Tracing the family history comes with its own sense of intrigue and at times likens the journeyman to a novice sleuth, seeking out the secrets of past lives. Melissa Fagan, a member of the McWhirter family, decided she would take a journey into her families past. Her family, whose name was synonymous with one of Queensland’s most famous retail families, during the heady days of Department stores, paints a very colourful picture of days long gone, which in so many ways were not that far removed for life as we know it in modern times.
McWhirter’s Department Store is still located on Brunswick Street, Fortitude valley, wrapping around the corner as it has since its creation in stages from 1899-1929. It sits proudly as a Dowager, overlooking less splendid examples of architecture, now a Heritage listed icon, a tribute to the glory days of wealth and posterity in an Australia where to take a risk, to gamble on the future, could see wealth untold or terrible poverty.
But as Melissa Fagan discovered the very many ghosts of the family led a colourful, privileged well-travelled life in Australia and subsequently Britain, as she gently explores the people and the passion that went to create McWhirter and Son (later to be McWhirters Ltd) from humble origins to become the symbol of retail success in Brisbane.
As she carefully peals away the layers, she offers a wonderful portrait of her mother, a woman who grew up as a member of a noted family but always looking on as an outsider: her grandfather who had been booted, none to kindly out of the family, her grandmother her, a strong woman who lived her life by her own rules, and her own life, as she discovers more than she ever thought was possible, about not just her family members, but also her own life journey.
A wonderfully unexpected journey also develops into what people wore, where the fashion of the time originated and the social status involved in the strong and long growth that was to see McWhirter’s and the drapery trade in Australia, particularly down the East Coast, grow to phenomenal levels. It is, as with all things family, a story in many parts about people who shaped Australia, raised the benchmark high and eventually fell, in a manner of speaking, from grace.
Written with a light and delicate touch Melissa Fagan’s journey touches on so very much that is the fabric of family relationship’s, secrets hidden deep and the fascination of discovery when relatives, unknown to each other meet, trying up loose ends and unearthing so many more of the very diverse elements of people long past.
Like a butterfly landing delicately on a leaf, Fagan slips in and out of not just her family history, but that of early Australia, the richness that can be slowly be discovered in the archives of time, there to amaze, entertain and explain so much that was locked away in the memories and pictures of family.
An absolute gem!