Robert Gordon Edgell was an engineer with the Works Department of New South Wales who moved to Bathurst for his health. Initially he grew fruit, planting what became the largest apple and pear orchard in New South Wales. Then, realising there was a market for asparagus as a luxury product, he spent many years applying scientific methods to developing and growing the vegetable in the ‘bracing’ local climate.
Canning was the next step – a way to make Edgell’s produce easily available to a wider market. The Edgell sons were sent to American to investigate canning processes, but the lack of suitable machinery led Robert to design his own canning plant. A small, experimental cannery was followed after a few years by a larger one.
The Edgells planted more asparagus, tearing out the orchards. They also encouraged other local growers to produce asparagus, purchasing as much as could be grown. Despite more than 800 miles of asparagus rows being planted by 1937, demand for the product still exceeded the supply. A new factory was built to manufacture the cans, using tin plate imported from Wales. Asparagus became the dominant industry of the Bathurst region.
To prolong the canning season Edgell began to can other vegetables, including cauliflower, peas and Brussells sprouts. They also manufactured a range of soups. They became important suppliers to the military during World War II. In the 1960s, Edgell advertised their range of canned vegetables with a version of the song “In an English Country Garden”. Listen to the jingle here.
Edgell were not the first Australian manufacturer to can vegetables, although they were probably the first to do so on such a grand scale. The Mildura Fruit Preserving Company was offering some vegetables under its Mallee brand in the early 1890s, exhibiting at the Intercolonial Food and Wine Exhibition of 1894. However, it seems that these may have been preserved by pickling and the company’s main focus was on fruit and jams.
By 1896 Abel Hoadley, later of confectionery fame, was canning jams, jellies, soft fruits, and tomatoes. Leggo’s of Bendigo were also offering canned vegetables, including tomatoes, by 1918. Many other companies canned vegetables during the early to mid-20th century.