Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Fowler, George Swan (1839–1896)

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

This is a shared entry with David Fowler

George Swan Fowler (1839-1896), by unknown photographer

George Swan Fowler (1839-1896), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B3672

David Fowler (1826-1881) and George Swan Fowler (1839-1896), wholesale grocers, were born near Kilrenny, Fife, Scotland, sons of James Fowler, grocer, merchant and Baptist pastor of Anstruther and Cellardyke. David worked in his father's business and in 1854 with his wife Janet, their two children, a servant and goods worth £2300 sailed from London in the Fop Smit and in November arrived at Adelaide. There he joined his eldest brother James and sister Margaret who had arrived in the Anna Maria in November 1850. David promptly opened a retail grocery with James. They had a hard struggle with competitors but by 1857 expanding business enabled them to acquire new headquarters in King William Street and enter the import trade. After much sickness James died in 1859 and Margaret returned to Scotland. George, who was then working with his father, sailed with Margaret for South Australia in the steamship Indus and arrived in July 1860. In a new agreement David and George pooled their joint assets of nearly £20,000. In 1864 George went to Scotland to marry Catherine (Janet) Lamb and returned to Adelaide. Next year their retail trade was dropped and they concentrated on the wholesale business; David visited Britain to set up a buying office in London. He settled there in 1873 to direct the branch, quick to exploit the commercial advantages of the telegraphic link with Australia. In 1877 with David Murray he acquired Pandura station near Port Augusta. With his brother George he gave over £5000 for a new town hall at Cellardyke. Noted for his enterprise, integrity and skill as a commercial statistician, he died aged 55 in London on 11 November 1881.

By then, despite droughts, depressions and financial crises, D. & J. Fowler had reached 'the front rank of the commercial houses established in the South Hemisphere'. The firm had branches at London and Fremantle, agencies in the Northern Territory and on the River Murray, large stores in Port Adelaide and other suburbs, big depots for kerosene and factories for jam, condiments, confectionery and preserved fruit. They also ran a large shipping agency, importing foodstuffs and exporting wool, wheat, flour, meat, butter, copper and tanning bark. By 1896 the firm had spread to Broken Hill and Kalgoorlie, and acquired the bankrupt Adelaide Milling Co. for £82,500 and eleven other flour-mills, and won a leading place as dried fruit packers on the Murray irrigation settlements. While travelling to Britain in 1882 George had met a director of Shell Oil Co. and won from him the agency for Shell products in South Australia; later he built the Shell bulk installations at Port Adelaide. In Britain he also heard of the Macarthur-Forrest cyanide process for recovering gold from mine tailings and helped to introduce the process on his return to Australia in 1884.

Like his brother David, George was an unflinching advocate of free trade. David had contested the East Adelaide seat in the House of Assembly but failed because he rejected protection even of native industry. George was elected for East Adelaide in 1878, represented South Australia at the intercolonial convention on tariffs in 1880 and served as treasurer for two months in Morgan's ministry in 1881. Moderate on most subjects he opposed protective duties and unbalanced electorates. With his 'pretty fair library' and regular copies of The Times and Economist he castigated the raising of government loans without close study of movements in the London money market. In 1884 he failed to win re-election because of his temperance views. With David he had been one of the twenty-five founders of Flinders Street Baptist Church in 1861. George was active in the Sunday school, served as deacon and treasurer and helped to form the Baptist Association and the aged ministers' fund. As president of the Baptist Union he aimed at dissolving church debts and started a building fund and a mission in India. He died at his home in Glen Osmond on 1 October 1896, survived by his wife and leaving an estate valued at £80,000.

In 1891 his daughter Laura Margaret had been the first woman graduate in medicine at the University of Adelaide; later she became a missionary in Bengal. The eldest son, James Richard, was born on 25 May 1865 at Mitcham and educated at Prince Alfred College, Adelaide, Amersham Hall, Buckinghamshire, and St John's College, Cambridge (B.A., 1886; M.A., 1890). In 1892 he married Esther Tinline Murray and became a director in the family firm. In the University of Adelaide he served as a member of the council in 1901-25 and chairman of the board of commercial studies in 1904-22. He was also a governor of the Public Library Board and a director of the Bank of Adelaide. He died in Adelaide on 17 December 1939.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Price, Memoir of George Swan Fowler, Christian Merchant (Adel, 1897)
  • Years to Remember, 1854-1954: A Record of the First Hundred Years of the Business of D. and J. Fowler Limited (Adel, 1954)
  • Observer (Adelaide), 26 Nov 1881, 3, 10 Nov 1896
  • executors' papers of David Fowler 1871-1925 (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

'Fowler, George Swan (1839–1896)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fowler-george-swan-3895/text5507, published in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 26 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014