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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Grace, Henry Albert (1885–1966)

by Jennifer O'Callaghan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Henry Albert Grace (1885-1966), electrician and bird enthusiast, was born on 28 June 1885 at Moree, New South Wales, eldest of five children of native-born parents Albert Henry Grace, solicitor, and his wife Catherine Ruth, née Muirson. Henry worked as an electrician on shift work for the New South Wales Government Railways and Tramways for forty-five years. In 1910, however, he was in England, for on 2 August that year in the parish church at Erdington, Warwickshire, he married Deborah Watling Carter, from Norfolk. Next year he worked as an electrical switchboard attendant at Wolverhampton. Back in Sydney the family lived at Willoughby; after World War II they moved to Jannali.

Grace had first taken up his hobby of bird watching in 1917. With an old police bicycle (given to him by his father in 1896), he took the steam train south from Sydney to the (Royal) National Park, where he was an honorary ranger for twenty-seven years. During his working life he maintained a love for the bush and nature. After retiring, he devoted himself to bird watching or more precisely bird listening, for which purpose he designed his own whistles so that he might 'talk with the birds'.

From his backyard workshop, Grace painstakingly constructed a series of extraordinary instruments, fashioned from old brass tubing, wire and rubber bands. In the National Park he would test the whistles in the wild, using his own birdcall notation (said to be a cross between Morse code and shorthand) to record the songs he heard in reply. He could imitate some sixty native species with his whistles, often with such perfection that he would fool the birds themselves—they would imitate each other. Sometimes he ranged further afield, catching the train to Otford or Thirroul loaded with bicycle, whistles, firewood and supplies and then riding into the bushland, often camping out overnight. His favourite sound was the dawn chorus: 'First the yellow robin, then the coachwhip, the currawongs, and the kookaburras. Finally the wonga-wonga and bronze-wing pigeons and orioles would join in . . . The chorus only lasts about 20 minutes, but it was worth camping out all night to hear', he said.

When his hearing became impaired, Grace built himself metal ear trumpets, which enabled him to hear the sounds he had cherished throughout his lifetime. As he aged and his memory became rusty, he would increasingly refer to his exercise books full of birdcall notation, to remind himself of the calls.

Grace visited the Minimurra falls regularly until his eightieth year, travelling by train to Wollongong then pushing his bike thirty miles (48 km) to the reserve. He died on 4 July 1966 in hospital at Caringbah and was cremated with Anglican rites. His wife, four daughters and one son survived him. In 1999 Grace's whistles, notebooks, bicycle and a 16-mm film of him in the Royal National Park featured in an exhibition at the State Library of New South Wales, 'Sydney Eccentrics: A Celebration of Individuals in Society'.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Carter, Stout Hearts and Leathery Hands (Adel, 1968)
  • State Library of New South Wales, Sydney Eccentrics, exhibition catalogue (Syd, 1999)
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 1 Sept 1968, p 70
  • St. George and Sutherland Shire Leader, 10 June 1999, p 11
  • H. Grace papers, photos, film, bird whistles, amplifiers and hearing aids (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Grace bicycle (Powerhouse Museum, Sydney)
  • correspondence files (State Library of New South Wales and Powerhouse Museum Library).

Citation details

Jennifer O'Callaghan, 'Grace, Henry Albert (1885–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 18 January 2021.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

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