McWhirters family 1893, and (above, left) Melissa Fagin wrote the family history of Brisbane Retailers the McWhirters family.
McWhirters family 1893, and (above, left) Melissa Fagin wrote the family history of Brisbane Retailers the McWhirters family.

Secrets of iconic building revealed in new book

McWhirters, the once celebrated department store in Fortitude Valley is an iconic Brisbane building, heritage-listed, grand and imposing on the corner of Brunswick and Wickham Streets, but many do not know the full story of its  fascinating history.

Reading Melissa Fagan's newly released book, What Will Be Worn, will bring the building to life and take you back to a time when Brisbane's social scene was important to the city, and arguably more exciting than it is now.

Melissa has written lyrically in superb prose about her mother's family, the McWhirters, headed by James McWhirter, a Scottish draper who came to Brisbane in 1878, established the Fortitude Valley store and embedded his family into Brisbane society and history.

Even though the McWhirters façade is all that remains of its rich past - the building is now home to small retail outlets on the ground floor and apartments above it - it holds a significant place in Brisbane, a stand-out landmark that represents part of the social history of Brisbane.

Researching the book meant Melissa had to reach back in time and then stretch her imagination to its limits, writing facts and then then writing what she imagined took place over the decades.

"So much of the research isn't in the book," she said.  "What you read is the tip of the iceberg in terms of research.  I had to image their lives, get grounded in the times.  Sometimes I'd hit a brick wall, I couldn't find out any more, then I had to image my way in.  It was a combination of imagining, experiencing and researching and then pulling it all together."

Melissa slips seamlessly from 19th Century Scotland to present day and then draws us back into history again without distraction or confusion.

James McWhirter began work at TC Beirne's, an already established department store, in 1894. In 1898 he went out on his own and became a rival. 

The business originally operated on Brunswick Street before James acquired an acre of retail premise fronting Warner, Wickham and Brunswick Streets. In the beginning shoppers would tether their horses to hitching rails out front until 1918 when a garage was built for the growing motor car fleet.

"So much of Brisbane has been torn down," Melissa said.  "I look at the McWhitters building from so many angles.  There is a sense of great pride and in terms of the façade and also some sense of loss in the way it has been renovated.  It is very difficult to walk in and imagine it as it was."

Melissa Fagan wrote the family history of Brisbane Retailers the McWhirters family.
Melissa Fagan wrote the family history of Brisbane Retailers the McWhirters family.

James McWhirter was Melissa's great-great grandfather.  He had one brother and six sisters.  In Australia his own family grew to one son and six daughters.

"Although James was surrounded by women, the women didn't have any official role in the business," Melissa said. "He was immersed in feminine spaces."

By the mid-19th century department stores were developing all over the world, Aristide Boucicault's Bon Marche in Paris in 1852, followed by Macy's in New York.  In Australia the department store was the logical extension of the general store or the drapery.

"In the early 20th century, Fortitude Valley centered around the intersection of Wickham and Brunswick Streets and was one of the most important shopping centres in Brisbane and the women flocked to buy clothes and hats in beautiful fabrics," Melissa said.

"The detail recorded of the fashion at the time was extraordinary.  The colours and cut and the materials were important.  It could not just be silk, it had to be a particular kind of silk.  There was no such thing as just red, it had to be very precise in terms of the detail of the red.  There were just black and white photos then and those descriptions were so important in newspaper advertising and the store's catalogue.  When the McWhirters catalogue arrived at people's homes in country areas it was an event."

The flowery and detailed descriptions of socialites at weddings, gala fund-raising and charity balls covered in the social pages of The Courier Mail are delightful to read and Melissa has quoted many of them through the book.

 "I don't have sentimental attachment to the building," Melissa said.  "I didn't grow up in Brisbane. I feel removed in a way, the sentiment is not mine, I am attached to old things generally, a gratitude that it is still there, so many buildings are not.  It does have a prominent physical place in the valley and in people's imagination of Brisbane of yesteryear."

It took five years for Melissa to complete the book including the research and  writing.  She was relentless in her search through newspaper stories, old correspondence, wills, court decrees, bills of sale.  

"I had to find a shape for it, work out how to shape this story, I didn't want it to be an historical saga, it would have been impossible to write it in that way because I am drawing on different sources for the different eras, the historical bit became more  important in that it had relevance in the present."


What Will Be Worn

Published by Transit Lounge

In bookstores now

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