Museum of Brisbane

Sunday Stories | McWhirters

Clutching the corner of Wickham and Brunswick Street in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, the striking brick façade of McWhirters has stood tall since 1896.

Owned by Scottish immigrant James McWhirter, the towering department store was once the premier retail destination of the late 19th and early 20th Century. With humble beginnings as a single storey drapery in 1896, McWhirter & Son quickly grew, one allotment at a time into an acre of luxurious retail outlets – and a major rival of his former employer, TC Beirne.

The gentle rivalry between the two retail outlets ensured that Fortitude Valley became a vibrant and successful shopping precinct through much of the early 20th century, with McWhirter & Son a standout by sheer size alone.

The vast five storey structure, was commissioned by McWhirter and designed by Brisbane architects Atkinson and McLay. A spectacular modern landmark that could be admired for miles away, the ambitious build was completed in 1912 and was touted as one of the most progressive department stores of its time.

Boasting five street entrances, copper mouldings, leadlights and three electric elevators, the McWhirters building was a mecca for shoppers who could tether their horses to the hitching post out front (their first motor car garage wouldn’t be built until 1918) and peruse the latest fine goods on display.

With over 50 departments bursting with Manchester, fabric, luggage, millinery, homewares and a very comfortable tea room that boasted a view of the river, families flocked to the hallowed halls of McWhirter & Son until it was taken over by Myer Emporium in 1955.

And yet, while its occupants have shifted over the last century from luxury retailers to apartments and food vendors, the legacy of its namesake still lives on today.

Want to explore more stories about how Fortitude Valley has changed? Unlock the secrets of the city at The Storytellers exhibition here.

Image 1: McWhirters Store – Fortitude Valley, 1909, Courtesy Brisbane City Council
Image 2: Brisbane tram featuring an advertisement for Fortitude Valley shopping, ca. 1933. Courtesy State Library of Queensland.