Are we soft these days? Do we have no adventure, no entrepreneurial spirit? It is hard to compare people from different eras, simply because circumstances are always vastly different, but I cannot help but wonder at the risks people took in earlier generations. Take migration, for example. Australia was built on the arrival of people from other lands, both forced and unforced, and it continues to this day. When I was at school in the fifties and sixties, I knew lots of families who had uprooted their lives and transported themselves to Australia in the hope of finding better opportunities. I always marvelled at their courage, because I figured that you couldn't possibly know how it would turn out. Here's a story of an early migrant who made good, one James McWhirter, who arrived in Brisbane from Scotland around the year 1880. He was firstly employed by merchants DL Brown & Co, then struck out into his own drapery business with some success, such that he sold up and returned to Scotland. Why he became restless there is uncertain, but he returned to Brisbane to work in the drapery business of Mr TC Beirne for a period, before eventually becoming Beirne's partner. In 1898, his entrepreneurship led him to once more set out on his own, and he established the drapery firm of McWhirter and Son in a small Brunswick St premises, employing thirty people.
(Photo:State Library of Queensland and John Oxley Library; #177780)
A strong work ethic and undoubted commercial acumen enabled the business to expand fairly rapidly. A mail order department was established to enable the store to serve country customers, and McWhirter & Son then had to expand physically by buying adjoining premises in Brunswick St. This was still insufficient, and a new five-storey building was constructed for the company in 1912, on the corner of Brunswick and Wickham Streets.
(Photo: State Library of Queensland and John Oxley Library; #31227)
Despite World War I, Brisbane flourished, and with it McWhirter & Son also continued to develop. Then James McWhirter Junior died suddenly whilst on business in Sydney in 1917, and the firm's founder James Senior died in 1925. However, the store had floated as a public company, McWhirters Ltd, in 1920, and the strong relationship that the company had developed with its 800-strong staff enabled further success. Expansion into clothing manufacture followed, and the development of "The Valley" into Brisbane's department store precinct ensured a competitive but profitable business environment. The next step was the construction in 1930-31 of the Art Deco store designed by Hall & Phillips, who were the architects of Brisbane's City Hall.
(Photo: State Library of Queensland and John Oxley Library; #53704)
McWhirters maintained its position as one of Brisbane's major retailers through to the fifties, when it was taken over by the southern emporium, Myer, which ran it as a department store until 1988 by which time the suburban shopping malls had ended the Valley's days as the retail hub of the city. The site was sold, and transformed into a combination commercial and residential complex. This is how the building looks today.
(Photo: © 2009 the foto fanatic)
Almost one hundred years of service to the people of Brisbane, the employment of hundreds of local staff, and one of the city's landmark buildings. All originating from one entrepreneurial Scottish immigrant - James McWhirter.
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