Who: Thomas Charles Beirne (1860–1949), an Irishman, was the founder and director of the T. C. Beirne department stores, remaining active in the business right up until his death. What started as a modest drapery business made him one of Queensland’s most successful businessmen, and among the first Australian millionaires.
What: T. C Beirne (known as ‘T. C. Beirnes’ or just ‘Beirnes’) was a long-running department store that established Fortitude Valley as the place to shop for fashion in Brisbane. They catered to the middle of the market, offering a comprehensive range of women’s, men’s, and children’s clothing and footwear, as well as fabric, haberdashery, and other household goods. The early success and growth of Thomas Beirne’s drapery business demonstrates the opportunities Queensland held for immigrant fashion retailers.
Where: Beirne’s first store was established in Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley. He relocated to nearby Duncan Street (now the Chinatown mall). The building he had a constructed there in 1902, by architect Robin Dods, still stands as the T. C. Beirne ‘TCB’ centre.
He set up a major branch in Ipswich in 1892, which was soon relocated to Nicholas Street in 1895, where the building would stand until the mid 1980s. A Mackay branch called ‘Beirne Ltd’ was set up in 1902 and managed by Thomas’s brother Michael Beirne, who was made partner. Other regional ventures included Roma.
Why: T. C. Beirne provides a classic story of Queensland fashion retail. Beirne was amongst a wave of young Irish, Scottish, and English drapers who sought opportunities in the new colony of Queensland. They were greatly rewarded for their troubles.
Beirne apprenticed as a draper in Ireland, and subsequently worked in sales and bookkeeping for other drapers. At one employer, Gallagher Bros, he became friends with an apprentice, Frank McDonnell, who would go on to operate McDonnell & East. In 1881, he befriended an employer, M. D. Pigott (later of Pigotts), who persuaded Beirne to immigrate to Australia. He arrived in 1884, and after a two-year stint working in some Melbourne drapery firms, including Foy & Gibson, Pigott invited Beirne to partner to form drapery ‘Pigott & Beirne’ in South Brisbane. The premises they had planned to set up in was snapped up by some other drapers, leaving Beirne to find a job. He went to work at Allan & Stark, forming a life-long friendship with James Allan.
In 1886, when the South Brisbane premises became available again, Pigott & Beirne opened their firm. They were immediately profitable, though struggled initially to understand the particular needs of the Queensland market. Unfortunately, the store, along with the whole block of wooden shops in which it stood, was completely destroyed by fire in 1889. The pair were uninsured, but some very sympathetic suppliers helped them rebuild the business. The partnership ended profitably in 1891, providing Beirne the capital to set up his own business in Fortitude Valley.
Though the Valley was not yet an established retail precinct, having only one other major retailer, Overells, Beirne’s drapery was an instant success, with more customers than he could serve. He took on three leases to expand into neighbouring premises, and later bought the shops in order to connect the three buildings.
As a sign of his early profitability, he set up an Ipswich branch in 1892, just one year after establishing the Valley store. It struggled initially, under what Beirne describes pejoratively as the ‘super-salesmanship’ style of its manager1. However, a change in manager, and with it, a sensitivity to what Ipswich customers wanted, made the store extremely successful.
Beirne had a habit of finding luck in unfortunate circumstances. A relationship with a London supplier—with excellent credit terms—allowed Beirne to flourish while other businesses struggled, particularly after the 1893 flood which caused many of the banks to crash. In this same year, a health scare turned out to be a great business opportunity. Following doctor’s orders to relax in Dalby for three months, he conducted sales by horse in the regional town; a first step towards what would become an extensive regional mail order business.
He was joined by James McWhirter in 1894—a bright talent who was entrusted by Beirne as manager and later partner—under a set three-year term. With McWhirter competently managing the store, as well as a staff of around fifty, Beirne was able to travel and set up a London buying office in 1896, in order to get better prices from manufacturers. He acted as his own buyer initially, and then contracted representatives, who would stay with him for over forty years. By the mid-20th century, his fashion and fabric lines were still primarily imported from England. Curiously, the office was called—at least in the 1940s—Myer Emporium Ltd (London), despite no apparent connection with the rival Melbourne company of that name.
In 1898, McWhirter left to open his own store directly opposite, precipitating a long-running, but friendly, business rivalry between the two. Their ongoing competition established the Valley as a thriving retail destination. Beirne commented that the competition between McWhirters and Beirnes was “so keen […] that, in the fancy haberdashery section of our stores, customers would buy perfumes, powders and the like for less than nothing—for less than the empty containers cost”.2
In the years following, Beirne bought up neighbouring properties to create an immense emporium with frontages at Brunswick Street, Duncan Street and Ann Street. Growth followed and T. C. Beirne became a limited company in 1918 with £250,000 capital and £250,000 split between his five daughters as £50000 shares. The following year, the Ipswich store was transferred to Beirne Limited, the company that was set up for the Mackay branch as a partnership between Thomas and his brother Michael Beirne. Ipswich came under Michael’s management, and the store was renamed ‘Beirne Ltd’. This amalgamation was one of the biggest company transactions that Ipswich had ever seen.
Throughout this growth, Beirne managed to enjoy a reputation as a fair, and possibly even benevolent, employer. He had many long-serving loyal staff, some of fifty years. Beirne himself had apprenticed under a bully of a boss in Ireland as a teenager, and had worked under some very poor conditions, and this experience seemed to stay with him. He tried to actively engage staff in the business through profit sharing and shareholding programs. These weren’t terribly successful schemes, however, and in some cases promoted division between staff. Beirne’s Irish Catholic background also created unfairness in employment. One worker recalled being knocked back for a job at the T. C. Beirne Ipswich branch for being Methodist. At that time, in the 1940s, you needed to be Catholic to work there.
Economic depression and war didn’t adversely affect business, allowing T. C. Beirne to turn a profit each year. In fact, they made huge profits during the years of World War II, with figures reflecting a sustained growth of sales, not just a quick rise in profits due to the presence of soldiers, or inflated prices.
In the John Oxley Library collection, a great stack of T. C. Beirne memos relating to World War II coupons provide fascinating insights into the tough conditions of clothing rationing in Queensland, and the extraordinarily complex system that had to be navigated by retailers. One memo relays the unusual circumstance of customers returning inferior raincoats that were bought before rationing commenced. The Rationing Commission’s ruling in response stated that nevertheless, “Customers must pay coupons. Rationing is to make things hard for the people not easy. These two people are receiving raincoats now, and they are obliged to surrender coupons for them”.
In other correspondence with the Rationing Commission, T. C. Beirne made requests to have coupon ratings reduced on embroidered satin kimonos. They had great quantities of the luxury product that wouldn’t shift due to the high number of coupons required to purchase them. Other queries submitted included questions about whether wedding veils carried the same coupon ratings as ordinary hats, and whether ecclesiastical robes required coupons.
Letters from the complaints department from the end of the war tell a story of exceptional customer service delivered in what were still very difficult circumstances. One has General Manager J. B. Hooper sensitively attending to a customer’s ‘towel situation’, with towels being in 1948 “amongst the scarcest of today’s resources”.
In another letter, the manager advises than an ill-fitting tailored suit would be promptly altered for a customer, despite the fact the wearer might have “grown somewhat” in the six months since it was purchased. Topically, in a response to a complaint of rude shop assistants on a Saturday morning, the manager defends that his staff feel resentful for the Saturday trading following the introduction of the forty hour week, and outlines the Shop Assistants Union’s case against Saturday opening.
Beirne died before seeing the effects of post-war change, with the impact of sustained price control and difficulty sourcing stock, along with a drop-off in country sales. He would also miss an even greater challenge, and what would ultimately signal the end for the store: the rise in suburban drive-in shopping centres.
After T. C. Beirne became a public company in 1950, profits were in the decline. They had bounced back convincingly by the middle of the decade. Myer Emporium tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a merger in 1954. They subsequently succeeded with McWhirters the following year.
Beirnes retained its independence from the southern invasion until David Jones bought it out in 1961. Valued at nearly £3,000,000 in shares, it was the second acquisition David Jones had made in Brisbane, after taking over Finney Isles & Co. in 1955. The deal included a 42% shareholding in Beirne Ltd, which covered the Ipswich and Mackay stores.
The Valley store continued to trade as T. C. Beirne until being rebadged as David Jones in 1966. The Mackay store burnt down in 1969, and though it reopened in 1971, it closed for good in this same decade. The Fortitude Valley store was closed in 1973, in a widespread move by David Jones to cut costs. Shortly thereafter, the final remnants of the Beirne family business were lost when the Ipswich store was taken over by interstate department store chain Waltons in 1974. The grand Ipswich building, with its original T. C. Beirne signage faintly visible, survived for another decade, until 1985, when it was demolished as part of an Ipswich CBD redevelopment.
In Fortitude Valley, the former T. C. Beirne premises has ever since struggled to sustain a steady retail presence. The site became a mixed-use commercial complex that housed Target. It changed hands multiple times in the following three decades, and is currently used as retail and office space, with plans underway for a hotel development. The heritage-listed building is all that remains of the thriving department store, with a staff of around 900, that T. C. Beirne left behind in 1949.
- 1919 ‘BEIRNE LIMITED.’, Queensland Times (Ipswich) (Qld. : 1909 – 1954), 24 December, p. 5 Edition: DAILY., viewed 2 February, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article120576147
- ca.1926-1950. T. C. Beirne Records (R 341), John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland
- 1948. T. C. Beirne’s Autumn Winter Catalogue. Brisbane, Qld.: T. C. Beirne Pty Ltd, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.
- 1952 ‘T.C. BEIRNE’S PROFIT DOWN.’, The Northern Miner (Charters Towers, Qld. : 1874 – 1954), 4 September, p. 1, viewed 30 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article81561660
- 1954 ‘TO-DAY’S TRADE AND FINANCE.’, The Courier-Mail ( Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 – 1954), 9 September, p. 8, viewed 30 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article50611706
- 1961 ‘OFFER OF £3M. FOR OLD. FIRM.’, The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), 1 November, p. 1, viewed 30 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article105897538
- 1973, ‘David Jones cuts cost, lifts profits’, The Age, 22 March, p. 20, http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=VclUAAAAIBAJ&sjid=4ZADAAAAIBAJ&pg=6384%2C5447097
- 1974, ‘Farewell party to Beirne family’, Queensland Times, 23 July, 1974
- 1985, ‘Historic department store nears end’, Queensland Times, 6 December, 1985
- Buchanan, Robyn, 1994, Doris Timperley: Ipswich during the Great Depression and during World War II, oral history interview, Ipswich City Council, http://www.ipswich.qld.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/8872/15_doris_timperley_oral_history.pdf
- Macrossan, Eileen, 1947, The Life Story of Thomas Charles Beirne, Truth & Sportsman, Brisbane. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.
- Nolan, Carolyn, ‘Beirne, Thomas Charles (1860–1949)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/beirne-thomas-charles-5186/text8719, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 29 January 2015.