Our History

Seven Generations By Norman Hamill

 

In politics, Daniel O'Connell was campaigning for repeal of the Act of Union. And here, Thomas Austin moved to the city from Limavady to start his drapery business in the Diamond. His son George joined him in 1865 and in his time the flamboyant and imaginative building we have today was built between 1904 and 1907 after the original was destroyed by fire. Seven generations have shared pride in Austins' magnificent department store, the first of its kind in anywhere in the world. The story began away back in 1830. Then, just six years before the catastrophic famine, the population of Ireland was twice what it is today. 

The new building was created to the bold design of brilliant architect, Matthew Robinson, who had earlier designed Rosemount factory. Later, he reconstructed the Guildhall, designed Craigavon Bridge and secured the city's water supply building Banagher Dam. But it was in Austins that Robinson fully expressed his creativity with its conglomeration of large windows, columns, pedestals, balconies and copper roofed cupola. 

It is a remarkable design, untypical of restrained Edwardian buildings, and makes the most of its wonderful corner site. Inside, the main feature was an open stair well running through the floors, topped with a fine glass atrium. Altogether, it was an impressive and elaborate structure built in the Titanic age of great optimism, as the country's first purpose-built department store.

Down the generations Austins has been entwined with the lives of the Austin and Hasson families and countless others who have worked or shopped there. When George Austin died his son Glover ran the business until he handed over to his sons Claude and Campbell. But tragedy was to strike the family in August 1973. When Claude set off with two crewmen to sail from Lough Swilly to the Solent for Cowes regatta. All three were lost in a sudden storm and only one body has ever been found. Claude's untimely death led to the end of the Austin dynasty's control of the store, and on St Patrick's Day 1976 the business was sold to the Hasson family. 

This was remarkable as it was also on March 17, precisely 23 years earlier that Larry Hasson and his wife opened their first shop in Carlisle Road. Later along with their son Luke they opened three more shops in Ferryquay Street and their success enabled them, when the opportunity arose, to buy one of the country's finest department stores. 

Down the years Austins has also had a large 'family' of loyal staff. In the 1930s, staff and apprentices lived in a dormitory above McKinlays in the Diamond, which was owned by Austins. Apprentices came from all over Ireland to learn their trade in the Although they lived free of charge they were unpaid and in most cases their parents even had to pay a premium for their training North West's most prestigious store.

Ruby Wilson who worked for Austins from 1964 - 2004 remembers the open well with its fine glass atrium, the original lift and compressed air cash transit system. Just as Harrods is associated with London, so Austins is part of our history and this was recognised when the Hassons retained the famous name.

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