History of McWhirters
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(The photos and articles on this page contributed by Paul Mitchell)

Articles from the Courier Mail, earlier known as the Brisbane Courier
From £5000 FoundationTo Million Mark

Heart Attack: Mr Duncan McWhirter dies at 46


The History of McWhirters 1898-1950

From £5000 Foundation
To Million Mark

Probably the biggest factor in the progress of Fortitude valley has been the keen business rivalry between the T. C. Beirne and McWhirter families, which, at all times, even from the earliest days, has been most intensive, but still friendly. The two founders were originally business associates, before becoming rivals.

Born at Maybole, Ayrshire, Scotland, James McWhirter, in 1898, opened up his first shop, with a 33ft. frontage, on the site where the present big business now stands.

He arrived in Brisbane in 1880 and after several years in Australia returned to Scotland. He came back here again in 1884, when he became associated with Mr. Beirne in the capacity of general manager and temporary partner.

On the return of Mr. Beirne from overseas, in 1896, Mr. McWhirter opened his own business.

From its inception, the McWhirter business flourished and rapidly expanded through the years, until, today it has grown into a magnificent block of buildings occupying 61/2 acres of floor space, with over 50 departments, serving tens of thousands of customers weekly. The staff growth, since its inception, has risen from barely a dozen people to a number which at times, approaches the 1000 mark.


During the early days, footpath frontage of McWhirter’s was utilized for mass displays of merchandise, and shoppers tied their horses to hitching posts attracted by such values as English flannelette, 36ins. wide, for 2/11 a dozen yards.

Many instances of the expansion of enterprise have been noted in other parts of the world, and the story of this company’s growth is indeed as romantic as any, when it is realised that, from a capital of less than £5000, the McWhirter Company’s assets at the present time are in excess of £1,000,000.

(Courier Mail. May 25th 1953)

Heart Attack Mr Duncan McWhirter dies at 46
Mr. Duncan John McWhirter, 46, a joint managing director of McWhirters Ltd, died suddenly yesterday morning after a heart attack. Mr. McWhirter was a grandson of James McWhirter, founder of the Valley store. His elder son, James, 21, now the only McWhirter in the firm heard of his father's death in hospital yesterday. He is recovering from an operation for appendicitis.

McWhirters will be closed from 2.30 pm to-day. The funeral service will be held at the Hamilton Presbyterian Church at 3 pm, and the procession will pass the store on its way to the crematorium.

Bad luck run
Mr. McWhirter has been in indifferent health for months. Bad luck seemed to have dogged the whole family for the last two years.
James and the two daughters, Anne (19) and Marian (14 1/2) have all had appendicitis recently. His younger son, Ian (8), was in hospital with a broken hip after he fell out of a tree. Just before that Mrs. McWhirter scalded herself badly on the back.

Duncan John McWhirter was a son of the late James Robert McWhirter and Mrs. Adelaide McWhirter (formerly Adelaide Reid, of the well-known Brisbane family). To London He was educated at the Southport School and at one time was president of its old boys' association. He began his career with McWhirter's at the age of 19 and trained in the dress material department.

He was sent to London and served an apprenticeship course with the famous London store of Selfridges. He also gained experience in the silk factories of Lyons, France. He rejoined the firm in Brisbane and then went overseas again in 1930 to manage McWhirter's London office.

A Rotarian
He joined the board of directors in 1935, and in 1945 was made one of two joint managing directors, with Mr. H.G. Fielding. During World War II he was a member of the Volunteer Defence Corps. He was a member of the Valley Rotary, the Royal Queensland Golf Club, the Royal Queensland Yacht Club, the Brisbane Club, Tattersalls, and the Queensland Turf Club.

(April 1923)

McWhirters - Wickham and Warner St 1912.gif (56101 bytes)The growth of the Valley as a shopping centre has, during the last few years proved beyond a doubt, that the metropolis is perceptibly extending in that direction, and will continue to do so, as in the future wharfage facilities extend to the lower reaches of the Brisbane River. One of the largest establishments in the Valley at the present time is that of McWhirter’s Ltd.

The founder of the firm, Mr. Jas McWhirter, was born in Ayrshire, Scotland, and came to Brisbane 42 years ago. When after spending four years in the employ of T.C. Beirne & Co., Mr. McWhirter, in 1899, opened a business on his own account, in a small shop in Brunswick street, a shop with only 33ft of frontage, there were not wanting those who thought the venture a rash one. But the growth of the firm to its present proportions, shows that the founder of the firm had a good head upon his shoulders, and had the broad vision which makes the successful business man.

At first the stock consisted merely of drapery, and some few years later when the premises were extended, furniture, glass-ware and China, and boot and shoe departments were added.

In the year 1902 the firm purchased from Mrs. J. Williams the property in Warner Street on which the present building of four storeys, which fronts Wickham and Warner Streets, was built, and was occupied in 1912. In 1918 the big bulk store on the opposite side of Warner Street was built, and also a motor garage for the firm’s fleet of motor delivery vans. In 1920 the business was floated into a limited liability company, with the following directorate. Messrs. McWhirter, Fielding, O.J. Lansdowne, and Mrs. M. Muir, the widow of a former director, and daughter of the founder of the firm.

The employees, of whom there were but 30 at first, now number 700 and not the least pleasing item in this connection is the fact that Mr. Fielding, who is now the general managing director, has been identified with the firm from its inception.

The premises are still growing, and at the present time a huge building of five storeys is nearing completion in Brunswick Street where the original premises were situated. The firm has also acquired the whole of the buildings at the junction of Brunswick and Wickham Streets, and no doubt before very long further buildings will be built on the corner site. When that is done, McWhirter’s Ltd will rival Anthony Hondern’s warehouse in Sydney.

When the new building, now in course of erection is occupied, the firm will have a floor space of five acres in extent.

The success of this and other of our big city firms, proves the truth of the Prime Minister’s statement, that Australia, and Queensland, in particular, is in a most properous condition.

(Courier Mail. Sept 29,1945)

Messrs. Duncan J. McWhirter and Mr. Harold G. Fielding, who have been appointed joint managing directors of McWhirters Ltd., are following in their fathers' footsteps, both having occupied similar positions with the firm. 

Mr. D. J. McWhirter
Mr. H. G. Fielding

Mr. McWhirter is the grandson of the founder of the business, and a son of the late Mr. James McWhirter, jun., a former managing director. He has been a director of the company since 1934. Mr. Fielding is the son of the late Mr. George A. Fielding, who was managing director when he died in 1924. Mr. Fielding, who has been with the company since 1920, has held successively the positions of accountant and secretary, and was appointed to the board in 1937.

Mr. O.J. Landsdowne, chairman and managing director, has announced his retirement as from the end of this month of the management of the business. He has accepted the position of chairman of directors. Mr. Lansdowne has been with the company for almost 45 years. He became a director in 1920, when a public company was formed, and was appointed managing director in 1924.


The History of McWhirters 1898-1950

THE history of McWhirters is a story of endeavour, initiative and achievement which would do credit to the older countries of England or America. ‘The early struggles and consistency of effort, reveal close associations of men with set purpose and high ideals which could well read like a chapter from an interesting book. The magnificent building on the Valley corner is a permanent monument to the industry of men who nurtured the business from its early stages.

The year 1880 saw the arrival in Brisbane from Scotland of Mr. James McWhirter Snr. After a period with D.L. Brown and Company, Mr. McWhirter opened a business in Stanley Street, South Brisbane, later selling out to return to his native land. Arriving back in Brisbane in 1894 he became associated with the late Mr. T. C. Beirne for a period of four years. It was in September 1898, that Mr. McWhirter took the historic step of establishing the business of McWhirter and Son in modest premises with a frontage of 33 feet to Brunswick Street. With the able assistance of his son James, Mr. McWhirter entered into spirited, yet friendly, competition with "Beirne’s" and it was not long before Mr. McWhirter sought the services of Mr. George A. Fielding as Secretary and financial adviser, who at this time was employed by Mr. T. C. Beirne.

Business Grows Rapidly

Thus the year 1899 saw the commencement of the association of the McWhirter and Fielding families in the business, which continues to the present day. With the financial side of the business in capable hands. Mr. McWhirter and his son were able to concentrate on merchandising and, by 1901, further expansion was necessary. It was in this year that Mr. 0.J. Lansdowne joined the business as Departmental Manager and here again began an association, which has existed down the years. The late Mr. Matthew Muir also came into the business at this period and it is worthy of mention that his son. Mr. Cameron Muir holds an executive position with the company at the present time.

A policy of keen merchandising and prudent financial control enabled the purchase of the freehold of the original premises in 1905 and soon afterwards the business introduced its Mail Order Department.

Property facing Wickham and Warner Streets was purchased in 1910 and in 1912 a fine five-storey building was erected on the site. With McWhirters now a household word throughout Queensland, the new premises were not before their time.

Death of Founder

A difficult period was experienced during the war years of 1914-18 and following the death of Mr. Matthew Muir in 1917. Mr. James McWhirter Jnr. died suddenly whilst on a business mission in Sydney. Mr. McWhirter, Snr., felt keenly the loss of his son, whose industry and merchandising qualities had played a big part in the success of the business but with characteristic courage he, and his executives, faced the problems ahead. The formation of McWhirter and Son into the public company of McWhirters Limited was effected in 1920, the Board of Directors being Mr. James McWhirter, Snr., Governing Director; Mr. George A. Fielding. Managing Director; Mrs. E. D. Muir and Mr. 0. J. Lansdowne. Soon afterwards, the remaining property on the Valley corner was purchased. In 1924 Mr. George A. Fielding died in England whilst on an important business mission for the Company and his death, following so closely on the death of Mr. James McWhirter, Jnr., was a tremendous loss.

Thus, Mr. McWhirter, Snr., in the brief period of five years, was deprived of the counsels, and advice, of those who had done so much towards the building of McWhirters Limited,

Mr. Lansdowne appointed Managing Director with the appointment of Mr. 0. J. Lansdowne, as Managing Director in the same year, Mr. McWhirter journeyed to Scotland, where he died in 1925. He left behind him a record of honest dealing and earnest endeavour and a name that has, at all times, been associated with the progress of Fortitude Valley. Mr. Lansdowne’s period as Managing Director saw the completion of the present block of buildings, and the advent to the Board of Directors of Mr. Duncan J. McWhirter, Mr. Harold G. Fielding and the late Mr. Jim McWhirter.

Mr. Duncan J. McWhirter joined the Company in 1924 and travelled to England in 1930 for further experience before his appointment to the Board of Directors In 1934.

Mr. Harold G. Fielding has an association dating back to 1920 graduating to the position of Secretary in 1934 and was appointed to the Board of Directors in 1937.

The late Mr. Jim McWhirter was appointed to the Board in 1938 after some years’ experience in the business. He served his country in World War II as a Naval Lieutenant and contracted an illness, which resulted in his death in 1942.

Joint Managing Directorship in 1945, Mr. 0. J. Lansdowne retired from the position of Managing Director with a record of 21 years in that capacity, and an unbroken association of 44 years with McWhirters.

On his retirement Mr. Duncan J. McWhirter and Mr. Harold G. Fielding became Managing Directors, thereby keeping up family traditions. These gentlemen, with Mr. 0. J. Lansdowne, as Chairman, and Mr. W. O’Sullivan and Mr. Douglas Wadley, constitute the present Board. The big improvements in the Store during the post-war years bears evidence to their progressive policy and the installation of the escalators shows that they are fully sensitive of the requirements of a modern shopping public and are determined to carry put, to the full, the traditions of value, and service, established by the founders of the Company.


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