The Air Mail cover was addressed to Messrs, McWhirters Ltd., Merchants, Brisbane and the blue 5d Emu stamp was cancelled MOUNT GARNET/ 10-A- ( ) 42/QUEENSLAND. The most striking feature was the purple circular handstamp ‘1/ AFCC’, for which I could find no postage usage. The sender was the Tableland Tin Dredging N.L. Box 9, Mt Garnet. The reverse was not seen (Figure 1).
James McWhirter 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. T.C. 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 Street premises, employing thirty people.
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 Street. 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. The early store for McWhirter & Son is seen in Figure 2.
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. A picture of Mr. James McWhirter is seen in Figure 3.
However, the store was 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, as seen in Figure 4.
McWhirters maintained its position as one of Brisbane’s major retailers through to the fifties, when it was taken over by the southern emporium, Myers, 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 later sold, and transformed into a combination commercial and residential complex.