4. The initial capital of the Company is £20,000, divided into 20,000 shares each of which 6,000 shares are Preference Shares and 4,000 share (sic) are Ordinary Shares, and the remaining 10,000 shares are available for issue as Preference or Ordinary Shares or otherwise.
5. The shares taken by the subscribers to the Memorandum of Association and those to be allotted pursuant to the above-mentioned agreements shall be duly issued by the Directors. Subject as aforesaid, the shares shall be under the control of the Directors . . .
6. The Company is a Private Company, and accordingly (A) no invitation shall be issued to the public to subscribe for any shares or debentures of the Company (emphasis added). . . .
25. The instrument of transfer of any share in the Company shall be in the usual common form, and shall be signed both by the transferor and the transferee. Shares of different classes shall not be transferredby the same instrument of transfer without the consent of the Directors . . .
82. Directors: Until otherwise determined by a General Meeting, the number of Directors shall not be less than 7 nor more than 9. The first Directors shall be Bennison Osborne, Malcolm Ian Macfarlane, Alfred Richard Upton and Arthur Stanley Scrutton.”
An old mill in Burton Latimer is purchased from Mr. Frank George of Whitworth Bros. in Wellingborough for the production of the biscuit under the name Weetabix and production starts in either 1932 or 1933. See “Idle Mills to work again,” June 17, 1932, p. 11, in either the “Kettering Leader & Guardian” or “Northhamptonshire Advisor,” (I’m not sure whether it appeared in both or only one of the above publications). Mr. George applies for and is issued shares in the Company and is invited to join the board of Directors.
Arthur Shannon arrives in England (date unknown) and requests an interest in the company. This is declined since no financial assistance is needed.
1932-3: Weetabix is now well established to the extent that it cannot meet market demand and expansion is almost complete. See “Kettering Leader & Guardian,” and “Northhamptonshire Advisor,” articles “New Factory Booming,” October 21, 1932, p. 13, “Breakfast from Burton Latimer,” February 10, 1933, p. 6, and on May 19, 1933, “Town and Country News,” the article entitled “Spreading the British Breakfast Table.”
My mother arrives in England in July to marry my father. (Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph, July 31, 1933, front page). The wording announcing this event reads in part:
“Mr. Bennison Osborne, of Constantia House, Burton Latimer, well known as the managing director of the works of the British and African Cereal Co., was quietly married in Kettering this morning to Miss Dorothy Wiltshire, of Christchurch, New Zealand . . .
Mr. Osborne also hails from the Antipodes. He was born in Australia, and later moved to New Zealand, where he met the charming lady who to-day became his wife. . .
Mr. Osborne came to Kettering some years ago, first spending a period in South Africa. . . .”
The Company continues to be completely solvent. A fleet of cars is purchased and salesmen employed throughout England.
The writer states:
“Osborne stayed on until 1936 when he sold out to the other directors and went to the USA. Shannon . . . went to the UK again in 1936, probably when he learned of the financial difficulties of the British and African Cereal Company which led to Osborne leaving the company . . . .“
“In an article entitled ‘The Mills of Burton Latimer’, (written forty years later), the author John Meads says when writing about the North Water Mill:
About 1932 four South African Seventh Day Adventists, Scutton, Vermass, MacFarlane and Osborne set up the British and South Africa Cereal Company to market a product they called Weetabix and which they had been selling in South Africa . . . The South Africans did not make a success of the venture and after a few months an advertising agency took them to court for a £1,000 bill, they also owed Frank George, of Whitworth Bros., money for wheat and he eventually took over the company as a bad debt.”
A similar article also appeared around the same time, i.e. forty years later in “Industrial Management” in 1974, Volume 74, pages 20 to 22, under the heading “The Winning Ways of Weetabix.” The author was a Chris Phillips. This article repeats the erroneous information in the article above but adds:
“George brought in a man called Arthur Souster as sales director and, with a modest advertising budget and area salesmen going out on bicycles to collect orders from street corner grocery shops, Weetabix gradually became a household name.”
After finding the articles, Mac, who was in England or Wales at the time, sued Express Newspapers Limited (1975.M-No 303 in the Chester District Registry). Express Newspapers limited settled the case in Mac’s favour for £5,000 and costs.
Errors of Fact:
1. No financial difficulties existed (see letters of reference later in this article).
2. Neither Benn nor Mack was a South African. The former was an Australian and the latter a New Zealander.
3. The name of the Company was not “The British and South African Cereal Company.” It was “British & African Cereal Company, Limited,” a minor difference but one which reflects the lack of research and care taken by the authors.
4. Weet-Bix, not Weetabix was sold in South Africa.
5. Neither Benn nor Mack was a Seventh Day Adventist when they entered England and had not been for quite some time.
6. In a letter from my father to Mack dated December 6, 1976, following his discovery of the article in “Industrial Management,” he states:
“George never employed Souster. You and I interviewed him and introduced him to the board. We never owned a bicycle and our men were given cars from the inception.”
7. When applying to enter the United States in 1936, two references were required by the American Consulate General, to be provided by professional people. The first is from the Westminster Bank Limited and is dated June 11, 1936. It is addressed to The American Consulate General, 2, Harley Street, London, W.1., and reads in part:
At his request, I have pleasure in testifying that I have known our esteemed client Mr. Bennison Osborne since 1933. He is highly respectable, and the Managing Director of a successful local Manufacturing Company, in which he also has a direct financial interest.
I have always found Mr. Osborne trustworthy, and his recent election to the Burton Latimer Urban Council indicates the esteem in which he is held locally. In my opinion he is an entirely suitable gentleman to enter the United States of America for residential and business purposes.
Mrs. Osborne is also a client of this Bank, and from the evidence of our books would seem to have satisfactory resources of her own. . . .”
The letter is signed by the Manager, Allan B. Barfield.
The second is from the Stanboroughs Hydro & Clinic, Stanborough Park, Watford, Herts. The letter dated July 1, 1936, reads in part:
My good friend, Mr. B. Osborne, has asked me to write you a few lines concerning himself. This I am very pleased to do. During all of the years that I have been acquainted with Mr. Osborne, I have come to know him as a most capable and efficient business man. His moral integrity and character is above all question. In fact, from my knowledge of him I can highly recommend him as a fit person to be allowed entry into the United States. . . .”
The letter is signed by the Medical Director, J.E. Cairncross
The following personal reference dated September 13, 1967, from W. Mailey, Director, Bonner, Hodgson & Partners Limited of 41, Charles St., London, W.1, to Mack, is testimony to the success of the business. To my knowledge, no record has ever been found of the advertising debt to which the articles refer. In fact the reference appears to contradict any suggestion of such an event. The letter reads in part:
“Over a number of years I, personally, on behalf of F.E. Potters, Imperial House, Kingsway, London, conducted the advertising and promotion of Weetabix, and attended the monthly Board Meetings at Burton Latimer, and watched it develop into one of the most modern, and second largest Cereal Industry in Europe. Along with the remarkable achievement of practically from inception returning 20/- dividend per 20/- share. Probably a record in British Industry. . . .”
1936: Mr. Shannon again comes to England to offer financing for any future expansion but finance is adequate and the offer is not accepted. He also suggests investigating the Canadian market but plans are underway for a venture in the United States of America.
Benn sells his shares in the very successful business to the Directors of the company and with his family, moves to Clinton, Massachusetts, to set up the production of Weetabix through the American Cereal Food Corporation. The Directors of the British enterprise, on July 22, 1936, change the name of the Company to “Weetabix Limited.” Benn left the U.S. Company to join the war effort circa 1941, eventually becoming Supervisor of the Army Air Field in Zephyr Hills, Florida. He returned to Australia with his family in 1946, when the war ended. His date of birth was December 10, 1894, and date of death October 2, 1980.