Gordon Edgell and Sons of Bathurst launched their canned asparagus in 1926 after 18 years of experimentation in growing the crop in the local area. In 1943 Edgell expanded to include a new cannery at Cowra and the one millionth can of vegetables rolled off the line just one year later. The brand is now owned by Simplot.
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.
In the early-20th century, canned asparagus became the housewife’s choice to make that classic Australian finger food – the asparagus roll. This consisted of a limp spear of canned asparagus rolled kitty-corner in a slice of buttered white bread and secured with a toothpick.
To prolong the canning season Edgell began to can other vegetables, including cauliflower, peas and Brussels 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 was 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 while biscuit makers Swallow and Ariell were advertising their fresh canned vegetables by 1897. Leggo’s of Bendigo was also offering canned vegetables, including tomatoes, by 1918. Many other companies canned vegetables during the early to mid-20th century.