Think Bigger – The Expanding Tea Empire

Think Bigger – The Expanding Tea Empire

Robert knew he needed to think bigger, and soon realized that the only option was to eliminate the middlemen and travel to the source in Gippsland, where farmers sold tea in 56-pound chests.

On the unpaved, broken roads of the era, Robert couldn’t make the 100-kilometre plus journey on his bike, so he took an expensive plunge and purchased a horse and gig. Soon he was haggling for volume discounts at the open-air auctions with the Gippsland tea farmers.

The scale strategy worked and Edwards and Company started to prosper. Scaling again, Robert began hiring country travellers, many of them young Irishmen, to do the buying from the auctions around the country.


The tea was sold for a time under the slogan – ‘There is only one T in AusTralia’ – and soon became a brand well known to thousands of Victorians.

In 1882, at the age of 20, Robert moved his business operations to Flinders street. So began a period of continual expansion, with Edwards and Company moving six more times in the next 13 years. In 1896, Edwards Ensign Tea moved into the Viaduct in 543 Flinders Street, a property the business then occupied until 1903.

The company was also expanding into Sydney and Brisbane and opening offices. Coffee, cocoa and tea were being imported from India and the US. Edwards Ensign Tea opened its own plantation in Kanda-Valley, Ceylon, and also patented the process for manufacturing fig coffee.

Robert employed 77 door-to-door salesman to traverse the countryside of Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland using horse and buggy, motor cycles and then finally cars.

In 1904, Edwards Ensign Tea erected the first five-storey building at 100 Flinders Street. Twin, bluestone columns supported the new Ensign trademark – Purity, Strength and Flavour Conquer All – back lit by light globes, giving Melbourne one of its first illuminated signs. A passenger lift in the building was also possibly Melbourne’s first. Unfortunately the building was completely destroyed by a fierce fire in 1922, which according to The Age newspaper could be seen as far away as Box Hill.

Although Robert retired from active participation in the tea business in 1905 at the age of 43, he continued as Chairman up until the time of his death at the age of 84 in 1946.

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