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Ahern, Thomas (1884–1970)

by Barbara Ahern

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Thomas Ahern (1884-1970), merchant and draper, was born on 23 December 1884 at Ballymacoda, County Cork, Ireland, son of Patrick Ahern and his wife Mary, née McGrath. The family farm could not support six sons: after leaving the village school, Thomas was apprenticed to a Middleton draper and worked for his keep. From 1904 he was employed in Tipperary, Dublin, Kilkenny and Waterford. He applied in 1910 for an assisted passage to Australia in place of a workmate unable to go; using the telephone for the first time, he shouted so loudly that he could almost have been heard in London without it. He sailed early next year and on the advice of a Catholic priest disembarked in Fremantle. Employed by Brennans' drapery at Boulder, he then brought out his fiancée Nora McGrath (1884-1959) and married her in Perth on 19 June 1912. Ahern then moved to Perth as departmental manager for Bon Marché in 1912-18 and manager of Brennans' Perth store in 1918-22.

Advised by Archbishop Clune, the family of P. F. Quinlan invited Ahern to manage their drapery and furniture store, Robertson and Moffat's Successors. He insisted on a controlling partnership and opened as Aherns Ltd on 15 May 1922. The firm then had fifty employees and over five hundred in 1970, and never failed to show an annual profit. Ahern gradually bought out the Quinlan shares and became a store patriarch. His kindness to staff helped to solve many family problems and launched many young people; his employees worked hard in return and seldom stood upon the letter of the Shops and Factories Acts.

The business succeeded because of its central position, careful buying and Ahern's strong personality, and expanded into a large departmental store. Some saw Catholic Church influence, though there were many Protestants on the staff, for Ahern was a fervent churchman. An adviser to three archbishops and many clergy, he was benefactor and friend of many Catholic institutions. In 1927, on the first of several trips of Europe, he was dubbed in Rome a papal knight of St Sylvester.

Late in life Ahern accepted public offices: he was a trustee of Karrakatta cemetery (1938-42), a justice of the peace (1940-70), patron of the Claremont Football Club (1940-69), president of the Retail Traders' Association of Western Australia (1945-47) and president of the Perth Chamber of Commerce (1954-55). He raced three horses, played golf and was a regular swimmer. His birthday parties in a Perth club were famous.

Ahern maintained active control of the firm and in his last years enthusiastically supported proposals by his sons for suburban expansion. He died on 22 May 1970, survived by three sons and two daughters, and was buried at Karrakatta. His portrait by Vernon Jones hangs in the company's boardroom.

Select Bibliography

  • West Australian, 23 May 1970
  • Record (Perth), 28 May 1970
  • private information.

Citation details

Barbara Ahern, 'Ahern, Thomas (1884–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/ahern-thomas-4978/text8265, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 21 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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