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Sir Frank Schofield McDowell (1889–1980)

by Beverley Kingston

This article was published:

Sir Frank Schofield McDowell (1889-1980), retailer, was born on 8 August 1889 at Petersham, Sydney, third child of John McDowell, a draper from Ireland, and his native-born wife Alice, née Schofield. At the age of 15 Frank joined McDowell & Hughes, drapers and costumiers of George Street (a firm which his father had established in 1889 as Denison House Drapery Co.). He was soon managing the shop. On 30 November 1911 at St Paul's Anglican Church, Burwood, he married 20-year-old Ethel Sophia Perrott; they were to have six sons and a daughter. In 1912 the partnership of McDowell & Hughes was registered as a limited company which was reconstructed as McDowell's Ltd in 1920. When the drapers W. T. Waters & Co. Ltd was acquired by McDowell's in 1925, Frank added its management to his responsibilities.

In 1935 he succeeded his father as managing director and chairman of McDowell's Ltd; he was also a trustee and committee-member (1932-67) of the Retail Traders' Association of New South Wales (of which his father had been a founder). Through astute property deals, McDowell's main store eventually dominated the corner of George and King streets. One of the first of the city retailers to recognize that shopping was moving to the suburbs, McDowell's opened stores at Hornsby and Caringbah in 1961 and at Dee Why in 1963. The company bought Mark Foys Ltd in 1968 and in 1970 registered McDowells Holdings Ltd. By 1971 the King Street store had been sold and demolished to provide the site for the King George tower.

McDowell's was neither a leader of fashion nor a setter of trends, but it promised friendly service, and a family atmosphere for both staff and customers. The drapery store with a staff of twelve had become a large department store with 800 'contented employees' by 1949 and 1200 by 1964. Although conservative in most respects, McDowell was capable of modernizing to keep pace with his customers. Innovations were functional and aimed at a mass market. The cafeteria, opened in 1931, could seat 600-700 people at small, linoleum-topped tables. The new suburban stores glittered with white formica, mirrors and tiles; other features included piped music, air-conditioning, 'driverless' lifts, and electric hand-driers in the washrooms. Knighted in 1967, McDowell stepped down as managing director in favour of his son John, but remained chairman of the board. In 1971 the company's shareholders accepted a takeover bid by Waltons Ltd.

Three generations of the family—including McDowell's sons and grandsons (enough to field a cricket team)—worked in the stores. Frank himself enjoyed cricket, played golf, took up bowls, exercised regularly in a gym in his late seventies, and was still swimming daily at the age of 87. He lived at Cronulla, and was president of Chatswood Golf Club, vice-president of the St George Veterans' Cricket Club and a member of South Cronulla Bowling Club.

As grand master (1947-51) of United Grand Lodge of New South Wales—with a lodge later named in his honour—he promoted the development of retirement and aged-care facilities through the Frank Whiddon Masonic Homes. McDowell had also been grand master of Mark Master Masons and was an inspector general (1966-72) of the Superior Council of the 33° (Rose Croix). A member (from 1927) and president (1945-57) of the Rotary Club of Sydney, he remained an active senior Rotarian. He was also a trustee of the Australian Museum, a member of the advisory board of the Young Men's Christian Association and president of the All Nations Club. Survived by his children, Sir Frank died on 1 November 1980 at Calvary Hospital, Kogarah, and was cremated with Masonic rites. Sir William Dargie's portrait of McDowell is held by United Grand Lodge.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Mitchell, The Rotary Club of Sydney 1921-1981 (Syd, 1981)
  • K. Henderson, The Masonic Grand Masters of Australia (Melb, 1988)
  • F. Pollon, Shopkeepers and Shoppers (Syd, 1989)
  • Retail Traders' Association of New South Wales, Journal, Mar 1924, Nov 1931, Sept 1949, Sept 1960, Aug, Dec 1961, Feb 1962
  • Rotary Club of Sydney, Directory, 1970-71
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Apr 1964, 28 Apr 1967, 11 Aug 1968, 25 Nov 1975, 3 Nov 1980
  • W. McDowell, The History of McDowell's Ltd 1892-1971 (typescript, copy held in ADB file).

Citation details

Beverley Kingston, 'McDowell, Sir Frank Schofield (1889–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 30 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


8 August, 1889
Petersham, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


1 November, 1980 (aged 91)
Kogarah, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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