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A jar of vegemite with some vegemite on toast.

Worker of the Week: Cyril Callister

By Collections blog

Worker of the Week is a weekly blogpost series which will highlight one of the workers at H.M. Gretna our volunteers have researched for The Miracle Workers Project. This is an exciting project that aims to centralise all of the 30,000 people who worked at Gretna during World War One. If you want to find out more, or if you’d like to get involved in the project, please email This week, Research Assistant Laura Noakes writes up volunteer Daniel’s research into Cyril Callister.

Cyril Callister was born in 1893 in Chute, Australia.  In 2016, Chute had a population of 18, so it was likely a very small place for Cyril to grow up in the late 19th century![1] Cyril’s father, William, was a schoolmaster, and he and his wife, Rosetta, had married in 1888.[2] Rosetta’s father had emigrated to Australia from England, and worked as a wood sawyer.[3] Cyril had nine siblings, eight of whom survived to adulthood.


Students of the Ballarat School of Mines, c1900. Courtesy Federation University Historical Collection [Cat. No. 272]. This was probably before Cyril’s time (as he was 7 in 1900), but gives us an idea of the cohorts of students at the time.

Cyril first attended Grenville College in Ballarat, before going to the Ballarat School of Mines. The Ballarat School of Mines was a technical school located in Ballarat, the first of its kind in Australia. Established in 1870, its purpose was to: to impart instruction in the various branches of science relating to mining engineering. it is proposed, as soon as practicable, to extend the operation of the school so as to impact instruction in those branches of technical science which may be considered most likely to exert a beneficial influence on the prosperity of Victoria.’[4]

He then went on to study at the University of Melbourne after he was awarded a generous scholarship. He gained his Bachelor of Science degree in 1914 with double honours in physics and chemistry, a Master of Science degree in 1917 and a PhD in 1931.

Cyril took a job at Lewis and Whitty in early 1915. Lewis and Whitty was a prominent manufacturer of food and other household products—such as soap.[5]

But later that same year he joined the Australian Imperial Force to fight in World War One. However, before he could get to the front, Cyril’s skills and knowledge in chemistry probably brought him to the attention of the Ministry of Munitions. Cyril was diverted into overseas munitions work in England, first in Wales, and then in Scotland, at HM Factory Gretna.[6]

Cyril’s enlisting papers in WW1

We know he was at Gretna because he is recorded as being there when elected as a New Associate of the Institute of Chemistry in 1918.[7] Whilst there, he worked as a shift chemist. He also met a local girl, Katherine Hope Mundell, who he married in 1919 in Annan, Scotland.

The acid mixing stations at HM Factory Gretna. Photo from The Devil’s Porridge Museum’s archive collection

After the war, Cyril and Katherine returned to Australia. In 1923, Cyril was working at Fred Walker and Co. Because of the disruption in trade caused by hostilities, the exportation of Marmite to Australia was severely affected.[8] Cyril was tasked with addressing this issue—he developed a yeast extract named Vegemite, which was first sold to customers in 1924. In 1925, Cyril sent samples of Vegemite to London for testing and discovered that his product had high levels of vitamin B, which solidified Cyril’s belief that Vegemite was rich in nutrients.[9] Vegemite soon became an Australian staple.


But Cyril wasn’t done with his food innovations yet! In 1926, he developed Kraft Walker Cheese – a cheese that was more easily preserved for longer. Cyril was appointed chief chemist and production superintendent. He became a director of the Kraft Walker Cheese Co in 1935.[10]

Portrait of Cyril Callister, inventor of Vegemite and Ballarat School of Mines alumnus. Photo credit: Federation University Australia Historical Collection (Geoffrey Blainey Research Centre

During WW2, Cyril worked with Government to provide food rations to serving soldiers and experimented with the dehydration of food. He was also instrumental in securing the Royal Charter for the Royal Australian Chemistry Institute in 1931.[11] He passed away following a heart attack in 1949, leaving behind his widow, two daughters and a son.[12] Unfortunately one of his children pre-deceased him—Ian Hope Callister died whilst fighting in WW2 at the young age of 21.[13]

The Roll of Honour Circular for Ian, Cyril’s son, following his death in WW2.

Cyril’s legacy is plain to see—Vegemite is globally known and his other food manufacturing developments paved the way for future research But his life was also blighted by two global conflicts—he had to divert into munitions in the Great War, and lost his son in World War Two.

[1] Australian Bureau of Statistics (27 June 2017). “Chute”. 2016 Census QuickStats.

[2] Australia Marriage Index, 1788-1950 for William Callister and Rosetta Dixon, 1888. Retrieved from Ancestry.

[3] 1861 England Census for John Dixon, Parliamentary Borough of Lambeth, retrieved from

[4] Lines of Succession: The Origins of the University of Ballarat from 1870. University of Ballarat, 2012, referenced: Ballarat School of Mines – Ballarat and District Industrial Heritage Project (

[5] Biography – Cyril Percy Callister – Australian Dictionary of Biography (

[6]  Biography – Cyril Percy Callister – Australian Dictionary of Biography (

[7] INSTITUTE OF CHEMISTRY 1918 Part 1 The Institute of Chemistry of Great Britain and Ireland. Proceedings, 1918. Part I – Proceedings of the Institute of Chemistry of Great Britain and Ireland (RSC Publishing)

[8] Cyril Callister Biography, Achievements, Australian chemist, Food Technologist (

[9] Biography – Cyril Percy Callister – Australian Dictionary of Biography (

[10] Biography – Cyril Percy Callister – Australian Dictionary of Biography (

[11] Cyril Callister (1893-1949) – Ballarat and District Industrial Heritage Project (

[12] Obituary in The Age, 06 October 1949.

[13] Record Details for Ian Hope Callister (Royal Australian Air Force) (


Reginald Ezra Parry M.Sc., University of Melbourne

Worker of the Week: Reginald Ezra Parry

By Collections blog

Worker of the Week is a weekly blogpost series which will highlight one of the workers at H.M. Gretna our volunteers have researched for The Miracle Workers Project. This is an exciting project that aims to centralise all of the 30,000 people who worked at Gretna during World War One. If you want to find out more, or if you’d like to get involved in the project, please email This week, Research Assistant Laura Noakes writes up volunteer Beth’s research into Reginald Ezra Parry.

Reginald Ezra Parry was born in 1889 in Adelaide, Australia. His parents, Ezra and Florence, had three boys, of who Reginald was the youngest. Ezra worked as a chemist, and perhaps this is what inspired his youngest son to follow in his footsteps and pursue a scientific career. Reginald studied at the University of Melbourne in Australia, where he was a member of the rugby team.

Image credit: University of Melbourne Photographs, reproduced with permission

This postcard shows the reverse of the photo of the rugby team. In this brief letter, Reginald states that he is ‘Very busy, No time to write a letter. Anyway, not much news. Am going to George Taylor’s wedding in a few minutes. How is this for a photo of me? This, as you will probably guess, is the Intervarsity Rugby Football Team. Henley is on Saturday. Went and saw ‘The Chocolate Soldier again last night. Love and kisses from Reg.’ Image credit: University of Melbourne Photographs, reproduced with permission

The Chocolate Soldier was an operatta first adapted for film in 1915, which suggests that this letter was written when Reginald was coming to the end of his university studies. He graduated with an M.Sc in that same year. There are some more great photos of Reginald in the University of Melbourne Archives. In the first, he sits in a deckchair.


Image credit: University of Melbourne Photographs, reproduced with permission

In the second, he is stood reading a book in front of the window, alongside three others:

Image credit: University of Melbourne Photographs, reproduced with permission

These fascinating photos give us a tantalising glimpse into Reginald’s life at university; he looks very suave and studious in them! Indeed, in an obituary written after his death, it was stated:

‘his life at the time was an interesting and varied one, including considerable teaching experience in chemistry and mathematics, and later metallurgy.’

Avis, Reginald’s first wife

Reginald also married during his time studying. In 1913, in Victoria, he married Avis Blanche Whittington. Avis had been born in Hampshire, England, the daughter of George, who worked as a gardener according to the 1891 census. In 1903, age 14, Avis arrived in Australia along with two of her siblings, Phyllis and Alice. The girls weren’t accompanied by their parents.

Reginald Ezra Parry M.Sc., University of Melbourne, 1915. Image credit: University of Melbourne Photographs, reproduced with permission


However, having graduated with a chemistry degree whilst World War One was raging, Reginald had skills desperately needed by the British Empire. Like many who lived under British rule, Reginald enlisted in the A. I. F. (The Australian Imperial Force). The A. I . F. was formed in 1914 and was the main expeditionary force of the Australian military during the Great War. As was the case with many Empire chemists and engineers, Reginald was posted to work at H. M. Factory Gretna.

The Glycerine Distillery at HM Factory Gretna. Photo from The Devil’s Porridge Museum archives.

It must have been a huge shock to go from Melbourne to Eastriggs, a small township just over the border in Scotland which had been purpose built for factory workers. Reginald lived at 82 The Rand in Eastriggs, and although we don’t know the particulars of his job, he was working as a chemist. There is one newspaper article which sheds light on Reginald’s time at the factory. In late 1917, according to the Dumfries and Galloway Standard, Reginald pled guilty to being in possession of a box containing matches within the factory fence. This may seem pretty trivial to us, but bringing matches–or anything that could be lit, catch fire, or was metallic–into the factory was an explosives risk. In the Regulations for Factory Employees booklet, given to staff at the factory, it is stated:

‘No person shall bring within the Factory, or have in his possession, whilst in the factory, any match or apparatus for producing light, or any lamp, light or fire of any description.’

Reginald’s charges were dismissed with an admonition.

Reginald in uniform, alongside his first wife, Avis.

After the war, Reginald worked as a Research Chemist and Works Manager of a Sandalwood Oil Distillery, before returning to academia in 1925. In 1930, he began working for the Swan Brewery Company Ltd, as a Maltster and Chief Analyst, where he remained until he retired. He was appointed a member of the Institution of Chemical Engineers in 1925, and later elected as a fellow of the Royal Institute of Chemistry.

After Reginald’s wife, Avis, died in 1949, he remarried Suzette Estelle Deane-Ross in the same year. Interestingly, Suzette was a widow of a man who also worked at HM Factory Gretna during the war. She had first been married to Garnett Skuthorpe. Garnett was an alumni of the University of Sydney, and like Reginald, a chemist. He worked at HM Factory Gretna from 1916-1919. Garnett and Suzette had been married in 1909, and had several children. In World War Two, Garnett was again dispatched to England on munitions work. He died there in 1944, killed accidentally in an explosives factory.

I wonder if Suzette and Reginald first met at Gretna? Reginald Ezra Parry died aged 76 in 1966. In an obituary it was written:

‘To all who worked with him or for him, Reginald Parry was the same, very helpful and always ready to lend considerable ability and experience to any problems. His mind remained active and interested long after he had retired from business life and his comments on techniques in almost any industry were informed and accurate, and reflected his very wide reading and experience.’

Mary Gerrie Esson

Worker of the Week: Mary Gerrie Esson

By Collections blog

Worker of the Week is a weekly blogpost series which will highlight one of the workers at H.M. Gretna our volunteers have researched for The Miracle Workers Project. This is an exciting project that aims to centralise all of the 30,000 people who worked at Gretna during World War One. If you want to find out more, or if you’d like to get involved in the project, please email This week, volunteer Catriona Banks, tells us all about her grandmother, Mary Gerrie Esson.

Mary was the fourth child born to Alexander Esson (9 July 1858 – 28 June 1945), a butcher in Aberdeen, and Margaret Crofts (25 Mar 1866 – ? poss Sydney, Australia) from Whalsay, Shetland. Alexander and Margaret (Maggie) were married in Aberdeen on 21 Nov 1890, and had eight children in total, two boys and six girls. Tragically, both boys were killed in WW1, and three of the girls died as babies.

Mary lived in Aberdeen and from the uniform she is wearing in the photograph below, it is likely she attended St Margaret’s School for Girls on Albyn Place. The photo shows Mary and her classmates doing a Physical Education class in 1909 or 1910, when Mary would have been 12 or 13 years old.

Mary Gerrie Esson, right rear, in school uniform (St Margaret’s School for Girls?) participating in PE class. Image, c1909.

The census of 1911 reveals that Mary, then aged 14 years, had left school and was working at the Paper Mills but her job is illegible [‘? sorter’, perhaps].

By 1916, Mary was working at the Munitions Factory in Gretna. She would have been twenty years old. She was given a triangular-shaped brass badge in acknowledgement of her war work.

Front – ‘On War Service 1916’



Rear – ‘199798’

Mary sent a postcard to her mother, Maggie, in 1917, posing in her munitions factory uniform. The back of the card reads: ‘With Love from Mary to Mother. 24.4.17. D.E.S. H.M Factory. Gretna’

Meanwhile, Mary’s older brother, James Ross Esson, had joined the City of Aberdeen Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery (RFA) when it formed in the spring of 1915. His service number was L/4402, and his rank was Driver. He found himself in Salonika in the midst of the Balkans campaign, and was tragically severely wounded in action. He later died of his wounds on 20 February, 1917. The Aberdeen Evening Express newspaper of Friday 2 March, 1917 reported on James’ death:

The following day, the same newspaper listed James Esson on their Roll of Honour. They noted that he was the ‘Dearly loved and deeply regretted’ eldest son of Mr and Mrs Alexander Esson, 71 Dunbar Street.

The youngest of the family, Alexander, also enlisted for service in WW1 and joined the Gordon Highlanders. He was a Lance Corporal in the 6th Battalion, service number S/22581. He must have been only 17 when he initially signed up, possibly prompted by the death of his older brother? In any case, Alexander was in that cohort of new recruits flung together and sent to defend the Somme at the Lys River in what became known as the Fourth Battle of the Somme, which occurred between 9- 29 April, 1918. Alexander was killed in action on 11 April, 1918. He was 18 years old.

Alexander’s body was never found. He is remembered at the Loos Memorial in Pas de Calais, France.

Aberdeen Daily Journal, Friday 17 May, 1918

On 7 May, 1920, Mary married Charles Gordon Sellar Banks (14 Dec 1895-25 Jul 1936) at The Manse in Old Aberdeen. In 1914, Charles had joined the Royal Naval Division and served at Gallipoli where he was wounded and invalided off the Peninsula, and then in France where he suffered gas exposure which left him with permanent damage to his lungs. At the time of their marriage, Charles was an Apprentice Cabinetmaker, aged 24, living at 234 Holburn Street. Mary was a 23 year old Laundry Worker, living with her family at 71 Dunbar Street.

Mary c1920

The first of Mary and Charles’ children, a daughter, Aileen Esson, was born on 27 November 1920 in Aberdeen. The story that was told as I grew up was that Charles’ lungs were so bad that doctors recommended a warm, dry climate. So, in January 1925, the small family relocated to Auckland, New Zealand where they spent several years. My father, Charles Gordon Esson (known by his family as Gordon) was born in Auckland on 20 December, 1929. His birth certificate notes that there was another boy born to Mary and Charles in the years between Aileen and Gordon, but he had died at birth. As the years passed, Charles’ health became progressively worse, and as he realised he was going to die, he wanted to die back in Scotland. So, the family of four returned to Aberdeen in May 1933 aboard the Rangitane from Wellington, New Zealand – Aileen was 12 years old, and Gordon was three. Charles Gordon Sellar Banks died on 25 July, 1936 aged 40 years, succumbing to acute asthma. He is buried in the Nellfield Cemetery, Aberdeen.

Mary applied for a war widow’s pension, but her application was denied. One can only imagine what a difficult time this must have been for a young widow with two children to support in a post-war United Kingdom. What a bitter blow to have lost your husband whose health was fatally compromised due to his involvement in the war, and not be granted a war widow’s pension.

In 1939, with a second World War brewing in Europe, Mary decided to migrate permanently to New Zealand. Shipping records show that Mary, aged 42, Aileen, aged 18, and Gordon, aged 9 sailed on the Orontes from London to Sydney, disembarking on 14 February, 1939. While the ship itself was due to sail to New Zealand, the industrious Mary left Aileen looking after her young brother at Circular Quay and managed to secure accommodation for them all (at the Salvation Army hostel, 140 Elizabeth Street, Sydney) and a job for herself as a seamstress. And so, the family’s plans changed, and they ended up settling in Australia.

Aboard the Orontes, February 1939.

Aileen, Mary, Gordon with appropriate Australian props.

They stayed only a few years in Sydney before moving once more, this time to Melbourne. Gordon (now known as Charles) went to boarding school in the rural town of Kilmore, attending Assumption College on a scholarship. Charles was a brilliant student and school records show that the College followed his academic and professional career for many years after he had finished Matriculation.

Interestingly, Assumption College Kilmore is a Catholic school run (in those days) by the Marist Brothers. It was around this time (c.1941) that Mary, Aileen and Charles converted to Catholicism from Presbyterianism. Charles talked about it in terms of expediency – the family were befriended

by the Headmaster of Assumption College who suggested that it would help their case for a scholarship if they were Catholic. So, the family were baptised at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney before their move to Melbourne.

The electoral roll of 1942 shows that Mary and Aileen were living at 12 Lorna Street, Moonee Ponds, an inner-western suburb of Melbourne. At the time it was a fairly industrial area, dominated by a huge munitions factory on the nearby Maribyrnong River. Both Mary (aged 46) and Aileen (aged 22) were listed as munitions workers at the Maribyrnong Ammunition Factory. I am not sure what type of work they did at the factory, nor how long they worked there, but I assume they both wanted to do their bit for the war effort, given the involvement of so many of their family members in World War I.

By 1949 Mary and Aileen had moved from Moonee Ponds to the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, settling eventually at 1 Avenue Athol, Canterbury. In the electoral roll of 1954 Mary’s occupation was listed as Home Duties. As she was only 58 years of age, and had always been an energetic, intrepid person, I wonder if her health had begun to decline. Mary Gerrie Esson Banks died at the age of 68 on 18 November 1964. Her death certificate states that she succumbed to stomach and liver cancer. She is buried at the Box Hill Cemetery. The inscription reads: ‘In loving memory of Mary Esson Banks. Died 18th Nov 1964. Beloved wife of the late Charles Gordon Banks of Aberdeen Scotland. Devoted mother of Aileen and Charles’.

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