Articles History

Arthur Smith Arnott: The Original ‘SAO’

Australians have always shown a bit of creativity with their favourite biscuits. Just eating them is not enough. We like to play with them! 

Long before someone thought to bite the corners off a Tim Tam and slurp coffee up through the centre, millions of Aussie children squeezed thin yellow and black worms out of two SAOs sandwiched together with butter and Vegemite.

Made from ‘seven layers of flaky pastry’ to give them that ‘light bubbly texture’, SAOs were once Australia’s favourite biscuit. 525 million SAOs were sold annually in the early 1980s, only dropping back to 190 million at the beginning of this century as the Tim Tam increased in popularity.

Arnott’s started as a small bakery in Newcastle in 1865. By 1906, when the first SAO came off the production line, the biscuits with the famous ‘Rosella’ on the packet were no longer hand-made but factory-produced. Many Arnott’s biscuits have become more than food legends – they’ve become Aussie icons! Think of the Tim Tam, the Iced VoVo, Shapes, Tiny Teddies … and, of course, the SAO.

The humble SAO has been a ‘household name’ for a long time. But what lies behind that name? 

Many stories about this have circulated over the years. One of the most enduring of all rumours is that the word ‘SAO’ comes from the initials for ‘Salvation Army Officer’. There are several variations on this theme, including ‘Salvation Army Order’ and ‘Serve and Obey’.

We don’t know which of these names is truth or which are fiction, but one thing is known: one morning, the then twenty-one-year-old manager of the Forest Lodge Arnott’s factory, Arthur Smith Arnott, walked into the factory wearing a Salvation Army officer’s jacket – to the bewilderment of the staff.

It was 1893. The previous evening, Arthur had dined with a friend who was a member of the Salvation Army and then went on to a Salvation Army open-air meeting in St Leonards Park, North Sydney. At that meeting, Arthur made the life-changing decision to become a follower of Jesus, as his father, William Arnott, had done many years before.

He started wearing the Salvation Army uniform to work and ran Bible study and prayer meetings with the workers. For the next five years, Arthur’s musical ability, his warm and cheery personality and his intense love for other people were valued by the Salvation Army Corps in New South Wales.

In fact, Arthur felt so strongly called to serve with the Salvation Army that at the end of those first five years, he made a big decision: to leave his work with Arnott’s and train to minister with the Salvation Army full-time. He rose to the rank of Colonel and worked with children and youth for thirty-three years. He specialised in leading children through music, and the songs that he wrote for children’s events were sung all around the world. He said, ‘It is impossible to sing and grumble at the same time. But it is quite natural to sing and pray and rejoice all at once.’

It is said that Arthur never drew an allowance of more than a shilling a year (a very small amount of money) as he was supported in his ministry work by the generosity of the Arnott family. Workers at the time remember that the Salvation Army had a regular standing order for packets of SAO biscuits, and that’s why some think the letters stood for ‘Salvation Army Order’.

Arthur Arnott was well-known for being committed to telling people about Jesus in a respectful way, leading many to get to know who Jesus is, and to grow in their faith, and for his ability to raise money for the good works that the Salvation Army carried out. 

Arthur and his generous family have left a legacy that continues to this day – and not just through the biscuits on our supermarket shelves. Today, the Arnott’s Foundation (the charity set up by the Arnott’s company) supports important projects that serve and care for the community, including Camp Quality, Food Bank, Driver Reviver and Fairy Sparkle.

We’ll never really know how the SAO biscuit got its name. However, almost everyone agrees that the name was, in some way or another, a tribute to Arthur Arnott’s involvement with the Salvation Army and his passion to show Jesus’ love to others through doing good work in the community.

Written by Annie Hamilton.


Salvation Army Heritage Centre, Sydney

Lyndsay Cox Salvation Army Heritage Centre, Melbourne

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *