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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.’

The inside of a cigarette case from 1918.

Worker of the Week: Herbert Womersley

By Collections blog

Worker of the Week is a weekly blogpost series which will highlight one of the workers at H.M. Gretna our Research Assistant, Laura Noakes, has come across during her research. Laura is working on a project to create a database of the 30,000 people that worked at Gretna during World War One.

After receiving photos of J. C. Meldon’s pocket watch a few weeks ago, we were delighted to have another photo of a worker’s  momento from their time at H.M. Factory Gretna. This time the photos were of a cigarette case, given to Herbert Womersley.

Engraved upon this cigarette case were the words ‘H. M. Gretna 23.2.18’

Herbert was born in Warrington, Lancashire in April 1899. He trained as a chemist in soap manufacturing, but from a young age his passion was entomology. Entomology is the study of insects, and Herbert wasn’t the first person in his family to be interested in the subject, his father, Fred, was an amateur lepidopterist.

“The American Soldiers in Presence of Gas” (Reeve 37283), National Museum of Health and Medicine, Otis Historical Archives.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, Herbert joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, before transferring to the Chemical Corps. He served at the Front, and was involved in some of the earliest chemical weapon attacks on German soldiers. At some point between this and the end of War, Herbert ended up at H. M. Factory Gretna.

After the war, Herbert Womersley emigrated to Australia and made his lifelong passion a career. He became a renowned entomologist. Several insect genera and species were even named after him!

Herbert’s entry in the ‘Who’s Who of Australia’ in 1944

When photos of Herbert’s cigarette case were recently shared with us, we were able to find his name in the Mossband Farewell magazine. The Mossband Farewell was a put together by the staff at the end of the war, and at the end of the magazine there was a list of staff and addresses. A ‘H Womersley’ is listed, as part of the operating staff, and his address is in Warrington.

The page in the ‘Mossband Farewell’ where Herbert is mentioned.

From this it seems Herbert worked in the Mossband section of the Factory. Mossband and Dornock were the two administrative sites at H.M. Factory Gretna. Dornock was where the mixing of acids, nitrocotton and nitro-glycerine was done, and in Mossband the compounds were brought together to make cordite.

Herbert Womersley and his wife Alice in the front yard of their home in Adelaide, South Australia

However, one part of Herbert’s story remains a mystery! We couldn’t figure out the significance of the date engraved on the cigarette case—23.02.18. Maybe further research will shed light on why this date in particular was commemorated on Herbert’s cigarette case.

Central laboratory staff H M Factory Gretna

James Carter Spensley

By Collections blog

Eastriggs (where The Devil’s Porridge Museum is based) is known as the Commonwealth Village.  The majority of its street names are derived from places in the Commonwealth (or Empire) such as Vancouver Road, Delhi Road, Singapore Road etc.  The township was built in World War One to house workers at HM Factory Gretna, the greatest munitions factory on earth at that time (the Museum tells the story of this factory and its 30,000 workers).  The workers came from around the world and they left their mark behind in their wartime contribution and in the place names of Eastriggs.  Here we feature one person from the Factory who worked here in World War One with Commonwealth connections.

James Carter Spensley


James was born in Gunnerside in North Yorkshire in 1886.  His family were Wesleyans and his father was the Headmaster of the school.  At some point in the 1890s, the family migrated to Knysna in South Africa.

James studied chemistry at the Transvaal University in Pretoria (pictured below) and then became a lecturer there.

transvaal college

He was wounded, fighting against a Boer rebellion which occurred in South Africa at the start of World War One.

In May 1917, James came to HM Factory Gretna and worked as a  chemist in the Central Laboratory.  This photograph below shows the Central Laboratory staff at the end of the War.  James may be in this picture.

central laboratory staff hm factory gretna

The main focus of his work was on solvent recovery problems and he delivered a talk to the Factory’s Scientific Society  on the subject.

In Spring 1918, an ‘urgent call’ came for chemists to go and work at another Factory.  James went and was badly injured while there.  It is probable that this Factory was at Avonmouth, near Bristol, where mustard gas was made.  James may have been gassed during production (we know of another chemist from HM Factory Gretna to whom this happened).

“The potential dangers of the task did not deter Mr Spensley from undertaking it, and he rendered much valuable service before he succumbed to the dangerous nature of his work and lay at Death’s door for many weeks.”

The death of James Carter Spensley

James returned to Gretna towards the end of 1918.  He had a mild attack of influenza in late 1918.  Sadly, he died on December 16th due to the weakness of his heart following his brush with death at another munitions factory.

His body was buried in the village of Gunnserside, North Yorkshire where his family had lived in before they emigrated to South Africa.  He is listed on the war memorial in that parish.

Photograph above shows his grave and below shows the village war memorial.

james carter spensley grave

gunnerside war memorial

He was clearly well liked and valued by his colleagues at HM Factory Gretna as these passages demonstrate:

“Widespread sorrow was caused shortly before the Christmas holidays by the news that Mr Spensley had passed away at the Gretna Works Hospital. 

As a result of his attractive personality and cheerful good nature he made a great many friends among the Factory Staff, and all keenly regretted that his young life should have been cut short in this quite unexpected way.”

gretna works hospital

“His death was indeed a great loss to Gretna, and the sadness of the event is only relieved by our pride in his fine record of war service. 

Exerting himself unsparingly, and never shirking difficulty or danger, he served his country valiantly to the end.”

All quotes from Dornock Farewell magazine (in the Museum’s archive).

The following books (available from the Museum’s online shop) may be of interest to anyone wanting to know more about HM Factory Gretna and the people who worked there in World War One:

The Devil’s Porridge Museum Guidebook

Lives of Ten Gretna Girls booklet

Photograph of War Memorial taken from:

Photograph of James Carters Spensley’s grave taken from:



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