Fowler house and silo,
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The house and silo are the remaining features of the former Fowler farm and cheese factory which included several houses, a concrete dam, farming buildings and concrete making works.
The house is a large one by Werribee South standards of the time. It is of concrete construction with colourbond roof located at the end of a dirt track immediately south of 885 Duncans Road (just north of the intersection with Whites Road). The house has a square floor plan, with a verandah around two sides. A single hipped roof encompasses the house and verandah. A small concrete outbuilding is attached at the rear (with skillion roof) and small timber shed in poor condition is located at the east side of the house. The area surrounding the house is weedy and/or given over to farming activities and a modern shed for farm machinery stands nearby.
The silo was part of the former cheese factory and is important landmark in the relatively flat landscape of Werribee South. It has thick concrete walls and was used to store the maize used to feed the cows. It is now located in a farm dam (where the dairy once was), in the centre of market garden fields behind the Fowler house.
The Fowler Brothers, whose system of concrete house construction was accepted by some leading Melbourne architects in the 1920s and by the newly-formed Victorian Housing Commission in the 1940s, owned a large estate in Werribee South form the First World War years. Here they farmed, had a cheese factory and kept their concrete building plant.
In December 1913 Thomas Walker Fowler, the younger, a 24 year old grading contractor for the Water Commission at their Tatura Experimental Farm, applied for a Closer Settlement Lease at Werribee South. The 91 acre allotment was in the Werribee Park Estate in Allotments 68D and 67B, Parish of Deutgam. They were located on the east side of Duncans Road and extended through to O’Connor’s Road. In his application Fowler explained that he had a Diploma of Agriculture from the Dookie Agricultural College and had been in charge of a Queensland dairy farm before going to Tatura. He was applying for the block under special provisions relating to agricultural students and requested the Commission to supply him with a house if his application was successful.
Fowler obtained the land and was rated first in 1913-14. The following year two allotments, also on the east side of Duncans Road, were applied for by Thomas’ sister-in-law, F. A. Fowler, backed her husband’s good financial situation. Her husband, J. B. Fowler, was a draughtsman in the Railways Department. The land applied for was Allotment 64 and part of 67 (67A), part of Thomas’ original block. He offered to grade it for her.
From 1915-16 a dwelling was recorded on T. W. Fowler’s allotment. By the end of the First World War period, buildings were recorded on Thomas’ other 67B allotment. In the same year, his brother, J. B. Fowler, was rated for the first time for 52 acres in Allotment 55D.
According to a publication on Australia’s concrete industry, Lewis M. B. [ed]. 1988. Two hundred years of concrete in Australia. North Sydney : Concrete Institute of Australia, the Fowler brothers’ experiments in concrete house construction began during this decade. The experiments are attributed to T. W. Fowler (described in one article as “surveyor”) but it seems most likely that J. B. Fowler, the former Railways Department draughtsman, was also involved.
Dr. Miles Lewis in his account of the concrete industry between the wars tells of how T. W. Fowler “began building concrete dairy sheds and other buildings in the 1920s on his farm at Werribee South”. Fowler’s experiments in concrete house construction involved a method of “tilt up slabs”. The system was accepted by the architects A. C. Matthews, who designed a pre-cast house in 1924, and Leslie M. Perrott, who in 1937 designed two Brighton houses on Fowler’s system. Perrott’s houses were built by the Australian Cement Company which was supporting Fowler financially.
When the newly established Housing Commission of Victoria held a competition in 1939 for the design of Commission houses, Fowler was given the contract to build 28 houses designed by the architect, G. B. Leith. The work was to be carried out by Fowler or by others using his plant under licence.
Lands Department files relating to the Fowler properties in Duncan Road, Werribee South, confirm that T. W., J. B. and his wife, F. A. Fowler, ran their three properties as a joint concern. This joint property, and particularly Allotment 28D (T. W. Fowler’s property) became the location of a dairy farm, a cheese factory, a concrete silo and concrete building plant during the 1930s. By 1937 there was a substantial house valued at £900 on T. W. Fowler’s property, as well as a smaller house, a cheese factory (50 feet by 36 feet valued at £360), a concrete silo, concrete paving and steps, a concrete dam, cheese-making and milk plants, a concrete building plant valued at £500. His sister-in-law’s property held 225 cows. The Fowler family’s affluent lifestyle at the time is suggested by the information that they owned three motor cars.
The precarious nature of the Fowler operations is suggested by the lists of their mortgagees and other large liabilities. Debtors in the 1930s included the National Bank and a number of family members, such as brothers in Kew and Tasmania, and a sister Mrs. H. Wood in Burma. Large sums were also owing for the supply of stock and fodder by local and Melbourne suppliers.
It was noted on T. W. Fowler’s file that the “general condition of the block is satisfactory and has been maintained and improved considerably” and “in fact over-improved. This block and that of H. B. and F. A. Fowler worked in conjunction and is in a very involved position, and a special report is being submitted”. This was an unusual comment concerning a South Werribee farm in the inter-war period.
An article in The Age newspaper dated 20 December 1938, spoke of the use of the Fowler method in constructing low-cost housing for slum clearance and re-housing. It told of the erection of two concrete villas at Werribee, the earliest in 1928 for G. Barker on an irrigation block.
In 1942, J. B. Fowler died leaving his property to his widow and requesting that his business should be carried on by his trustees or in partnership. His brother, T. W. Fowler, died the next year. Described by this time as “builder” the probate of his will was granted in 1948 to his widow Mary.
According to Dr. Miles Lewis, Fowler’s plant was leased to a firm of builders, who still operated it manually and produced three houses a week, employing 28 men. By 1944, the plant was lent to the Housing Commission of Victoria, which began to invest in mobile cranes and tilting tubes to raise the slabs to the vertical position. By 1945, the Housing Commission of Victoria was employing between 80 and 100 men on concrete house production and had taken a lease on a Commonwealth factory in Holmesglen. Here the Fowler system was converted into an industrial production line, turning out components which had to be transported to the building site. In 1944-46, 596 houses, or a quarter of the Housing Commission’s total output, were manufactured in this way. By May 1950, 3000 houses had been produced.
The dwelling on part of 28D and 27 acres in Lot 1, transferred to Mary Fowler, widow, after T. W. Fowler’s death, later passed to his sons. Later still, in June 1954, the property was owned by Michelle Acciarito of K Road, Werribee South.
Werribee South.,” Wyndham History, accessed June 13, 2021, https://wyndhamhistory.net.au/items/show/1153.