McWhirters was once one of the largest retail stores in Brisbane, located in Fortitude Valley, with the present McWhirters Marketplace occupying over an acre of land. On arrival in Australia in 1878 from Scotland, James McWhirter worked for merchants DL Brown & Co. before entering into partnership with Mr Duncan Sinclair in a South Brisbane drapery business in 1883. After a few years the partnership was dissolved, and McWhirter returned to Brown & Co. before joining TC Beirne in his Fortitude Valley drapery business in 1894, firstly as manager, then in partnership for about 3 years. McWhirter sold out to Beirne in 1898, and in the same year purchased MD Piggott’s drapery business. When McWhirter took over Piggott’s Brunswick Street business, the new firm of McWhirter and Son, drapers, was established, opening in September 1898 with a staff of 30.
An astute businessman, McWhirters established his store just as the Queensland economy was recovering from the depression of the 1890s, and within three decades the firm he established in 1898 had expanded from a small drapery business to one of Brisbane’s largest and most sophisticated departmental retailers, with a principal store occupying over an acre of land bounded by Brunswick, Wickham and Warner Streets, Fortitude Valley, at the well-known Valley Corner.
There was a healthy spirit of competition between the Valley’s principal retail stores – TC Beirne, McWhirter, Overells and later the ACB Company and Waltons as well – which attracted customers from all over Brisbane, making McWhirters one of the most popular department stores in the city.
From the very beginning, the store began expanding rapidly and in 1905 the firm was registered as a private company, McWhirter & Son Ltd. By 1907 the company was listed at 292-298 Brunswick Street, having expanded into several adjacent shops east of the original building. By 1909 the firm employed 270 staff, had established a London office, directly imported many lines, and had developed an extensive mail-order department servicing all parts of rural Queensland, as well as clients in New South Wales, South Australia and British New Guinea.
McWhirter commissioned Brisbane architects Atkinson and McLay to design a substantial, five-storeyed building for this corner, and when completed in 1912, the new building became an immediate Valley landmark, seen for miles around, and dominated the Valley Corner area. The epitome of comfort and style, the ground level contained extensive street frontages and had the latest in island windows with narrow copper mouldings. There were five street entrances, and mosaic tiling and leadlights in the main vestibule. The interior was well-ventilated and well-lighted; fittings were of silky oak throughout; and the ceilings were lined with Wunderlich pressed metal. In an innovative move, hundreds of silky oak display tables permitted customers to browse and inspect goods without being dependent on sales assistants. Other goods were displayed in glass cabinets under glass counters, and there were sliding glass doors to the shelves behind the counters.
This grand new store housed over fifty departments, with McWhirter’s recognising his primary clientele was female and therefore catering to their needs first. McWhirter’s 1912 store was the one of the first of the big Brisbane department stores – rivals included TC Beirne and Overells in Fortitude Valley, McDonnell & East near Roma Street Station, and Finneys and Allan & Stark in Queen Street – to reflect international trends in modern department store retailing.
James McWhirter died in England in 1925, but the firm of McWhirters Ltd continued to grow, paralleling the development of Fortitude Valley as a thriving commercial centre. Many attribute the success of McWhirters in the value placed by management on employees. By 1931, some of the nearly 800 McWhirter employees had been with the firm over 3 decades.
In 1955 McWhirters was purchased by Myer, the Melbourne-based department store chain, which continued to operate the former McWhirters complex as a department store until 1988, when the Myer consortium closed its Valley store. The closure reflected the decline of retailing in Fortitude Valley from the 1970s, principally due to changing demographics and strong competition from suburban shopping centres. In 1989 the property was redeveloped as McWhirters Marketplace. Today the upper levels contain apartments while the bottom floors are filled with retail outlets.