Who: James Stewart & Co., known locally as ‘Stewarts’. Established by Scotsman James Stewart (1837–1923), managed by generations of the Macfarlane family, and currently owned by the Woods family.
What: A beloved regional department store and one of Queensland’s longest running businesses.
Where: Stewarts has occupied the same prominent position in central Rockhampton since 1864, still trading there today. Its substantial building on the corner of East and Denham Streets has undergone several updates and rebuilds since its establishment, but has remained at the heart of Central Queensland retail. In addition to its flagship store, Stewarts also operated smaller outpost branches in Mount Morgan, Longreach, Blackall, and Barcaldine.
When: Stewarts has operated for over 150 years. Established in 1862, it is one of the few Australian-owned department stores still trading.
James Stewart arrived in Australia in 1862 to join his brother Alexander, a fellow draper, who had set up a business in Brisbane with partner William Hemmant. James Stewart was sent by the partners to launch another drapery in the growing port-town of Rockhampton. The business quickly expanded and by 1864 they had built their own premises on prime land at the corner of East and Denham Streets. James Stewart began running the business independently, but eventually took on another partner, E. S. Lucas. They operated as Stewart & Lucas until Lucas went out on his own in 1880, and James Stewart & Co. was named.
Why: Stewarts’ longevity in Australian retail is second only to David Jones. It is the only independent, Australian-owned department store with its origins in the 19th century still operating.
The history of Stewarts is closely tied to the history of Rockhampton and the broader development of the Central Queensland region. James Stewart arrived in Rockhampton just four years after it was proclaimed a town and a port. The population grew quickly. In 1871, it was 5,064. By 1891, it was 13,380. As a result, Stewarts’ development was rapid and impressive. Their business model combined manufacturing and importing across a swathe of departments, from clothing and drapery to furniture. By 1900, Stewarts had a large clothing factory, a tailoring factory, and a furniture factory. The business became a major local employer.
In the early years of Rockhampton’s settlement, men outnumbered women significantly. Within two decades, however, this position had begun to equalise, and women became important consumers. As such, women’s fashion evolved into a central focus for Stewarts.
While the clothing and tailoring factories produced large volumes of good quality men’s and women’s wear, it was the gown factory, located above James Stewart’s office, where exclusive fashionable garments were created. Following international trends in couture—delivered through fashion illustrations from Paris and London in the Rockhampton Morning Bulletin and Northern Argus newspapers—gowns were tailor-made using more expensive fabrics, imported from Brisbane, interstate, or overseas. Here, highly skilled dressmakers were employed to produce exquisite gowns that featured more and more prominently in Stewarts’ advertising.
During the early 20th century, Stewarts opened locations in other Central and North Queensland towns, also experiencing a population inundation: Mount Morgan, Barcaldine, Blackall, and Longreach. In addition, Stewarts infiltrated other remote regions of Queensland with extensive routes serviced by their travelling salesmen. Eventually, the establishment of a large mail order department met the shopping demands of thousands of country customers.
In 1916, James Stewart & Co. became a limited company, with founder James Stewart appointed as governing and managing director. By his side was Robert John Macfarlane, his brother-in-law, who had been with the business since the 1880s. Following James Stewart’s death in 1923, Robert John Macfarlane became chairman and managing director of Stewarts. Sadly, he also passed away in 1923. His son, John Macfarlace took on the role, where he stayed until his death in 1948. Four generations of Macfarlanes oversaw the management of Stewarts between 1923 and 1986.
One of James Stewart’s final wishes was the expansion and modernisation of Stewarts through the creation of a new flagship store. In 1926, plans were publically announced to erect a building to accommodate Stewarts’ increasing scale, and to make better use of their corner position. In 1927, Stewarts’ Blackall and Longreach stores were sold to allow greater focus on the Rockhampton project. The modern store opened in 1928 to much acclaim. The Morning Bulletin reported:
The inspiring effort made by Messrs. James Stewart and Company, to erect a building worthy of the city, can now be thoroughly appreciated. The… windows are 262 ft. long, broken only by the entrances to the different departments on the main selling ground floor. Full advantage has been taken of modern advancement in electric lighting equipment. At night both street facades are illuminated by flood lights and the show windows glow with holophane lamps. This feature accentuates the hopeful view of Rockhampton’s future, to which, the whole building, situated in the corner of East and Denham streets, is a standing monument1.
The new premises showed an even larger dedication to fashion, with clothing and accessories occupying the most space internally, and externally, as the dominant feature of Stewarts’ window displays. A café was a novel introduction to Stewarts, and quickly became a popular meeting place in Rockhampton. It was also the location for Stewarts’ fashion parades, introducing the latest seasonal styles to an avid audience of local women. Held over two days, these parades were elaborate productions and highly attended social events.
But not long after settling into their new corner store, the Depression took its toll. Stewarts’ directors and managers, rather than firing staff, decided to cut their own wages. In his history of Stewarts, By Any Criterion, ex-Managing Director Robert Macfarlane describes this period, revealing the surprising fact that Stewarts had only posted one loss to this date: the financial year ending July 31, 19332. Following this exceptional period, profits returned.
In 1939, a glamorous guest arrived at Stewarts: Madame Stella Rubenstein, sister to the famous beauty business pioneer, Helena Rubenstein. Stella’s in-store events were world renowned, and a major success for the Rockhampton department store.
But such events were curbed as the Second World War slowed trade and rationing took its toll. Some of Stewarts’ factory and office space was taken over for various purposes by the American Army. But after the War, new Managing Director Bob Macfarlane turned his attention to expanding and renovating the menswear department, as well as remodelling the womenswear showroom.
By 1949, the women’s fashion department had been modernised with new signage, counters, and lighting. The work done to the menswear department was more substantial, and not completed until late 1950. A full-page advertisement in the Morning Bulletin to announce the new menswear store claimed it to be “the most modern of its kind in Queensland”3.
In 1962, Stewarts celebrated its centenary, producing a substantial souvenir publication, a copy of which is held in the John Oxley Library. The 1960s was a period of great change for many department stores in Queensland, as once independent businesses were sold to interstate rivals like Myer and David Jones, and new shopping centres opened in the suburbs. Surprisingly, while its competitors were struggling with this new shopping paradigm, Stewarts continued to expand. They opened another new building, on the Denham Street side, to house a ‘Homemaker Centre’ and a number of small shopfronts to be leased to other tenants. On top was a large rooftop carpark with ‘Skywalk’ access to the second level of the main Stewarts building.
In 1980, a new shopping centre—Kmart Plaza—arrived to challenge Stewarts, bringing new national retailers into the mix. Despite their initial concern, this centre had little impact on Stewarts. However, five years later, a much more ambitious shopping precinct arrived: the Rockhampton Shopping Fair. Within six months of the centre opening, Stewarts received an offer from McDonnell & East to purchase the business. The offer was refused. It wasn’t the first time Stewarts had been coveted by a rival firm. Discount retailer Retail Investments, run by Bernard Buckley, had also been courting Stewarts’ management to sell to his company. They persisted, and made an attractive offer. Stewarts was sold, but by 1990 it was in receivership. Staff had been cut from 100 to 40, but those who remained managed to keep the store going.
Stewarts’ prospects were not looking good. In late 1992, Stewarts was given a new lease on life. The department store part of the business (not comprising other factory buildings) was purchased by a local family, the Woods. The company name ‘James Stewart & Co.’ was re-registered. Since this time, Bruce, Mark, Denise, and Peter Woods have remained directors of the company, continuing the (briefly interrupted) tradition of family management championed by the Stewarts store for over 150 years.
- Macfarlane, R. I. J. 2007. By Any Criterion, James Stewart & Co. Sydney, self-published through Cremorne 1. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.
- 1887 ‘THE CRITERION HOUSE.’, Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton, Qld. : 1878 – 1954), 23 June, p. 5, viewed 21 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article52009767
- 1923. ‘James Stewart & Co. Diamond Jubilee’, The Capricornian (Rockhampton, Qld. : 1875 – 1929), Saturday 29 December 1923, viewed 17 November 2014 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article72199366
- 1926. ‘James Stewart & Co. : old Rockhampton firm, drapers and manufacturers, C.Q. pioneer mail-order house’, Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton, Qld. : 1878 – 1954), 9 March 1926. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.
- 1926. ‘CITY IMPROVEMENT.’, Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton, Qld. : 1878 – 1954), 19 August, p. 11, viewed 21 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article55291622
- 1931 ‘LEADERS OF INDUSTRY.’, The Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933), 18 June, p. 9, viewed 21 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article21709437
- 1933 ‘ROCKHAMPTON—THEN AND NOW.’, The Central Queensland Herald (Rockhampton, Qld. : 1930 – 1956), 3 August, p. 5, viewed 21 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article70363671
- 1950 ‘[No heading].’, Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton, Qld. : 1878 – 1954), 7 December, p. 10, viewed 21 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page5490695
- 1962. 100 years of service, 1862-1962. James Stewart & Co. Pty Ltd Rockhampton: Queensland. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.
- 2015. Current Company Extract ‘James Stewart and Co. Pty Ltd’ Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC), accessed 21 January 2015.