Lovely bargain suits an enterprising Irishwoman
In times gone by, the gentlemen of Brisbane and Queensland were outfitted by establishments such as Pike Brothers, Rothwells and Woulfe and Son. Few would have guessed that the power behind the throne in Woulfe and Son was none other than a woman.
Sarah Woulfe nee Mahoney was born in County Cork and trained as a seamstress. She came to Queensland in about 1863 and lived in Stanthorpe for about 30 years. When she was widowed with five daughters and one son to care for, her assets were a few yards of cloth.
She moved to Brisbane in about 1907 and at her Paddington home, using her faithful treadle machine, began to make and mend for her neighbours. This proved profitable and so she began to make men’s suits.
In 1910, she and her son Patrick borrowed £5 and purchased a cutting and trimming table. With this capital, the firm of Woulfe and Son was born.
Patrick was an excellent salesman and procured enough orders to keep Sarah and her machine working day and night. Before long, the business had to move, first to Moon’s Chambers, and then the Chandler Building in Adelaide St.
Stock was four rolls of cloth; two pieces of Italian [lining material] and two pieces of French canvas, for stiffening. Output each week was just three, three-piece suits, with an extra pair of trousers for the price of £5/10.
Sarah treadled hard and within three months staff were employed and output was 40 suits plus the extra pair of trousers. This extra, no doubt, proved an enticement to purchase Woulfe and Son suits.
World War I saw the firm contracted to make uniforms for the soldiers and so more staff was employed. Between 1919 and 1921, Patrick took the bold step to move his “showroom” from the third floor of Moon’s Building to the ground floor and utilised a window display.
The firm continued to prosper and eventually moved the showroom to Justice Chambers and occupied the entire ground floor. The workroom was moved to one floor of a building in Little Roma St but by 1950, three floors in this building were in use.
Sarah moved from Paddington to Windsor in 1919, to a relatively new residence which she named Efluow (Woulfe backwards) at 42 Constitution Rd. A devout Catholic, she stood guarantor when the new church, Holy Rosary, was built.
From near destitution Sarah and her son became not only wealthy but a state-wide household name in menswear. Sarah Woulfe died in 1931 but by this time Patrick had been joined in the business by his sons James and Patrick.
The Depression meant Patrick had to look for further inducements. As a super salesman, he would roam the warehouses and purchase job lots of cream flannel, tweed material or even over-coating from other businesses also having a hard time. A suit with extra trousers was still offered but with the sweetener of a “free overcoat or pair of creams” with every order for just £3.
By 1936, the weekly tally had risen to 650 suits.
During World War II, the firm again was contracted to produce for the war effort but at the cessation of hostilities, without a woollen fabric quota.
Times were hard but before long it had regained its reputation as the biggest “tailored to measure” business in Australia. Sarah Woulfe’s Windsor home still stands.
Diana Hacker is archivist for the Queensland Women’s Historical Association based at Miegunyah in Bowen Hills. Visit miegunyah.org