McWhirters

Facade of McWhirters department store in Fortitude Valley, ca. 1960 Facade of McWhirters department store in Fortitude Valley, ca. 1960

Who: McWhirters Limited, founded by James McWhirter (1848–1925), a Scottish emigrant. His son, James McWhirter junior, was a partner until his sudden death in 1919.

McWhirters printed promotional fan
McWhirters printed promotional fan, undated. Malcolm Enright Collection. Photograph by The Fashion Archives

What: The self-titled ‘vast emporium’ was possibly Brisbane’s grandest department store.

McWhirters shop window, ca. 1909
McWhirters shop window, ca. 1909. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 52156

Where: McWhirters is synonymous with the ‘Valley corner’—the intersection of Brunswick, Wickham and Warner Streets in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley—surrounded for much of the late 19th and 20th centuries by competing department stores.

McWhirter & Son Drapery warehouse in Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley, ca. 1900
McWhirter & Son Drapery warehouse in Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley, ca. 1900. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 177780

McWhirters’ large and prominent block of prime commercial real estate comprised four adjoining buildings developed over four decades, which housed multiple levels of retail space and warehouses for both manufacture and mail order. McWhirters also established a London office in 1909, creating a direct line for imports, which were a mainstay of the business.

Proposed new premises for McWhirter and Son, corner of Brunswick and Wickham Streets, Fortitude Valley, 1900
Proposed new premises for McWhirter and Son, corner of Brunswick and Wickham Streets, Fortitude Valley, 1900. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 177769

When: The firm opened as ‘McWhirter & Son’ in 1898, and was later listed as public company ‘McWhirters Limited’ in 1920. It was purchased by Melbourne department store giant Myer in 1955, but for nearly a decade thereafter it continued to trade as McWhirters, until Myer finally rebadged it in 1963. The building, which still stands in Brisbane as an apartment and retail precinct, resurrected the McWhirters name in 1989.

Myer signage on the McWhirters Building, Fortitude Valley, ca. 1970
Myer signage on the McWhirters Building, Fortitude Valley, ca. 1970. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Photograph by D. Finlay, Neg: 261481

Why: McWhirters was established at a time of strong competition for department store traders in Fortitude Valley. Though it offered a very similar product to nearby stores such as T. C. Bierne and Overells, it was unmatched in scale and grandeur. It traded for close to six decades, and at the time of sale to Myer Emporium in 1955, it was one of the biggest retailers in Brisbane.

Group portrait of McWhirters staff, ca. 1932
Group portrait of McWhirters staff, ca. 1932. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 191290

Such was the business prowess of James McWhirter that almost all of the major drapery firms in Brisbane of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were touched by him in some way. He formed his first drapery business in South Brisbane in ca. 1883 in a short-lived partnership with Duncan Sinclair, who would later go on to run the successful drapery Sinclair & Co. Following this, he worked with draper T. C. Beirne as manager and later partner, selling his share of the Fortitude Valley business back to Beirne after three years in 1898—a store that would become and remain a major competitor to McWhirters until the late 1960s.

Mrs James McWhirter in costume at the Brisbane Poster Ball, 1900
Mrs James McWhirter in costume at the Brisbane Poster Ball, 1900. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 177779

Immediately thereafter, he bought the Fortitude Valley drapery firm of M. D. Pigott, who was wanting to abandon his Brunswick Street store in order to focus on his successful Toowoomba branch. It was the site of Pigott’s former Brunswick Street premises that McWhirter established his own business.

McWhirters department store in Fortitude Valley, ca. 1919
McWhirters department store in Fortitude Valley, ca. 1919. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 257745

Scale was a key part of McWhirters’ strategy right from the beginning. He bought up property in Brunswick, Wickham and Warner Streets well before they were developed upon. And it paid off: McWhirters’ prominence on two major Fortitude Valley street corners had unbeatable impact.

Renovations to McWhirters department store, Ann Street,  Fortitude Valley, undated CORRECT CAPTION
Renovations to McWhirters department store at corner of Brunswick and Wickham Streets, Fortitude Valley, ca. 1930. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 407501

Warehouse extensions on the site occurred in the early 20th century, followed shortly by the expansion of retail space and a remodelled façade with the first arcade front seen in Brisbane. In 1912, McWhirters expanded dramatically, with a new five-storey building on the corner of Warner and Brunswick Streets designed by local architects Atkinson and McLay. In the latter part of this decade, Warner Street was further developed with a four-storey bulk store.

Window display in McWhirter & Sons department store, ca. 1911
Window display in McWhirter & Sons department store, ca. 1911. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 52148

The early 1920s saw some impressive Art Deco updates, with a four-storey building in the latest style. This was extended from 1930 to 1931 with an extravagant deco-style four and five-story development on the corner of Wickham and Brunswick Streets designed by Brisbane City Hall architects T. R. Hall and L. B. Phillips.

Haberdashery department in McWhirters department store, Fortitude Valley, ca. 1911
Haberdashery department in McWhirters department store, Fortitude Valley, ca. 1911. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 52153

Signage on the 1930s building extensions used the tagline “Brisbane’s vast emporium and Queensland’s great mail order house” to signal both their size and extensive regional reach. In the context of depression-era Brisbane, this substantial building project made a dramatic statement.

Crowd gathered for free food outside the McWhirters building, Christmas Day 1933
Crowd gathered for free food outside the McWhirters building, Christmas Day 1933. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 60658
Artist's impression of proposed additions to McWhirters, on the corner of Brunswick and Wickham Streets, 1930
Artist’s impression of proposed additions to McWhirters, on the corner of Brunswick and Wickham Streets, 1930. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 204016

Architecture was key not only to branding and image, but also to the modern shopping experience offered by McWhirters. His 1912 building featured the industrial conveniences of elevators and Queensland’s biggest pneumatic cash system at that time, as well as product display innovations such as large silky oak tables that allowed customers to peruse merchandise without staff assistance. These features were enhanced in the 1930s development and updated with a modern open plan design.

Fashions from McWhirters modelled on a Qantas Empire Airways plane, Brisbane, 1936
Fashions from McWhirters modelled on a Qantas Empire Airways plane, Brisbane, 1936. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 191290

McWhirters’ strategy of scale only accelerated in the mid-century. Advertising from the 1950s boasts the firm’s ability to aggressively drive down prices through big-scale buying and fast selling. This was the prevailing strategy of the modern department store, and those former drapers with an established buying power, strong customer base, prominence and reputation, had a major advantage over newcomers.

Customers using the escalators at McWhirters store, Brisbane, 1950
Customers using the escalators at McWhirters store, Brisbane, 1950.John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 204017

In the mid-1950s, McWhirters expanded their trade by opening a food hall containing a grocer, butcher, dining room, cake bar and milk bar. Like many department stores, it seems their product was arranged on each level according to price, with a ‘Thrift Gift Centre’ on the lower ground floor and ‘budget priced frocks’ on the second floor, presumably leading up to top-shelf products on the top floor.

McWhirters mail order catalogues, 1947-1952. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Photograph by The Fashion Archives.
McWhirters mail order catalogues, 1947-1952. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Photograph by The Fashion Archives.

In a bid to create the aura of a serious fashion retailer, McWhirters hosted fashion parades featuring big names in European couture. In 1954, it was French and British fashion from Pierre Balmain, Jacques Fath, Ronald Paterson, Hardy Amies, and John Cavanagh.

McWhirters didn’t need to stock haute couture in order to profit from its spectacle, and interestingly, fabric identical to the paraded gowns, rather than the gowns themselves, was available for purchase in store. The following year’s fashion event focused on the very new, and very exciting, fashion centre of Italy.

Italian fashion parade featured in Australian Women's Weekly, 4 May 1955
Italian fashion parade featured in Australian Women’s Weekly, 4 May 1955. National Library of Australia

Along with other leading department stores around Australia, McWhirters staged an Australia Women’s Weekly Italian fashion parade with collections drawn from a handful of shows held in Florence, authentically paraded by visiting Italian models. When the show hit Brisbane, it was promoted as ‘Italy at McWhirters’, and featured a number of the hot new names in Italian fashion, including the fashion house that would later be known as Emilio Pucci (at that time billed as both ‘Emilio of Capri’ and ‘Emilio Florence’).

Italy at McWhirters parade catalogue, 1955
Italy at McWhirters parade catalogue, 1955. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Photograph by The Fashion Archives.

Myer Emporium took over McWhirters in 1955 through a combination of shares and cash, staggeringly valued at £3,400,000 (equivalent to around $10,664,000 today). The offer came some months after David Jones had defeated Myer in a bid to purchase Finney Isles & Co. At this point, McWhirters was one of the biggest and most successful retailers in Brisbane, and it appears as though it was sold at its peak. In 1953, profits were up after a period of less successful years. In 1954, McWhirters recorded—along with T. C. Beirne and Overells—its biggest trading day on record during the summer sales of the new year, with 7000 to 8000 people in the store at the day’s peak.

(left) McWhirters a Myer Emporium ad, The Courier Mail, 3 Jan 1956; (right) McWhirters name no longer used in Myer ad, The Courier Mail, 14 Jan 1970
(left) the McWhirters name continues to be used after Myer purchases it, as seen in this Myer Emporium ad, The Courier Mail, 3 Jan 1956; (right) by 1979 the McWhirters name is no longer used in Myer ads, instead it’s referred to as their Valley location, The Courier Mail, 14 Jan 1970. State Library of Queensland Microfilm Collection

While it seemed like a good deal at the time for Myer, it wasn’t to last. The purchase coincided with what was the beginning of the end for Fortitude Valley’s century-long reign as the major retail destination of Brisbane. With great speed and intensity, shoppers embraced the idea of suburban shopping with the arrival of the new ‘drive-in shopping centre’, the first of which opened in the outer suburb of Chermside in 1957. Myer kept the Fortitude Valley premises until 1988, by which time Fortitude Valley had traded its retail reputation for one of nightclubs and sleaze.

McWhirters Marketplace brochure, ca. 1989. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Photograph by The Fashion Archives
McWhirters Marketplace brochure, ca. 1989. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Photograph by The Fashion Archives

References

This article was written as part of the Queensland Business Leaders Hall of Fame Fellowship. A partnership between QUT Business School and State Library of Queensland.