Who: McDonnell & East, established by Irish drapers Frank McDonnell (1863–1928) and Hubert East (1862–1928). Their sons, Jack McDonnell and H. Frazer East joined the business as teenagers, and later became joint managing directors following the deaths of both founders in 1928. In the late-20th century, McDonnell & East was taken over by external investors.
What: For over seven decades, McDonnell & East was a family-run department store with a central Brisbane location on George Street. It was one of Brisbane’s most prominent fashion retailers, setting itself apart from the major shopping precinct of Queen Street in Brisbane’s CBD, and resisting the advances of Sydney and Melbourne department store chains. Late in life, after the retirement of the last McDonnell family director, it was transformed into a chain itself, taken over by a larger corporation who opened McDonnell & East stores in suburban and regional shopping centres.
Where: McDonnell & East’s first and last address was George Street, Brisbane, where it grew to occupy a large corner block connecting with Turbot and Tank Streets. This store operated for ninety-three years. In the 1920s and 30s, McDonnell & East operated small country branches in Pittsworth and Mount Larcom to supply their regional customers.
During the 1970s and 80s, McDonnell & East stores became anchors in shopping centre developments in Ipswich, Rockhampton, Surfers Paradise, Garden City, and Pacific Fair. McDonnell & East also took over Toowoomba and Warwick department store Pigott & Co.
Why: The story of McDonnell & East is one of great contrasts. Established by young, hard-working immigrants, the business thrived in its prime location for three-quarters of the 20th century. In the last quarter of the century, its fate changed quickly as over-zealous external investors pushed for rapid expansion, and suffered the consequences.
McDonnell & East founders Frank McDonnell and Hubert East arrived in Australia in 1886, and found work at Brisbane drapery firms. They became colleagues, and friends, and made the decision to open their own business. In 1901, McDonnell and East—with financial backing from a Brisbane businessman, and fellow Irishman, Peter Murphy—established their own store. Their lease on their first location, at 402-408 George Street, Brisbane, was purchased from John Reid, a fellow draper. When they opened, they had thirty-seven staff, thanks to strong early investment and high demand1.
The young McDonnell had already made a name for himself as an emerging political player in the Labour Party by 1888, when he began advocating for employment condition reform for retail and factory workers, particularly the abolishment of long working hours for retail assistants and drapers (some of whom worked twelve hour days, six days a week). By 1900, McDonnell’s aspirations were realised with the passing of the Factories and Shops Act.
Frank McDonnell’s decision to open his own business with Hubert East in 1901 was as much a political decision as it was a personal ambition. He was determined to prove that a successful retail business could operate without the need for extended trading at the expense of workers’ conditions. The rapid success of the store proved his point.
Luckily for McDonnell, he had found a hard-working and loyal partner, happy to accommodate McDonnell’s political commitments. East contributed to the development of the business, while McDonnell divided his time between the store and his dedication to social change. He was particularly passionate about the rights of teachers and the police, and made significant contributions to education reform. Improving conditions for young girls and women was central to McDonnell’s cause. He did this through the introduction of secondary school scholarships to encourage girls to further their study. As a member of the first senate of the University of Queensland, he supported the right for women to be admitted there2. And he continued to help reform the industries that were major employers of women, such as the clothing and textiles sector. McDonnell’s social conscience was the result of personal experience. As a young boy in Ireland, he had been forced to work in a factory, so had a firsthand understanding of the poor conditions workers faced.
The partners Frank McDonnell and Hubert East escalated their business rapidly. By 1908, they had expanded the store and acquired adjoining premises. Their teenage sons came to work for the store and staff numbers also flourished. In 1913, after acquiring more space on the corner of George and Tank Streets, McDonnell & East opened a new building, called ‘The White Store’3. This new location enabled McDonnell & East to double their profits within a year4. From 1914 to 1928, McDonnell & East secured more real estate and added more extensions and new buildings to their growing footprint. Their presence as one of Brisbane’s chief retailers was repeatedly confirmed by these physical improvements.
McDonnell & East’s location on Upper George Street was an unlikely spot for a major department store. In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, this part of town was not known as a retail precinct, with trade tending to cluster around Queen Street. But as was reflected in their ongoing expansion, McDonnell & East were on to something. Transport and other shopping conveniences nearby helped to support McDonnell & East’s position. In 1915, the Brisbane Markets relocated to Roma Street. The store was close to Roma Street railway station, and well serviced by tram stops on George Street that delivered customers from Brisbane’s western suburbs directly to McDonnell & East’s front door.
In 1920, McDonnell & East was listed on the Brisbane Stock Exchange as a public company. Both founders passed away in 1928, but handed over a strong business to their sons, F. J. “Jack” McDonnell, and Frazer East.
The new managing directors introduced more reasons to shop at McDonnell & East. In 1929, they opened their own café. The opening announcement promised that: “it will be scientifically ventilated with real, cool mountain air and furnished in a most up-to-date manner. Light luncheons and delicacies of every description will be available at the lowest cost”5. Another assured, “the purest of drinks will be concocted from one of the most hygienic fountains”6. In 1931, an agreement was made between Post Office authorities and McDonnell & East to house a post office in the store. It remained there until the 1990s.
In the 1920s and 30s, regional outposts of McDonnell & East were opened in Pittsworth and Mount Larcom, but these were closed after the Great Depression and World War II took their toll. Mail order was strengthened to supplement their closure. These challenges were short-lived. By the late 1940s and 50s, McDonnell & East was buoyant again, and in 1951 they celebrated their golden jubilee. Frazer East died in 1959, after which time Jack McDonnell became sole chairman and managing director. He stayed with the business until his retirement in 1972.
The George Street building received a major refurbishment in 1964 to modernise the interior. Escalators were installed, and interior dividing walls were removed to conform to open plan trends in shop design. In 1965, the Queensland Room Coffee Lounge and Gallery opened, designed as a major attraction for city shoppers to extend their stay in the McDonnell & East store.
Despite these improvements, a major source of McDonnell & East’s customer base was lost in 1969, with the dismantling of the Brisbane tram network. To offset this loss, they significantly extended their carpark, which had first been built in 1957. With more additions, in 1969 it became the largest multi-storey carpark in the CBD. Parking was a key concern for city shoppers, who could easily find a park in suburban shopping centres. McDonnell & East sought to retain customers by providing ample parking.
It was a time of significant change. While for seven decades McDonnell & East had relied almost solely on the success of the George Street store, a new wave of suburban shopping centres began to open up, shifting retail away from the city. The trams had once delivered shoppers from the Western suburbs straight to McDonnell & East’s door, but in 1970 those shoppers welcomed one of the largest malls ever opened in Australia, Westfield’s Indooroopilly Shopping Centre. McDonnell & East could no longer count on the buoyancy of the George Street premises, and opted to expand in new directions.
Another new shopping centre, Garden City, opened in the Brisbane suburb of Mt. Gravatt in October 1970, and McDonnell & East were at the forefront of the development. Together with David Jones, they were Garden City’s major anchor. Diversifying their interests, McDonnell & East purchased successful menswear chain Pikes in 1975. In 1977, they opened a third major McDonnell & East store at another new shopping centre, Pacific Fair, on the Gold Coast.
In 1982, Grace Brothers made an offer to purchase McDonnell & East, but the offer was declined. Following this, McDonnell & East purchased long-running Toowoomba and Warwick department store Pigott & Co in 1983. 1984 saw the opening of a McDonnell & East at Toombul Shopping Centre, and one at Rockhampton Shopping Fair in 1985. The following year, McDonnell & East opened two large new stores on the Gold Coast, one in Southport and one in Surfers Paradise. They were also brought in to a controversial new development in Ipswich undertaken by the Kern Corporation. McDonnell & East became the central department store of the new Ipswich City Centre, which opened in 1987.
These later changes were driven by McDonnell & East’s aggressive take-over by an external stakeholder. After attempting to do so since 1982, in 1984 Pine Vale Investments Group (who invested in retail, communication, and mining companies) became the majority shareholder of McDonnell & East. They spent huge sums refurbishing and rebranding McDonnell & East in an attempt to shift their position in the retail market, from the middle—where they had always been successful—to the upper-end, putting them in direct competition with much bigger national players like David Jones.
In 1988, McDonnell & East turned the tables on Pine Vale, regaining control of their own interests. Following this, the company name ‘McDonnell & East’ was changed to ‘North Quay Ltd’ in 1989. The McDonnell & East name continued to be used for the retail businesses.
But it was already too late for McDonnell & East. Pine Vale had overinvested, and Australia was facing a recession. In 1990, the Garden City, Southport, Toowoomba, Warwick, and Rockhampton stores closed. In 1993, Ipswich followed. And when the lease came up on their Pacific Fair store in 1994, it was not renewed. Staff, once so important to McDonnell & East, were not informed of these decisions. In a final sad blow, by this time McDonnell & East’s original city store was performing well again. Its fate, however, was tied to North Quay Ltd, who, with a debt of over $15 million to Citibank, were declared insolvent in 1994. The George Street store closed its doors in March 1994, with staff unsure whether they would receive superannuation payments owing to them. This final chapter in McDonnell & East’s story would have devastated Frank McDonnell and Hubert East, who had always held their workers in the highest regard.
- c. 1889 – 1986. Frank McDonnell Papers (27453), John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.
- 1900 – 1990. McDonnell & East Records (1094), John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.
- 1927 ‘Advertising.’, The Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933), 7 May, p. 15, viewed 29 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article21822305
- 1928 ‘MR. HUBERT EAST.’, Sunday Mail (Brisbane) (Qld. : 1926 – 1954), 27 May, p. 3, viewed 29 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article100132477
- 1928 ‘THE DEATH OF FRANK McDONNELL.’, Worker (Brisbane, Qld. : 1890 – 1955), 28 November, p. 4, viewed 29 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article71158456
- 1929 ‘MCDONNELL AND EAST’S CAFE.’, Sunday Mail (Brisbane) (Qld. : 1926 – 1954), 4 August, p. 15, viewed 29 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article97693000
- 1929 ‘WHITE STORE MODERN CAFE.’, Sunday Mail (Brisbane) (Qld. : 1926 – 1954), 11 August, p. 20, viewed 29 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article97697029
- 1931 ‘GEORGE STREET POST OFFICE.’, Worker (Brisbane, Qld. : 1890 – 1955), 15 July, p. 11, viewed 29 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article71174427
- 1938 ‘McDonnell & East’s.’, The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 – 1954), 26 August, p. 1 Section: Second Section., viewed 30 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article41011136
- 1941 ‘STAFF DANCE FOR FUND.’, The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 – 1954), 2 September, p. 7, viewed 30 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article41941460
- 1970 ‘Advertising.’, The Australian Women’s Weekly (1933 – 1982), 7 October, p. 73, viewed 29 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article46940494
- 1970 – 1984. McDonnell and East Records (3905), John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Australia.
- 1984 – 1989. McDonnell & East Collection (27463), John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.
- 1985 – 1988. McDonnell & East. Annual Reports. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.
- 1988 – 1990. Pine Vale Investments Ltd. Annual Reports. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.
- 1989 – 1993. North Quay Ltd. Annual Reports. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.
- 1991 ‘Union condemns “lack of compassion, feelings’.', The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), 1 January, p. 2, viewed 29 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article122334320
- 1994 ‘IN BRIEF BHP steel posts solid results.’, The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), 26 January, p. 17, viewed 29 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article126924825
- East, J. W. 2008. The East family in County Roscommon and Queensland : with a brief history of the Brisbane firm of McDonnell and East. John W. East: Greenslopes. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.
- Griffith, C. 1994. ‘Failed fund mystery unfolds.’ The Sunday Mail. 23 October, viewed 28 January 2015, http://www.chrisgriffith.com/1990s/1994/super1.html
- Lavis, J. 1986. ‘The Hon. Frank McDonnell – Champion of Women’. Research essay, University of Queensland. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.
- ‘McDonnell & East Ltd Building,’ 2013, Heritage Register, Department of Environment and Heritage Protection. Queensland Government. https://heritage-register.ehp.qld.gov.au/placeDetail.html?siteId=14895