Who: Marsh & Webster was founded by partners William Marsh (1837–1909) and Charles Webster (ca. 1840–1895).
What: General merchants and drapers who transformed their business into a major regional department store through close ties to local industry.
When: Marsh & Webster opened its doors in 1875, just fifteen years after the township of Mackay had been named. The business traded until 1963, when they were purchased by David Jones.
Where: Known aptly as ‘The Corner Store’, Marsh & Webster occupied the same prominent location on the corner of Sydney and Victoria Streets in downtown Mackay for the duration of their business.
Why: Marsh & Webster was Mackay’s first department store. Throughout its eighty-five years of trade, the retailer expanded alongside the major local industries of sugar cane farming and coal mining, and grew as Mackay progressed from a small town to one of Queensland’s largest.
The store had a reputation for supporting local farmers through financial hardships, allowing them to defer payments while waiting for their crops to yield. An article in The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser from 1895 states:
Messrs. Marsh and Webster carry on a very extensive local trade, and the support which they have generously extended to the selectors and farmers has conduced in no small degree to the progress and stability of the district. The usefulness of such a firm as M. and W. in an agricultural centre where it is imperative that farmers shall receive long credits and sustained assistance will readily be admitted, and their open handed support to the tillers of the soil is freely acknowledged on every side1.
Even as more and more department stores and general merchants opened in Mackay, Marsh & Webster retained its local loyalty due to the business’s community-mindedness and early establishment. Charles Webster and William Marsh were also pillars of their community; Marsh served as Mayor of Mackay, while Webster was Chairman of the Mackay Chamber of Commerce.
In 1900, after twenty-five years in business, Marsh & Webster was incorporated as a limited company, with sixty-three-year-old William Marsh named chairman (Webster had passed away in 1895). The store continued to expand, training more staff to provide high-level service in an ever-increasing number of departments, ranging from millinery to hardware. In 1907, the staff numbered thirty-two. By 1925, that number had increased to sixty-eight, and when Marsh & Webster celebrated their seventy-fifth year in 1950, the staff had ballooned to more than one hundred.
The largest team was devoted to servicing the grand central showroom where fashion and accessories were housed. Here female shoppers were attended to by an exclusively female cohort of staff, surrounded by mannequins displaying the latest styles in women’s clothing, numerous hatstands showing off millinery, and stacks of shoe boxes containing high quality and affordable footwear. While more and more city stores had begun to modernise their service techniques and store layouts by the 1950s to reflect the growing independence of shoppers, Marsh & Webster continued to pride themselves on their old-fashioned values.
Marsh & Webster’s building reflected their prominence and continued growth. A new two-storey building was erected in 1915 to make the best use of their high-profile corner position, including large plate glass windows across the complete length of their double-street frontage. The building was renovated and expanded extensively in the late 1920s to include more display space. By 1950, they occupied a second adjoining building devoted to their large grocery store.
Marsh & Webster’s main rival was Lamberts (1887–2000), another successful and long-running local department store in the centre of town. While established over a decade after M&W, Lamberts survived until the turn of the 21st century. Another competitor was Brisbane department store firm, Beirne Pty Ltd, who had Mackay premises located in Sydney Street.
Because of Marsh & Webster’s strong ties to the community, excellent location, and solid position in the market, the store was an attractive opportunity for Sydney retailer David Jones, who had recently begun buying out other retailers in Brisbane and regional Queensland. In July of 1963, it was announced that David Jones had gained control of Marsh & Webster through an exchange of shares amounting to £270,000. However, the store would continue trading for some time under their original name, and no staff would lose their jobs. From this point until at least the 1970s, the store was referred to as ‘Marsh & Webster, a David Jones store’.
David Jones ran Marsh & Webster successfully throughout the 1960s and for much of the 1970s, but new forms of shopping began to take their toll as drive-in shopping centres sprung up in Mackay, including Canelands and Mount Pleasant, both of which are still operating today. In 1981, David Jones closed their Mackay branch. In 1983, they accepted an offer from the National Australia Bank to purchase the prime corner land on which Marsh & Webster was built. NAB demolished the Marsh & Webster building, and continues to occupy the site.
- 1895 ‘Messrs. Marsh and Webster.’, The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW : 1871 – 1912), 23 November, p. 1064, viewed 4 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article162671716
- 1925, Marsh & Webster, ‘Down through the Years, 1875 – 1925’. Souvenir booklet. Private collection.
- 1950 ‘Marsh & Webster, 75 Years of Progress (1875 – 1950)’. Souvenir booklet. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.
- 1950 ‘75th Year of Marsh & Webster.’ August 5. The Daily Mercury (Mackay, Australia). Accessed 9th January 2015, Microfilm collection at State Library of Queensland.
- 1963 ‘Control of Marsh & Webster to David Jones.’ July 6. The Daily Mercury (Mackay, Australia). Accessed 9th January 2015, Microfilm collection at State Library of Queensland.
- 2011 ‘Golden era of style & service.’ The Daily Mercury (Mackay, Australia), December 16. viewied 4 January, 2015, http://www.dailymercury.com.au/news/golden-era-of-style-and-service-marsh-and-webster/1210350/