It was one of those fine Friday spring days and I found myself having a ramble around Malvern. I like to visit opportunity shops on my days off and had a feeling this would be a fortunate day.

I wandered into my favourite store in Wattletree Road. As usual there was a cornucopia of clothing but nothing that really stood out, or fitted.

I made my way over to browse the books section. As my eyes drifted upward to the top of the book shelf, an item caught my eye.

Looking closer, I could see it was a red tartan scarf. I thought it was beautiful – a really well made piece. I asked the lady in the shop if I could take a look so she took it off the shelf for me.

Photograph of tartan scarf with label on it reading "T. MacKenzie Kirkwood"
Tartan scarf made by T. MacKenzie Kirkwood

I turned the scarf over in my hands. Its colours were vibrant and its quality was obvious. Curious as to the maker, I cast my eyes over the label. ‘T. Mackenzie Kirkwood’, it read. I’d never heard of him but I was intrigued.

The next day I went to work and with the assistance of our librarians, started to do a little digging. I found several newspaper notifications about T. MacKenzie Kirkwood’s business and a few articles. One in particular caught my attention. It was titled ‘Romances in business’ and was published on the front page of the Herald on January 20 1914.

Newspaper headline reading "Romances in business. The collar king. Career of a sturdy Scot"
Herald, 20 January 1914, p. 1

According to this article, Thomas McKenzie Kirkwood was an ardent Scot and a well-known figure in the Caledonian sporting community. In 1875, he began to earn his living from retail in Smith St, Collingwood.

After 19 years Kirkwood migrated to the city and began his long-standing residency at the Royal Arcade in Bourke Street. The premise was originally a Scotch pie shop, but when Thomas took over it was a clothing business.

Below is a photo of the shop (at the bottom right):

Black and white photo of several buildings in Bourke Street, including a double-story brick building with sign on exterior reading "T MacKenzie Kirkwood"
Elevated view of Deva House Bourke Street housing Coles Variety Store adjoining store of T. Mackenzie Kirkwood and Royal Arcade; MS 13468

Today this building is an ANZ bank.

Kirkwood discovered it was hard to make a profit in the city out of retail clothing alone, so he decided to branch out and become a gentlemen’s mercer. He introduced the population of Melbourne to his ‘genuine four-fold six-penny collar’ (pictured below on a postcard from 1904), and claimed that there was a hardly a home he had not ‘collared’.

Clearly, he was a gentleman of vision.

Along with his four-fold six-penny collar, Kirkwood expanded his business to include other items of stylish menswear, including men’s silk neckwear, the Eureka shirt (which was apparently ‘as well known as the town clock’), men’s hats such as boaters and bowlers, as well as all the latest Australian, English and continental designs. [1]

Below is a photograph of a T. MacKenzie Kirkwood bowtie:

Black and white photo of black silk bow tie
Black silk bowtie. Photo courtesy of George Serras, National Museum of Australia

By the time the ‘Romances in business’ article was published in 1910, Thomas MacKenzie Kirkwood was operating a very successful business. With 10 shop assistants on hand, he was catering not only to the local Melbourne market but also a broader community of ex-patriot Scots.

Kirkwood had proven himself to be a canny and progressive businessman, as evidenced by this letter, written by Kirkwood in 1911 about the use and promotion of cash registers:

Image of typewritten letter by T. MacKenzie Kirkwood
Letter written by T. MacKenzie Kirkwood from provenance file. Pictures collection, State Library Victoria

Despite these high cultural watermarks, Australia was about to undergo a transformation that would take a heavy toll upon its citizens with the outbreak of World War I.

Like many others, Thomas Kirkwood had a son who went off to war. His name was Athol Kirkwood. The following quote from a book called As rough as bags by Ron Austin suggests he was a brave and noble soldier:

Private Athol Kirkwood of C Company was typical of such leadership [bravery and comraderie]. Having lost Major Wells as well as some senior NCOs, Kirkwood took charge of the troops in his immediate area. By steadying them with personal courage and example, and them leading them forward, he maintained the momentum at a critical stage of the advance. Private Kirkwood was later awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his fine efforts. (p. 88)

Athol Kirkwood was later killed in action at Gallipoli on 27 July 1915. He died a hero.

After the war, Thomas MacKenzie Kirkwood continued to trade. Below is a photograph of the inside of the shop. You can spot Thomas in the backround.

Black and white photo of interior of T. Kirkwood MacKenzie's store. Merchandise is on display and Kirkwood MacKenzie is visible at the back of the shop
[Interior, ‘The Collar King’, Mercer, Hatter and Gents Outfitters]. Photo by Sutcliffe and Akers, circa 1911; H94.182/2

This photo is my personal favourite. I have always had a love for gentleman’s stores; firstly, for their sense of tradition; and secondly, for the touch of subversion that exists within those traditions.

I think if I was living in the early twentieth century I would definitely have shopped at T. Mackenzie Kirkwood.

The store remained open until 1940. Around 1930, Thomas’s son Gordon came on board and it would seem that he ran the store until his passing. Below is the last newspaper notice I could find regarding the sale of fittings and closure of T. MacKenzie Kirkwood:

Age, 31 May 1941 p. 2

T. MacKenzie Kirkwood’s scarf is now safe in my collection, a reminder of times past, when shops such as his brought a little colour into our lives.

With thanks to Sarah Matthews, Jo Crabbe and David Flegg

References

[1] Herald, 20 January 1914, p. 1

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This article has 8 comments

  1. Damn you, Michael! You made me want that scarf!

  2. Terrific piece Michael. It just goes to show what can be gleaned for a single sliver of information or seemingly insignificant starting point. Well done.

  3. Michael
    Thanks for such an informative piece illuminating a piece of Melbourne history.
    Well done you for giving this beautiful thing a second life!
    And for showing how rich and varied the library collections are too.
    Spot on cross promotion for Robyn Annears latest publication “Nothing New: A History of Second-Hand”.

  4. Fabulous story Michael.

  5. This is definately big and nice treasure hunt and the stroy behind this is very beautiful .
    Love too read whole part and looking forward for another interesting one.Thanks Michael.

  6. Fabulous blog post Michael and what a great find.

  7. Sophia Bektassiadis

    Fabulous piece. Very interesting insight into times gone by. I always wonder about bits and pieces I’ve found or seen at flea markets or op shops. Your piece just demonstrated that everything has a story. Thank you for sharing.

  8. What a gem of a story Michael. I found your article so heartwarming. Your curiosity in this chance purchase revealed yet another fascinating story of the early history of Melbourne and its people and what rich pickings from our wonderful State Library!
    Thank you.

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