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Employment at Kitchens

From the Collection

A photograph from the J Kitchen and Sons collection 

In summer of 1854-5, John Kitchen, former grocer and candle-maker from Reading, England, arrived in Melbourne, Victoria, with three young sons and little money, to begin a new life. They were soon able to buy some cheap candle frames, and they commenced making tallow candles in a small rented room in what is now South Melbourne. The business grew. From this small beginning they became within thirty years Australia’s chief manufacturers of candles and soap… The company, J. Kitchen and Sons, continued to prosper both in Victoria and interstate, taking over many rivals, and was eventually taken over in its turn by Unilever in 1914, becoming the basis of the firm now trading as Lever and Kitchen. (Kitchen 1993, p 46)

In 1883 Kitchens employed 300 workers and by 1924 the main premise in Port Melbourne covered one hundred and seventeen acres and employed about 1,400 people.

After the site of the Port Melbourne factory, which was then owned by Pental Symex, was sold for redevelopment in 2012 the PMHPS acquired a collection of items from the Kitchen’s museum, which includes photographs, documents, packaging, office equipment and candles. Many of these items are currently on display at the Society in the Port Melbourne Town Hall.

Kitchen & Sons took pride in their good relations with their employees as these items from the collection demonstrate.


If evidence is required of the good Employer-Employee relations which exist and have existed for many years at J. Kitchen & Sons Pty. Ltd., then one need only count the number of long service employees………

Long service employees – PMHPS catalogue no 3332


Names on back of photograph of long serving employees – PMHPS catalogue no 3269

The company not only recognised the loyalty of long standing employees, many of whom spent their most of their working lives with Kitchens, but a series of photographs taken in the 1950’s show the staff amenities block which included a canteen, cloak rooms and showers for men and women, accommodation for a nursing sister and visiting medical officer and Personnel workers and the Social Club library.

There is so much more which could be told about Kitchens, makers of Velvet soap, Solvol, Surf, Persil and more, their entrepreneurship and their innovations, their shrewd business and marketing skills which helped make them market leaders in Australia.


Australian National University Archives

Bak, K. 1988 A Lever & Kitchen Album. Lever & Kitchens Pty Ltd.  Balmain. NSW. (Catalogue number 3430)

Grainger, P. J Kitchen and Sons Lives on in the Borough

Kitchen, C.1993 John Kitchen, Chemical Industry Pioneer: A Soap Story Victorian Historical Journal, v. 64, no 1, Apr 1993, p 46-58 (Catalogue number 2188.01)

McKie, R.  1952 The House of Kitchen.  Progress Autumn 1952. (Catalogue number 3382)



  • ken anderson
    Posted August 3, 2015 1.42 pm 0Likes

    my other Grandfather John Arnol Anderson, was employed at Kitchens I think he was in charge of printing, probably boxes,etc, He passed away in 1937-8 from bowel cancer, my dad Norman always spoke very highly of the Kitchen family, particularly the way their Dad was looked after when Grandmother passed away in 1912 when my Dad who was the youngest of 5 was six years old. My “ancestral” families all lived in Port for many years, The Andersons, Lanes and McMillans, I remember visiting Granma Mac in the 40’s in a little house not sure of street name but again very fond memories. I believe my Great Grandfather Isaac Andersen(or similar) worked as a Pilot from Port I have been trying for years to find more to no avail.

    • Janet Bolitho
      Posted August 3, 2015 1.52 pm 0Likes

      So great to receive these recollections Ken. They add depth to the wider stories. Thank you

      • Ian Hopley
        Posted August 19, 2016 7.24 pm 0Likes

        My grandfather Frank Davis is pictured in the long term employees of Kitchens serving 51 years there. His son Bill worked there before and after WW2. Bill was a POW on the Burma Siam Railway and was welcomed back after the war. My mother Neva worked at Kitchens on completing her business studies course (typist/stenographer) She recalled supervisors walking around the 2nd level watching the typing pool staff work. She recalled when her father died suddenly (apparently was found floating of Pt Melbourne pier and subject to a coronial hearing open finding), the Kitchens companies generously donated towards his funeral.

        • David Thompson
          Posted August 19, 2016 7.55 pm 0Likes

          Thanks Ian,
          The more we hear about Kitchens, the more we realise what a wonderful Port Melbourne institution is was. They really cared about their employees and treated the whole workforce as one large family.

          • Ian Hopley
            Posted August 22, 2016 1.57 pm 0Likes

            Thanks David,
            My grandfather died in early 1951 so I am guess that Kitchens photo must have been taken shortly before his death.
            My mother went on to work at Nasco, Port Melbourne (GMH) for many years. In her scrapbooks etc, she has many photos from that period including quite a lot with American Servicemen during the war all taken around Port Melbourne. We were very fortunate in that our mother wrote her memoirs, much of it about her life in Port Melbourne. After the war, her brother Bill Davis played football in the local area and from memory after his return from Changi POW camp, he coached “Sandridge” or Gardenvale” FC? I interviewed Bill before his death including another Port Melbourne POW Joey Zeeno about their POW experiences on video tape. Happy to make any these items available to the society on my next visit to Melbourne if the society is interested.

          • David Thompson
            Posted August 22, 2016 2.36 pm 0Likes

            Thanks Ian,
            That all sounds very interesting. We’d certainly be interested to see these items and possibly obtain copies for our collection. We have a regular work session on Tuesdays 10am – 1pm at Port Town Hall or you could contact us at pmhps@localhost to arrange a time to meet since you are coming from ‘out of town’.

  • john geddes
    Posted September 8, 2016 10.55 pm 0Likes

    I worked for SPD TRANSPORT….visited the ingles st site many times…heard many stories from the old diggers at SPD and Unichema…about L+k….the people.
    i was 25 years old …the youngest driver ever employed to be along side the oldest drivers of the day…they shared stories as to how the delivered all these products around melb…from horse and cart to wheel barrows.
    was an amazing Company to work for….and the Lever and kitchens families must have been wonderful people to work for….i also did courier work out of this building ……and today i saw ”The Block”….but they would not let me in to have a look…..but i have my collection of L+K PRODUCTS IN MY SHED….FOR THE GOOD OLD DAYS…..ty john.

    • David Thompson
      Posted September 8, 2016 11.04 pm 0Likes

      Thanks John,
      If you ever get the chance to get inside ‘The Block’, do it. It is great to see the old building come back to life after being idle for so long. Even if you can get into the foyer to see what they’ve done.

  • Jenny Scadden
    Posted May 24, 2017 9.03 am 0Likes

    I,m Looking for a staff member who may have worked at the Soap & candle works in 1880 ? until about 1886.
    Charles Grace arrived in Melbourne about 1879, his son Charles Grace aged about 12yrs followed his father.
    Both arrived in New Zealand about 1886

  • Leon Lyell
    Posted June 30, 2017 4.22 pm 0Likes

    In 1880 by great grandfather, Henry Marsh, then 22 was asked to go to from London to Melbourne on a five-year contract with Kitchens as a ‘distiller’ – chemist. He accepted and three colleagues from Prices Candle Co went with him – John Cron, an engineer, Tom Testro, an accountant, and a young man with managerial training who later managed the catering service at Spencer Street Railway Station. He was engaged before he left and his fiancé joined him in 1882. Marsh stayed longer than five years and later moved to Adelaide where he went into a partnership with Kitchens selling candles to Broken Hill. The family story is that one of his successes was the formula for velvet soap. Are company records for that time available?

  • Arthur Castles
    Posted July 11, 2017 1.58 pm 0Likes

    My father, Roden Castles, worked at J.Kitchens as Chief Research Chemist for 33 years.1933_1966.(He died this year from Heart attack).
    He worked on the original formula for Handy Andy.
    Our family, including 3 brothers, Jeff, Arthur and David lived in a bank house in Williamstown Rd for many years from Oct 1950. I left in 1972 after marriage and returned in 2007, My two daughters and families live in Port Melb also.
    I worked at Unilever, previously Kitchens in 1964/5 in the accounts section.
    Last year I had my photo taken at The Block location in Ingles st. In the exact spot where I worked in 1965!!!
    Kind Regards
    Arthur Castles

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We respectfully acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we meet and work, the Bunurong Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung peoples of the Eastern Kulin Nation and pay respect to their Elders past, present and emerging.