David Fowler was representative of a generation of nineteenth-century South Australian business leaders who helped to develop the economic and civic life of the fledgling colony. Pious, hard-working and prepared to take risks, Fowler, after many personal and business vicissitudes, built, with his brothers James and George, the wholesale merchant firm of D. & J. Fowler Limited. So successful was the firm that, on David’s death in 1881, his estate was worth £98,000.
David Fowler, born on 18th January 1827 to James Fowler and his wife Rhea (née Anderson), hailed from the Scottish fishing village of Cellardyke on the northern shore of the Firth of Forth. James had built from scratch a large mercantile business catering for fisheries. He was also pastor for many years of a small Baptist church and served the local community as manager of the burgh, a post similar to that of mayor. The Fowler children undoubtedly derived much of their religious outlook, civic commitment and business acumen from their parents.
David Fowler’s older brother James and his sister Margaret were the first of the Fowler family to come to South Australia. They left Scotland after David’s marriage to Janet (Jessie) Kerr on 3rd July 1850. James soon opened a grocery store in Rundle Street in central Adelaide but it struggled for survival. It was not until David’s arrival on the Fop Smit on 4th November 1854 that the family made more aggressive moves to push into the front ranks of the retail grocery business in Adelaide. David came with his wife, their two children, a servant, goods for sale worth £2,300, and years of commercial experience in his father’s business. The new enterprise of D. & J. Fowler Limited opened its new premises at 54 King William Street on 30th November 1854.
The store opened in inauspicious times. The gold rushes in Victoria had drawn many people away from South Australia and the poor harvest in 1855 further depressed the economy. David and Janet Fowler also suffered personal loss in 1855 when their three children died of illness. Kind, sensitive, but often absent-minded, David Fowler was, nevertheless, the dominant partner in the business. He was also a very fine commercial statistician and became known as a man of integrity.
Following the death of James in 1858 from tuberculosis, the youngest brother, George Swan Fowler, emigrated from Cellardyke in 1860 and within a year became a full partner in the business. His drive and his firm approach greatly aided profits and in 1863 the expansion of the wholesale side of the business led to further premises at 14 King William Street. Within five years David and George were able to move entirely out of the retail trade. David left for London in 1864 to establish a London purchasing house but returned in 1867 when drought led to serious losses. In 1873 he returned permanently to London to focus on the branch there and was able to exploit the new telegraphic link between Britain and Australia. By the early 1880s D. & J. Fowler Ltd. had become one of the largest wholesale grocery and indenting businesses in Australia. It had agencies in the Northern Territory, large stores in various Adelaide suburbs, and factories producing jams, confectionery and preserved fruit. Their shipping agency exported flour, meat, butter and wool.
David Fowler was an evangelical Christian and was a founding member and first treasurer of Flinders Street Baptist Church. He had decided opinions in politics and religion and, according to his daughter Grace, was ‘always on the side of freedom and liberty of thought and action’. He did not have a high public profile but stood for the House of Assembly as a candidate for East Adelaide in 1868. He failed in this attempt because of his unbending advocacy of free trade.
He died in London on 11th November 1881 after a series of strokes.
Years to remember 1854-1954: A record of the first hundred years of the business of D. and J. Fowler Limited (Adelaide: D. & J. Fowler, 1954).