by John Baskerville Bagnall
Charles Victor Rowell was born in 1893 in New South Wales, the son of Charles Walter Rowell and Elizabeth Rowell. He was married aged 24 years in 1917 to Agnes M.E. Aulsebrook, who was known as May. Her parents were James and Elizabeth Aulsebrook.
Charles Rowell was an inventor and, as early as 18 March 1919, he had registered a patent for ‘improvements in the manufacturing of puffed wheat’. In the history of the SHF entitled ‘What Hath God Wrought !’, the authors Robert H. Parr and Glynn Litster describe the invention thus:
In 1918 C.V. Rowell discovered how to dextrinise wheat in a cannon so that when the pressure of steam was suddenly released, wheat grains expanded instantaneously making them into puff balls.
Rowell probably used a muzzle-loading cannon, as an 1833-vintage muzzle-loading cannon was part of the equipment the SHF took over when they purchased Cerix.
Rowell continued inventing and further applications by him for patents are held in the National Archives of Australia, some unrelated to food production. He did not, however, in 1934 introduce a double-barrelled revolving-type gun to the SHF production as claimed by Parr and Litster. The credit is due elsewhere. By 1934 Rowell had sold out of Cerix and the process was owned by the SHF. Sometime between 1919 and 1922 Rowell and John Bruce Aulsebrook, who was the father of Rowell’s wife May, went into business to manufacture cereal and grain foods at premises 3 Parramatta Road, Burwood (by current suburban boundaries – Concord).
Grace Bros. Limited at Broadway, Sydney, was advertising Cerix breakfast food at 10d. a packet from as early as March 1921. The Barrier Miner carried an advertisement for R.E.A. Kitchen Ltd of 343 Argent Street, Broken Hill, which included ‘Cerix, the Australian Puffed Wheat – An Ideal Breakfast Food for Children & Adults – Try It.’ We have not found any advertisements in the newspapers inserted by the original business and later company.
On 19 July 1922, the decision was made to establish Cerix Puffed Wheat Company Limited (Cerix) to purchase the business run by Rowell and Aulsebrook. The sale price was £10,000 and 500 one-pound shares each were allocated to Rowell and Aulsebrook.
Aulsebrook was the office and sales manager, and Rowell was the factory manager. The company bought from the business all the patents, leases, trademarks for Ceroflex and Cerix, plant and equipment, business debts, contracts and cash.
The incorporation of Cerix was published in the ‘Company News’ section of the Sydney Morning Herald on 10 October 1922. The company had a capital of £12,500 and the first directors were Rowell, Aulsebrook and J.E. Hurst. This suggests that Hurst contributed £2,500 to the formation of the company. He appears to have been a silent partner.
The premises of Cerix at 3 Parramatta Road, Concord, were rented premises as the lease was transferred from the business to the company and in the Sydney Morning Herald there is a reported court case Cerix v Biggs & another over the rental of the factory premises on Parramatta Road.
Another reference to Cerix in the Sydney Morning Herald was on 7 September 1928 with a report of a safe at the Cerix building being blown open – but the safe contained only a few shillings, perhaps reflecting on the state of the business or the prudence of its owners!
The premises at 3 Parramatta Road were used for the production of Puffed Wheat until 1941 when the then owners of the business (SHF) moved production to their own building at Lewisham, New South Wales.
There was an understanding in the Shannon and Bagnall families that Cerix Puffed Wheat was a Shannon company. This idea finds some support in a chapter written by Robert H. Parr in Seventh-day Adventists in the South Pacific 1885–1985, where he writes in reference to Arthur Shannon and the Shannon company Grain Products Limited:
By 1927 there was a very good business in train and the company’s two main products, Weet-Bix and Cerix Puffed Wheat were taking increasing slices of the breakfast food market.
And further that:
a minute of the SHF books indicates that Shannon accepted the SHF offer for his Cerix business for the sum of £26,148.
However, Parr confuses the Shannon company, rightly named as ‘Grain Products’ at first, but later in the chapter referred to as ‘Cereal Products’ and he confuses the ownership of Cerix.
In their later and more complete work, Parr and Litster indicate that in April 1928 it was C.V. Rowell, not Shannon, who offered to sell the process for puffing wheat and rice to the SHF.
There is nothing in the corporate records of Cerix held in State Records New South Wales to suggest that Shannon was involved in the ownership of that company. However, Arthur Henry Bagnall (the eldest child of William H. Bagnall and Gladys Bagnall née Shannon, sister to Arthur Shannon) has a recollection of going with his father to the Cerix factory, probably to collect the rent. William H. Bagnall worked for the numerous Shannon companies as a manager. It seems likely that at some stage Shannon bought the factory building and collected rents firstly from Rowell and Aulsebrook and then from the SHF after the buy-out in about 1929. Shannon and his family had extensive holdings of shops, factories and houses on Parramatta Road and at Five Dock.
In September 1925, a debenture was issued by the Cerix Company to Eliza Frazer Mills, the wife of George Wilfred Mills, a manufacturer’s agent, in the sum of £2173 at £12 per centum interest paid weekly or £10 interest if paid on time. The debenture was a floating charge over the business and was authorised by J.B. Aulsebrook and C.V. Rowell. The debenture remained unsatisfied until 6 January 1930 when it was paid out by the SHF, which had by that time purchased the Cerix company.
The debenture and especially the high rate of interest, suggest that the business was struggling financially and indeed Arthur Bagnall described Puffed Wheat as ‘not a big seller’. It is probable that George Mills, as a manufacturer’s agent, was responsible as a middle man for the distribution of the product from Cerix to grocers. There were no advertisements for Cerix in the Sydney newspapers of the time, so it is likely that Cerix was not a very large or prosperous business.
In the 1920s the SHF, an early producer of breakfast foods, was losing market share and it decided to buy out some of its competitors. There were approaches to Cerix and in April 1928 Rowell offered to sell the Cerix process of puffing wheat and rice, and Australasian Conference Association Ltd (ACA Ltd), the managing company of the SHF, gave approval in August 1928 to acquire the rights to manufacture and distribute Cerix products throughout New South Wales, Queensland and New Zealand. The ACA Ltd minutes of 27 August 1928 contain the following entry:
PURCHASE OF CERIX PUFFED WHEAT BUSINESS
The Cerix Puffed Wheat Co. Ltd. has notified the Association that they are now prepared to submit a price for the purchase of their business. There were 11107 shares in the business for which they asked £2 per share, and in addition required the purchaser to take over liabilities totalling £3934, a total figure of £26148. They would require a cash deposit of £12676. They would be prepared to leave the balance, £13472, at 5% interest for one, two or three years at our option. VOTED: to purchase the business known as Cerix Puffed Wheat Co. Ltd. for the amount of £26148, of which £12676 is to be paid down in cash the balance, £13472 to remain for at least three years at 5% interest.
However, in ACA Ltd minutes of 16 April 1929, it was noted that Cerix was not willing to accept ACA Ltd’s offer. As ACA Ltd had accepted the price submitted by Cerix it must be assumed that the Cerix Board changed its mind about selling and became unwilling to accept the price they had submitted for the purchase of the business. This unwillingness may be explained by the fact that by 1929 John Bruce Aulsebrook and his brother Thomas William Aulsebrook appear to have been in charge of Cerix, rather than Rowell. In support of that proposition, in 1929 there is an application for letters patent for an invention by J.B. and T.W. Aulsebrook, now known as Cerix Puffed Wheat Company Limited, ‘for improvements in the processing of cereal grains and apparatus therefore’.
Although the Aulsebrooks were in charge of Cerix in New South Wales, it appears that Rowell retained the Queensland rights for himself because at the ACA Ltd Board meeting on 27 August 1928, it was voted to purchase the Queensland rights of Cerix Puffed Wheat & Grains from Rowell at a price of £1000.
By 22 October 1929 the ACA Ltd minutes declare, ‘Cerix now willing to negotiate’ and on 1 November 1929 the minutes of ACA Ltd include an item, ‘negotiate with Cerix’. The last entry in the minutes relating to Cerix appears to be on 28 October 1930, ‘re Cerix patent rights’. Perhaps the directors of Cerix changed their minds because of the deepening depression or because Rowell had left the business during this time and his manufacturing expertise was missed.
Thus Cerix became part of the SHF. On 6 January 1930 the debenture to Eliza Frazer Mills was satisfied and on 31 December 1930 an annual general meeting was held to wind up the company. George T. Chapman was the secretary and T.W. Hammond the chairman of the meeting. The winding up was completed by a company meeting on 5 April 1932 to show the manner of the winding up and how the property was disposed of.
The name Cerix was retained by the SHF on its products up until the 1940s. The SHF improved the main process of manufacture including the use of a double-barrelled revolving-type gun but it was still effectively the same basic principle as developed by Rowell in 1918. The SHF also launched a vigorous advertising campaign for the product featuring Cerix as a breakfast food: ‘FROM THE CANNON’S MOUTH to your BREAKFAST TABLE’.
One customer for the puffed wheat was an Adventist businessman Colin Forsyth who ran a small sweets factory in Burwood. He used to mix the puffed wheat in a cement mixer with other ingredients to make a confectionery.
The product continues today as Sanitarium Puffed Wheat, and Honey Weets, a variety of puffed wheat coated with honey. The spelling of the honey-coated product has changed from ‘wheat’ to ‘weet’ in line with Sanitarium’s most popular product Weet-Bix.
‘Swords into ploughshares and breakfast from the barrel of a gun’.
The Cerix Puffed Wheat story is really part of the history of the Sanitarium Health Food Company but as it peripherally impacts the story of Arthur Shannon and Weet-Bix, it is included here. I would like to acknowledge the considerable assistance of Dr Glyn Litster, co-author with Robert H. Parr of ‘What Hath God Wrought!’: The Sanitarium Health Food Company Story, in the preparation of this article. My wife Carlene Bagnall has been a prodigious researcher and advisor; I thank her for her love and support. Also, I recognise the editorial contribution provided by my daughter, Dr Kate Bagnall.