Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Walker, Fred (1884–1935)

by K. T. H. Farrer

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Fred Walker (1884-1935), merchant and industrialist, was born on 5 January 1884 at Hawthorn, Melbourne, second of three sons of native-born parents Harry Walker, merchant, and his wife Emily Mary, née Haussen, and was only 6 when his father was killed in an industrial accident. Educated at Caulfield Grammar School, in 1899 Fred joined J. Bartram & Sons, produce and export merchants, where he became familiar with canning and refrigeration. In January 1903, aged 19, he set up his own import and export business, Fred Walker & Co., in Hong Kong. He returned to Melbourne in 1908 to establish himself in the export and import of a variety of commodities, mainly food; in 1910 Walker began to can meats, butter, dripping and Red Feather brand cheese (preserved with sulphite) for export to Asia, South Africa and—during World War I—England.

In 1908 Walker had been commissioned in the Australian Garrison Artillery, Australian Military Forces; transferring to the 13th Infantry Brigade in 1913, he was promoted captain in 1916, but, because of the importance of the production of foodstuffs, did not join the Australian Imperial Force. In 1918 he began to manufacture Bonox and in 1920 secured the former South Melbourne College, Albert Park, to consolidate his manufacturing. In 1918 the business had been extended to Sydney and in 1919 to Adelaide and New Zealand. Due largely to post-war readjustments in world trade, he suffered severe financial reverses. Faced with a deficiency of over £80,000, he persuaded his bank and his creditors to back him in the formation of a new company, Fred Walker & Co. A Melbourne accountant, (Sir) Edwin Nixon, was appointed chairman, Walker was managing director, and two other directors represented his creditors who accepted debentures to the value of Walker's indebtedness. A period of consolidation and rationalization followed.

In 1923, when the company was struggling, Walker courageously appointed a chemist, Cyril Callister, to develop a yeast extract. Under the tradename Vegemite, it was marketed in 1924. That year Walker undertook the canning of meat and fish pastes at Launceston, Tasmania, then at Dandenong, Victoria; in 1925, following experimental work by Callister, Walker arranged with James L. Kraft of Chicago to manufacture processed cheese in Melbourne. The Kraft Walker Cheese Co. was registered in May 1926 and manufacturing began in September. This company was separate from, but managed by, the staff of Fred Walker & Co. and in May 1930 Walker became chairman. By late 1930 manufacturing for both companies was consolidated and, thanks to processed cheese, Walker had traded his way out of debt.

Walker had drive and presence, but was uneasy in addressing groups of people—even his employees, in whose welfare he was genuinely interested. A workers' social club was established in 1927; morning tea breaks commenced in 1928; a modest staff canteen and first-aid facilities soon followed. Walker's introduction in 1932 of the Bedaux system of time-and-motion study was based on his wish to make factory-work less arduous. As scientifically-designed work systems increased productivity, bonuses paid to employees rose and jobs in the companies were keenly sought.

President (1933-34) of Melbourne Rotary Club, Walker was a supporter of the Boy Scouts' Port Melbourne Settlement for underprivileged children. He was a director of the Young Men's Christian Association and a staff member of the Lord Somers' Camp. After some years of ill health, Walker died of hypertensive heart disease on 21 July 1935 at his Auburn home and was buried in Boroondara cemetery. On 15 May 1913 at St Columb's Anglican Church, Hawthorn, he had married Mabel Ashton Perrin who, with their daughter, survived him.

Although Walker's financial skills did not match his foresight, when freed from financial oversight he was able to plan and organize effectively. With his instinct for technology and with Callister's support, he established a sound manufacturing base in the 1920s. His will provided for the Fred Walker prize for postgraduate chemistry at the University of Melbourne. After his death his business was absorbed by the Kraft Walker Cheese Co. in which the American Kraft Co. had the major shareholding.

Select Bibliography

  • J. S. Legge, The Naval and Military Club, Melbourne, 1881-1962 (Melb, 1962)
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 23 May 1931
  • Argus (Melbourne), 22 July 1935
  • Kraft Walker Cheese Co. Pty Ltd records and Fred Walker & Co. Pty Ltd records (Kraft Foods Ltd, Port Melbourne)
  • private information.

Citation details

K. T. H. Farrer, 'Walker, Fred (1884–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/walker-fred-8953/text15747, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 30 May 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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