McDowells was a successful department store located in George Street near the General Post Office.

The company had its origins in a partnership between three drapers, John McDowell (c1858-1936), Charles Johnston and W J Coogan, who opened their shop in 1889. By 1895, the partnership had changed and was known as McDowell & Hughes, and in 1917 it became McDowells Ltd.

The 1925 purchase of W T Waters & Co, owners of an adjoining King Street building, allowed McDowells to expand and gave the store another street frontage. It also led to a major store re-fit, installation of a 600-700 seat cafeteria and employment of extra staff. It is possible that the company only began selling furniture and home furnishings after this date. The small, single-colour 'Modern Furniture' catalogue from around 1925 (TC 749.20492 MCD) suggests that the size and scope of this part of the business was modest in this period. The preface to the catalogue simply states that McDowells 'sells dependable furniture and furnishings… at the keenest prices.'

McDowells was a small department store when compared to Sydney competitors Anthony Hordern & Sons, Grace Bros and Marcus Clark, and appears to have relied on solid value-for-money stock and a good reputation. Nevertheless, the company continued to grow, particularly after World War II, helped by McDowells central location. By the early 1960s, branch stores were opened in the Sydney suburbs of Hornsby, Caringbah and Dee Why and in 1964, the company could boast 1200 employees.

McDowells remained in family hands for three generations but was eventually taken over by rival department store, Waltons, in 1972. The city store had ceased trading in February 1971, was then sold by the company and demolished soon afterwards.

Related materials:

To see all the McDowells material held by the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, go to the library catalogue.

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Michael Lech

Michael Lech


Michael Lech is a curator at MHNSW. He has worked on exhibitions, presented talks and written extensively on various aspects of the history of the home in Australia. Michael’s work has covered areas such as interior design, the history of wallpapers and furnishing textiles, the heritage movement, Sydney’s department stores and design history in Australia.