This is the story of an emigrant from Ballymacoda, Thomas Ahern, who ended up founding a famous department store chain, which became an institution in Western Australia.
Thomas Ahern was born in Ballymacoda on 23rd December 1884, the son of Patrick Ahern (1849-1910), a native of Ballymacoda, and his wife Mary, née McGrath (1853-1946) from nearby Killeagh.
Thomas had six siblings. Two sisters – Ellen (1886-1897) and Catherine (Katie) (1887-1900), and four brothers – John (1888-1962), Simon (1890-1978), Patrick (1892-1944) and Michael (1894-1957).
Searching the 1901 census records available online when Thomas would have been 17 years old doesn’t yield any results that are a match for him specifically in the Ballymacoda area. The census records do indicate a household in Ballymacoda where his parents names, Patrick and Mary, and his brothers names John, Patrick and Michael match, as do their ages.
The absence of Thomas here likely means that he was in another household on the day of the census, as a record would be added for each person in the household, family or otherwise, when the census form was being completed. A wider search of the census records for Cork at that time show a few matches for someone that would be Thomas’s age, such as the record below from a house in nearby Midleton, where there is a Thomas Ahern listed as a ‘Servant‘ as was common for workers listed in census forms at the time.
So, no direct matches for Thomas Ahern in the 1901 census records in the Ballymacoda area that seem to match. But, we do know that Thomas was apprenticed to a draper in Midleton at this time, due to the farm in Ballymacoda not being able to support everyone in the family. Therefore, the above census record for a household in Midleton is very likely referring to the Thomas Ahern whom we are interested in.
Thomas’s father Patrick died in October 1910, before he left for Australia. Records kept at the time, specifically the ‘Calendar of Wills and Administrations, 1858-1920‘, indicate that Patrick left the sum of ‘£333 18s. 4d.’ and that his wife Mary was sole beneficiary.
Thomas was employed in Tipperary and later Dublin, and in 1911 was living on Usher’s Quay in the city. In 1910, Patrick had applied for assisted passage to Australia, in place of a colleague who couldn’t make the trip. Thomas arrived in Fremantle, Western Australia in February 1911. Records available online, specifically ‘Fremantle, Western Australia, Passenger Lists, 1897-1963‘ indicate that Thomas arrived from Bremen, Germany aboard the vessel ‘Grosser Kurfürst‘ at that time.
Thomas initially worked at Brennan’s drapery in the town of Boulder. He married his fiancée Nora McGrath (coincidentally with the same maiden name as his own mother) in Perth on 19th June 1912, and subsequently started working as a departmental manager for clothing retailer Bon Marche. The 1916 electoral role for the division of Fremantle in the state of Western Australia shows a record for Thomas and Nora, living at Shenton Road in Claremont, with Thomas listed as a draper and Nora’s occupation listed as ‘home duties’:
In 1918, Thomas became the manager of the Brennan’s store in Perth.
The first Archbishop of Perth, Patrick Clune, himself an Irishman from County Clare, had a hand in advising the family of P. F. Quinlan to invite Thomas Ahern to manage their drapery and furniture store in Perth. Thomas insisted, were he to take on the role, on a controlling partnership and thus was the beginning of Aherns Department Store in Western Australia on 15th May 1922. Later electoral records show Thomas and Nora living at Airlie street in Cottesloe, with Thomas still listed as a draper:
Aherns Department Store started out with 50 employees and grew to over 500 quickly under the astute management of Thomas, across 5 different stores in Western Australia. Over time, Thomas bought out all the remaining shares in the business and become sole owner of the now thriving business.
As he grew older, Thomas maintained an active role in his business until his death in Perth on 22nd May 1970. He was survived by three sons and two daughters, with Nora having passed away in 1959. He was buried in Karrakatta cemetery, of which he had previously been a trustee from 1938-1942.
Ahern’s department store chain continued as a functioning business until 1999, a time when it employed 1,500 people, when it was sold to rival department store David Jones for $29 million, an amazing end to the legacy of a man that had been born on a farm in a small village in the south of Ireland. I have found no evidence that Thomas ever returned to his native Ballymacoda, that would certainly be interesting to know. There are multiple travel records that indicate he left Australia many times to travel to the UK, so there is certainly a likelihood that he returned to Ballymacoda during his lifetime.
A further history of Thomas Ahern and the department store chain he founded is captured in the book ‘Ballymacoda to Binduli: the story of Aherns W.A‘ by William Mahoney (a descendant of Thomas Ahern), published in Australia in 1997.
In 2013, Thomas Ahern was named one of the 100 most influential Western Australian businesspeople.
References & More Information
Note: Links provided where available.
Calendar of Wills and Administrations, 1858-1920
Fremantle, Western Australia, Passenger Lists, 1897-1963
Fremantle, Western Australia, Electoral Role, 1916, 1931