Who: Thomas Finney (1837–1903) and James Isles (1837–1888) established Finney Isles & Co., known affectionately as ‘Finneys’, in 1864. After ninety years of trade as an independent Queensland-owned company, David Jones purchased the store in 1955.
What: Beginning as a retail and manufacturing firm, Finney Isles & Co. expanded to become a landmark Queensland department store so successful that it sparked a bidding war between Australia’s two major retail empires, Myer and David Jones.
Where: Finney Isles & Co. is best known for their substantial Brisbane location, occupying Queen and Adelaide Street buildings, whose façades still stand. While their city premises became their sole focus, Finney Isles & Co. began in Fortitude Valley and at one point had stores in Rockhampton, Gympie, Maryborough, and Murwillumbah.
Why: Finney Isles & Co. was one of Brisbane’s earliest drapery-to-department store businesses, setting up shop in Fortitude Valley before the area was known as a shopping precinct. Established two to three decades ahead of its major competition, such as McWhirters, T. C. Beirne, McDonnell & East, and Allan & Stark, Finneys was a thriving Queensland department store that led the way for subsequent retailers.
Like some other notable Queensland drapery businesses, Finney Isles & Co. was founded by Irishmen from humble beginnings. Thomas Finney and James Isles travelled to Queensland together in 1862. With experience as drapers in Ireland, the colleagues quickly found work upon their arrival. After saving enough money to set up their own shop, the men purchased the drapery business of Merry & Bush, located at the corner of Ann and Warner Streets, and rebranded it as Finney Isles & Co. at ‘The Valley Exchange’ in December 1864. Mrs Isles was a partner from the beginning, charged with overseeing millinery and women’s undergarments.
Their first store began with a modest staff of five, but it wasn’t long before Finney Isles & Co.’s business expanded. They looked to the growing towns of Gympie and Rockhampton to extend their enterprise, opening stores in both locations in 1869. The following year, they added a Brisbane city store to their portfolio, renting a shopfront on the corner of Queen and Edward Streets and branding it as ‘The City Exchange’. By 1873, they had purchased the building. The focus of the partnership was city retail, and in 1875 the Valley store was known as Tutty & Finney, to reflect a separate business arrangement. The Rockhampton store was also rebadged in this way in the following decade.
Finney Isles & Co. continued to occupy more and more space in the city as their business expanded beyond their drapery origins and into a comprehensive department store. By 1883, they had acquired the store next-door to house the ‘Finney Isles Tailoring Department’. A furniture department was established the following year, and with it, a new building.
A double-page illustration in a 1888 issue of The Queensland Figaro presented Finney Isles & Co.’s designs for an increasingly elaborate empire: a grand new building that would span Edward, Queen, and Adelaide Streets. In reality, what was built was decidedly less baroque.
Occupying the corner of Adelaide and Edward Streets, the new store was big, but by no means the one depicted in the drawing. Nevertheless, it opened with a good degree of fanfare, with advertising announcing the building would house “a grand exhibition” of the latest “Oriental Novelties” selected by Thomas Finney1.
Sadly, just two months later, James Isles passed away, leaving Finney to continue the enterprise alone. The partnership had been extraordinarily productive, having already created one of Brisbane’s largest retail-manufacturers within just two decades. In this time, the new immigrants had also contributed enormously to Brisbane’s public life; both men served on local boards and were active members of trade associations. Like his colleague and fellow Irishman Frank McDonnell (co-founder of Brisbane department store McDonnell & East), Thomas Finney supported reform to retail workers’ conditions by advocating for early closing times—a policy that was implemented at Finney Isles & Co. James Isles joined Brisbane City Council in 1883, where he served until his death. Finney joined Toowong Shire Council in 1896, where he was elected to the Legislative Assembly, holding the seat of Toowong until 1902.
Just over a decade after the death of James Isles, Thomas Finney welcomed his managers James Coakes and Joseph Kilroe as new partners in the business. Thomas Finney died a few years later in 1903, but the firm continued. Finney Isles & Co. was registered as a limited company in 1905, at that time operating in Brisbane, Murwillumbah, and Maryborough, with offices in New South Wales and London.
1909 saw Finney Isles & Co.’s Brisbane footprint enlarge further. That year the company embarked on another major building campaign, and the new ‘Big Block’ store, a prominent Brisbane city landmark, opened in 1910. At the same time, the Murwillumbah branch closed, leaving only the Brisbane and Maryborough locations to focus on.
The Big Block building is today heritage listed. Its entry in the register reveals the features that made the new building so advanced in its time, including “innovative display windows on Queen Street, silky oak staircases, lifts decorated in latticed ironwork and silky oak, pneumatic tubes for exchanging cash, [and] a roof-top water tower”. Its own generator was able to power the store’s many new electrical features—elevators, lighting and pneumatic cash system—as well as the manufacturing arm of the business, with a staggering 400 sewing machines2.
Further property acquisitions and remodelling took place in over the 1920s and 30s, by which time Finneys was an unmistakable beacon of retail in Brisbane’s CBD. The final rural outpost, the Maryborough store, ceased trading in 1927. Now Finneys was solely a city business. It became Brisbane’s answer to Melbourne’s Myer and Sydney’s David Jones. Shopping at Finneys was a cosmopolitan experience, combining scale, spectacle, glamour and grandeur.
During the 1920s, the city store hosted regular ‘Fashion Teas’, which were large and glamorous fashion parades held on their rooftop garden. In 1929, new display windows graced the Queen Street façade, filled with Finneys’ latest fashion offerings. In 1936, in yet another new building, Finneys opened a large ballroom, which quickly became a central venue for social occasions in Brisbane.
From the 1940s, the store opened a substantial art gallery of 371m², which became a major cultural landmark for Brisbane, particularly whilst the Queensland National Art Gallery (now the Queensland Art Gallery) was without a permanent home. It hosted exhibitions of emerging and established artists by the Royal Queensland Art Society, and a range of travelling shows, including reproductions of important European art works—a practice which was common for galleries at the time. The gallery space continued until at least the 1960s.
A final period of renovation took place between 1949 and 1954. The women’s showroom, shoe department, millinery, underwear, children’s and men’s departments were all modernised and remodelled to the latest standards in shop design.
Escalators were installed to offset elevator traffic, and in 1954, new recessed windows featuring concealed lighting and black marble surrounds were revealed. Air-conditioning was also introduced as another key modern attraction.
These significant investments and improvements, together with Finney Isles & Co.’s prime location and continued success, made the business an attractive acquisition for a rival department store. In 1955, one year after celebrating ninety years of trade, both Myer and David Jones made bids to take over the Queensland firm.
The first proposal to purchase Finneys was initiated by Myer, who went directly to Finney Isles & Co. shareholders after the board would not approve their terms. Soon after, in a surprise move, David Jones came in with a higher offer for Finneys. Myer bowed out after this offer was recommended by the Finney Isles and Co. board. In July 1955, the David Jones offer was officially accepted by shareholders.
For a time, David Jones continued to use the name ‘Finneys’, and traded on the latter’s reputation for fashion. This was signalled by chic, high-profile fashion events held at the store towards the end of the 1950s, such as the touring fashion parade, International Fashions in Wool, in 1959. Organised by David Jones and the Australian Women’s Weekly, the parade featured wool ensembles from leading American and European designers, amongst them Dior, Claire McCardell, and Pauline Trigère, worn by Australian and visiting Parisian, American, and Italian models.
Though 1955 had signalled the end of Finney Isles and Co., David Jones found long-term success in their premises. Indeed, it continues to be their flagship Queensland store, meaning that a department store has now traded in the Finneys location continuously since 1870.
The original Finney Isles & Co. buildings, now largely comprising only façades, were incorporated into Queensland’s entrée to luxury fashion retail, as part of the 2005 Queens Plaza shopping centre development. This redevelopment lost a great deal of the buildings’ original charm, but in another way, the fact that a high-fashion precinct continues in this site is a tribute to the foresight and legacy of Finney Isles & Co.
- 1870 ‘Advertising.’, The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld. : 1866 – 1939), 5 November, p. 12, viewed 2 February, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article27263374
- 1888 ‘Classified Advertising.’, The Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933), 25 September, p. 1, viewed 2 February, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article3486032
- 1905 ‘FINNEY, ISLES, & CO., LTD.,.’, The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld. : 1866 – 1939), 18 February, p. 39, viewed 2 February, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article20354196
- 1931 ‘FINNEY, ISLES & COMPANY LIMITED.’, Sunday Mail (Brisbane) (Qld. : 1926 – 1954), 5 April, p. 4, viewed 2 February, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article97915939
- 1944 ‘TRADE AND FINANCE.’, The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 – 1954), 5 October, p. 5, viewed 2 February, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article48956734
- 1947 ‘Hanlon Promises New Art Gallery.’, The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 – 1954), 10 May, p. 5, viewed 3 February, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article4931221
- 1949 ‘Stores “at peak of competition”.’, The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 – 1954), 22 October, p. 4, viewed 3 February, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article49702932
- 1950-1959. Fashion and Fashion Parades : ephemera material collected by the State Library of Queensland. John Oxley Library.
- 1954 ‘A 90-YEAR-ROMANCE OF RETAILING…’, The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 – 1954), 14 December, p. 2, viewed 2 February, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article50630672
- 1955 ‘Finance Page 1.’, The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), 22 June, p. 12, viewed 2 February, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article71889423
- 1955 ‘MYER BOWS OUT.’, The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), 23 June, p. 11, viewed 2 February, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article71889701
- 1955 ‘Finney-Jones acceptances.’, The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), 21 July, p. 12, viewed 2 February, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article71668919
- ‘David Jones Building’ Heritage Register, Department of Environment and Heritage Protection. Queensland Government. https://heritage-register.ehp.qld.gov.au/placeDetail.html?siteId=14917
- Morrison, A.A. ‘Finney, Thomas (1837–1903)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/finney-thomas-3518/text5411, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 2 February 2015.
- Slaughter, L. E. 1954. Finneys : 90 years of progress, 1864-1954. Brisbane : Finney Isles & Co. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.