Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Joseph Fowler (1888–1972)

by Victoria Peel

This article was published:

Joseph Fowler (1888-1972), businessman and municipal councillor, was born on 28 February 1888 at Bagworth, Leicestershire, England, one of thirteen children of John Fowler, groom, and his wife Mary, née Ash. With his brother Sydney, in the early 1900s Joseph worked in a fruit-preserving business run by an uncle at Maidstone, Kent, and continued with the firm after 1908 when it was relocated at Reading. At St Andrew's parish church, Leicester, on 7 September 1910 he married a nurse, Elizabeth Harris (d.1965); they emigrated in 1913 and settled at Camberwell, Melbourne.

Encouraged by his commercial experience, and by the variety and quality of fruit in Australia, Fowler set up a fruit-bottling business in the rear of his small house in Burke Road. Trading as J. Fowler & Co., by 1915 the company had begun producing home-bottling kits which contained a sterilizer, bottles, lids, rings and a thermometer. To acquire the capital to establish a factory, Fowler travelled the district, selling his kits door-to-door from the back of a cart. In 1920 he bought a shop at the corner of Power Street and Burwood Road, Hawthorn, and registered his business as a private company.

During the Depression his kits became a household name. In 1934 Fowlers Vacola Manufacturing Co. Ltd was registered as a public company. Housewives, nationwide, were urged to bottle their own fruits and jams by 'Mrs B Thrifty', the dainty cartoon character who graced the firm's advertisements. Numerous recipes and instruction books, such as From Orchard to Bottle the Fowlers Way, advertised the necessary preserving equipment, extending to jelly bags and juice extractors. Australian-made glass and imported steel and rubber were used in the production of Fowlers Vacola Bottling Outfits.

Determined to put something back into the community which had supported him so well, in 1933-60 Fowler represented Yarra Ward on the Hawthorn City Council (mayor 1938-39 and 1945-46). He served as vice-president of Swinburne Technical College (1942) and of the Hawthorn branch of the Australian Defence League (1943); he was also a Rotarian, and a warden and vestryman of St John's Anglican Church, Camberwell.

Changed demands in World War II encouraged Fowlers Vacola to diversify their product. Canned goods were manufactured for allied troops in the South Pacific. In 1953 new buildings and plant, including a giant pressure-cooker, were installed to increase productivity: from that time Fowlers Vacola sold canned and bottled food throughout Australia and abroad. By 1960 the factory occupied more than 122,000 sq. ft (11,330 m²) and further expansion was to occur when the firm moved to Nunawading. Fowler retired in 1961, but remained chairman of directors; his son Ronald succeeded him as managing director.

Variously described as a generous, jovial man with a sense of humour, and as a strict and astute manager whose company was his life, Fowler was renowned for his straight business dealings and his 'no-nonsense' attitude. Survived by his son and daughter, he died on 24 April 1972 at Camberwell and was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at $204,424. On Ronald Fowler's death in 1978, the company was bought out by the Sydney firm, Hooper Baillie Industries Ltd; it in turn sold to Sabco Ltd of South Australia; in 1994, when Sabco went into receivership, Australian Resource Recovery Technologies re-established Fowlers Vacola Australia Pty Ltd's headquarters in Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • Food Preserver, Sept 1960, Feb, May 1965
  • Eastern Suburbs Standard, 27 July 1960, City of Hawthorn Centenary 1860-1960 supplement
  • Age (Melbourne), 1 Aug 1960, 26 Oct 1965, 9 Sept 1978, 26 May 1993
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 27 Apr 1972, 12 Mar 1975
  • Fowlers Vacola advertising material (State Library of Victoria)
  • Hawthorn City Library files
  • private information.

Citation details

Victoria Peel, 'Fowler, Joseph (1888–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 28 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


28 February, 1888
Bagworth, Leicestershire, England


24 April, 1972 (aged 84)
Camberwell, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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