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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Edgell, Robert Gordon (1866–1948)

by K. L. Fry

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Robert Gordon Edgell (1866-1948), civil engineer, farmer and manufacturer, was born on 6 February 1866 at Hunters Hill, Sydney, son of Henry Edgell, insurance clerk from England, and his native-born wife Charlotte Packer, née Gordon. In 1872 the family moved to northern Tasmania, where Gordon was educated privately and under John Clemon at Evandale Public School. He joined the Mount Bischoff Tin Mining Co. as a cadet in 1882. Edgell returned to Sydney in 1885 and joined Mort's Dock and Engineering Co. Ltd. On completing his apprenticeship he was appointed a draughtsman. He also studied mining-engineering and metallurgy and was briefly a consulting engineer to a chemical manufacturer.

In mid-1890 Edgell joined the roads and bridges branch of the New South Wales Department of Public Works as a temporary draughtsman, designing the lift bridge over the Murray River at Swan Hill, Victoria, the swing mechanism for the Pyrmont Bridge, Sydney, and bridges over many northern rivers in New South Wales. In 1895 he was in charge of the Wollombi district, and was transferred as road superintendent to Maitland in 1898 and to Bathurst in 1902.

At All Souls Anglican Church, Leichhardt, Edgell married Elsie Catherine Keep (d.1939) on 20 August 1896. On retiring from the public service in 1906, he and his wife bought Bradwardine, near Bathurst, from Sir Francis Suttor. He planted a hundred acres (40 ha) with apples and pears on the uplands, and asparagus on the flats, applying the latest technology to farming—including mechanical cultivation, elevated water channels fitted with irrigation gates, soil analyses and other innovations.

In 1925 Edgell sent his eldest son Maxwell to the United States of America to learn asparagus canning techniques; in September next year, in partnership with two sons Maxwell and Hampden, he opened his first cannery at Bradwardine in a galvanized iron shed, where the small staff made their own cans and sealed them with a hand-held soldering-iron. In 1930 he registered a public company, Gordon Edgell and Sons Ltd and was chairman of directors until 1948. Under Edgell's guidance the firm prospered despite the Depression: a new, larger factory was built in 1933, and extended with administrative blocks in 1938; a popular product was launched—the growing and canning of green peas; and additional farming land was bought and contracts entered into with private growers. The industry boomed during World War II as it supplied food to the Australian and American armed forces, as well as to the domestic market. Edgell began processing carrots, apples, cauliflowers, brussels sprouts, potatoes, tomatoes, and a range of soups. He supervised the purchase of land at Cowra and in 1943 started another cannery there.

Edgell was sometime president of the Bathurst Fruit Growers' Association, bowling and Rotary clubs, and had become an associate member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, London, the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland, the Royal Society of New South Wales and the Engineering Association of New South Wales in the 1890s. He bought his first car in 1903. For his services to Bathurst he was awarded King George V's silver jubilee medal in 1935 and King George VI's coronation medal in 1937. On 2 December 1948 Edgell died at Bradwardine, Bathurst, and was cremated with Anglican rites in Sydney. He was survived by his three sons. By that time Edgell's canned foods had become a well-established brand name with a reputation for quality throughout Australia. His estate was sworn for probate at £29,900. Edgell was one of several Australian food manufacturers taken over by the American J. R. Simplot company (later known as Simplot Australia) in 1995.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Edgell and Son, 1930-1955, 25 Years of Achievement (Bathurst, 1955)
  • F. Clune, Saga of Sydney (Syd, 1961)
  • B. H. Hillsmith (ed), The First Fifty Years 1926-1976 (Crows Nest, no date)
  • National Advocate (Bathurst), 3 Dec 1948.

Citation details

K. L. Fry, 'Edgell, Robert Gordon (1866–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 27 October 2020.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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