ESA MEMBER MARK BENBOW IS WRITING A HISTORY OF FOWLER’S VACOLA [AUSTRALIA] AND GEO FOWLER, LEE & CO [UK].
HE EXPLAINS HOW HE GOT INTERESTED; WHAT HE KNOWS; WHAT HE IS LOOKING FOR.
We asked Mark how he became interested in Fowler’s Vacola and he advised that:
Bizarre really. It snow-balled from seeing a No 65. It’s aesthetics appealed (serious collectors find them incredibly boring) and it had numbers on the base which were and are a bit of a mystery to everyone. Thus a kind of number obsession resulted in hoarding, cross referencing and working out a chronology for both the Australian Glass Manufacturers factories and Fowlers Vacola. Then of course was the realisation that there was much more to the Vacola story that most people are unaware of, that it had a English link, and that the inventions and patents were actually those of Joseph’s uncle, George Fowler.
Mark is looking for material relating to: Fowlers Vacola; Geo Fowler and Lee [UK]; Joseph Fowler; George Fowler; Elizabeth Lee; bottling; preserving; and Australian glass plants. The origins of Fowler’s Vacola were in Camberwell, Victoria, in 1915. The company is still trading. They have a website of course and a cute story book about the company but with very little detail or hard history.
Mark Benbow writes:
Nicholas Appert won the prize offered by Napoleon Bonaparte for developing a methodology for preserving food. For the containers, he selected glass and applied the principles of prolonged heating [sterilisation] and the creation of an air-tight seal [he used a cork inserted by a vice; see his book “L’Art de conserver les substances animales et végétales”, published in 1810.
Building on Appert’s methodology in the 19th century and into the early 20th century, people experimented with bottle design, closure and finish; including Mason [US], Kilner [UK] and Wick [Germany] jars and bottles. (See the excellent site of the Society for Historical Archaeology.
The First Fowler
Toward the very end of the 19th century, George Fowler, a soldier who served in the British Royal Army Medical Corp and Regular Army, invented field cooking stoves and registered new patents for a food bottling and preserving system, that subsequently became widely used in Britain.
His bottles had unique spring metal clips that held a metal or glass cover with rubber ring to effect an air-tight closure. George was a man who had a great sense of civic duty and was regarded as a pioneer of the British bottling industry.
Joseph Fowler comes to Australia in 1912
In 1912, Joseph Fowler, his nephew and a director of Geo. Fowler, Lee & Co. Ltd, came out to Australia to set up his own bottling business that eventually grew to become the iconic Fowler’s Vacola Pty Ltd. George Fowler suggested Joseph leave for Australia, possibly because of the deteriorating situation in Europe, but also because of the “promise of a land of plenty”. He gave his nephew the patents to his business before he set off at age 24 with his young bride.
Joseph Fowler soon realised that the quality of the Australian produce was excellent and this may have finally made up his mind to settle in Melbourne. In 1915 he started trading under J. Fowler, then in 1920 the company Fowler’s Vacola was registered.
Growth in the 1930s to 1950s
Both Fowler’s Vacola Pty Ltd and Geo. Fowler, Lee & Co. Ltd developed into major companies in the 1930s to 1950s. Stan Garnsworthy, director and company secretary of ACI [formerly Australian Glass Manufacturers] said of Joseph Fowler:
His success in popularising his vacuum jar outfits against adversity is a grand story of pluck and determination. Between the years 1915-1964 the Fowler Vacola Company had expanded into a great Canning Company.
There were similar social and economic pressures on both companies that drove growth and that eventually led to their decline. The British company extended its business into related merchandise such as cooking pans, fruit and vegetable slicers, whilst Fowler’s Vacola sold an extensive range of food product as well as the preserving equipment. Interestingly both companies appeared to have grown in total isolation of one another.
The question of why the local Australian company appeared to have distanced itself from its British counterpart is still to be answered. There is an online debate about the links between the two, read about it.
Research for a book about George and Joseph Fowler and their companies
Remarkably little is known about George Fowler and his British company.
Apart from Victoria Peel’s entry for Joseph in The Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996, little has been published about Joseph Fowler and the Australian Fowler’s Vacola business either.
As the 100 year anniversary of Fowler’s Vacola approaches, I am writing a book about the Fowlers and their companies. I will be looking at why George Fowler did not attempt to build what may have become a multinational company or why indeed, Joseph Fowler appeared to go it alone here in Australia. I am compiling chronologies of glass bottle manufacturing and making a comparison between the glass designs and how they met local demands.
Ephemeral sources sought for the book
Trade catalogues, advertising material and related ephemera provide vital sources for helping to put the story together. They help, for example, to piece together a chronology for first and last appearances of manufactured products and they also draw attention to products that may otherwise remain unrecorded. It is remarkable just how unaware most people are that the grocer shops of the 1930s to 1950s must have stocked many Fowler’s Vacola products such as bottled fruits, chutneys, sauces, milk powder, honey, lemon butter, plum pudding, et cetera.
A request for help is made for any material that might be relevant, including trade catalogues covering the period 1920-1932.
Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 0400996173.