Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Lowe, William (Bill) (1874–1936)

by John Perkins

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

William (Bill) Lowe (1874-1936), clothing retailer, was born on 30 August 1874 at Clara, Tullamore, King's County (Offaly), Ireland, son of Stephen Lowe, grocer, and his wife Maria, née Hays. With £7 in his pocket, in 1889 Bill migrated to Melbourne, where he learned the trade of tailor. In 1893 he moved to Sydney to work with the department store of Mark Foy and then with Gowings.

By 1898 Lowe had saved enough out of his earnings to open his own shop in Oxford Street with two employees. The profits for a time were limited. However, he began to specialize in hats and then added a tailoring and clothing department. He promoted the early closing and Saturday half-holiday movements; the latter was achieved in 1910. In 1903 he had opened a large store in George Street, which became the headquarters of a chain of shops purveying men's and boys' wear. The clothes were made to measure, and numerous tailors and seamstresses occupied the upper floors of the George Street building. He quickly adapted to the trend towards ready-made clothing.

On 26 January 1899 at St Peter's Church of England, Melbourne, Lowe had married Victorian-born Grace Alison Ferguson. They had five children. Although given to saving intensely, Lowe was a showman. Tall, neatly moustached, with a bright and cheerful personality, he was noted for his sartorial elegance, and was often considered 'the best dressed man' at the Royal Easter Show. This and other actions were designed purely to promote custom for his stores. One advertisement he placed in the window of the George Street store read: 'Bill Lowe's trousers are coming down . . . come and see his goat'. It drew a crowd and attention to his stores, before the police ordered the poster to be removed. In 1923, described as 'one of the captains of industry', he controlled a business with a turnover of £500,000 annually and a thousand employees.

Lowe was the first city retailer to establish a branch at Parramatta, in 1932. It proved a success and was soon followed by a number of others including one at Newcastle, until with ten shops Lowe's became the largest chain of men's and boys' wear stores in New South Wales. With branches in the Haymarket, in Oxford Street and at Circular Quay as well as frontages on both George and Pitt streets, the firm could advertise 'Stores all over town'. They had a sharper, more insistent presence than those of their more traditional rivals, Gowing and Sir James Murdoch.

A member of the Civic and Millions clubs, Lowe also held debentures in the New South Wales Masonic Club and the Bonnie Doon Golf Club, Arncliffe. One of his hobbies was surfing. He died of pernicious anaemia and pneumonia on 13 August 1936 at his residence, Exeter Hall, Double Bay, survived by his wife, two daughters and two sons. Lowe was buried in the Anglican cemetery at South Head, Sydney. His estate was sworn for probate at £46,907. From the 1950s the company changed hands several times and no longer had any connection with the family. Lowe's practice of acquiring the freehold of the property occupied by his shops limited his flexibility to shift outlets as shopping traffic altered; it also led to properties becoming undervalued for shopping purposes and thereby attracting developers, especially from the late 1970s. In 2005 the firm still advertised that 'you can get it at Lowes'!

Select Bibliography

  • Sydneyites As We See ’Em 1913-14-15 (Syd, 1915)
  • Rydge’s Business Journal, 1 Nov 1930, p 977
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 8 Apr 1979, p 140
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 12 Dec 1921, p 5, 22 Dec 1923, p 13
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14 Aug 1936, p 12, 15 Aug 1936, p 23
  • Australian Worker, 19 Aug 1936, p 14.

Citation details

John Perkins, 'Lowe, William (Bill) (1874–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lowe-william-bill-13055/text23607, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 16 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

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