120th anniversary of McWhirter & Son

Guest blogger: Melissa Fagan – author of What Will Be Worn: A McWhirters Story.

McWhirter & Son Drapery warehouse in Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley, 1900. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Neg 177780

McWhirter & Son Drapery warehouse in Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley, 1900. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Neg 177780

September 2018 marks the 120-year anniversary of the opening of McWhirter & Son, the cash drapery that went on to become one of Queensland’s biggest and best-loved department stores.

In 1894, my great-great grandfather James McWhirter senior began working for T.C. Beirne in his namesake business, and would stay there for four years – three of those in partnership with the Irishman, and two working alongside his son, also James. By 1898, James senior was fifty years old and, I suppose, tired of working for other men. So when Michael Piggott decided to vacate his Brunswick Street drapery opposite Beirne’s, and move his operation to Toowoomba, he saw his chance and seized it. McWhirter dissolved his partnership with Beirne and took over the lease on Piggott’s single-shopfront building, bought all his stock and changed the signage.

Early on the morning of 22 September 1898, McWhirter & Son opened their doors, welcoming shoppers to their Great Opening and Clearing Sale in which they promised to dispose of Piggott’s stock at prices ‘which have never hitherto been known’.

On the other side of the street, shop assistants at T.C. Beirne rearranged the window display and entreated passers-by to come into their store, to the first day of its Extraordinary Sale of Drapery. ‘Great sale today! Great sale today!’ they called. Beirne’s buyer, a Mr Walter Bryan, had just returned from London and Continental Markets with thousands of pounds’ worth of discounted goods. The warehouse was now crammed and the public would get the benefit.

Carriage after carriage would pull into Brunswick Street that day, that week, and in the years that followed, their well-dressed lady occupants alighting at the curb. Perhaps they lingered for a moment, looking left then right, trying to gauge which store was offering the higher-quality stock, the better bargains. The Irish Catholics would continue to favour Beirne’s, as they had always done, while the Scottish Protestants would know with one look that the finery on display at McWhirter & Son was of infinite superiority.

– Adapted from What Will Be Worn: A McWhirters Story by Melissa Fagan

Mrs James McWhirter in costume at the Brisbane Poster Ball, 1900. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Image 177779

Mrs James McWhirter in costume at the Brisbane Poster Ball, 1900. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Image 177779

McWhirters shop window ca. 1911. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Image 52156

McWhirters shop window ca. 1911. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Image 52156

McWhirter's department store in Fortitude Valley ,1913. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Neg 31227

McWhirter’s department store in Fortitude Valley,1913. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Neg 31227

Front cover of the McWhiters' Shopping Guide Xmas 1921. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Front cover of the McWhiters’ Shopping Guide Xmas 1921. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

McWhirters store, Fortitude Valley, Brisbane, Queensland, 1930. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Image 204016

McWhirters store, Fortitude Valley, Brisbane, Queensland, 1930. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Image 204016

McWhirter's department store in Fortitude Valley ,1913. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Neg 31227

McWhirter’s department store in Fortitude Valley ,1913. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Neg 31227

McWhirters Department Store in Fortitude Valley, Brisbane, 1938. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Neg 53704

McWhirters Department Store in Fortitude Valley, Brisbane, 1938. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Neg 53704

Further reading