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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Grace, Joseph Neal (1859–1931)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Joseph Neal Grace (1859-1931), retailer, was born on 10 September 1859 at Winslow, Buckinghamshire, England, son of John Grace, schoolmaster, and his wife Sarah, née Neal. After being indentured to a small retail drapery firm at Notting Hill, London, and working for Crisp & Co. Ltd, and Jones & Higgins Ltd in London, he migrated to Australia in about 1880 and became a retail assistant with Farmer & Co. Ltd in Sydney.

About 1883 Grace bought a horse and cart and took out a hawker's licence to sell drapery and other stock. Exposure to the keen bargaining of the housewife in the inner industrial suburbs of Sydney made him a first-class trader. Soon taking about £30 a week he was advised by a warehouseman to open a store. In 1885, borrowing £500, he and his brother Albert Edward (d.1938), who had arrived from Boston that year, bought the premises, fittings and stock of John Kingsbury, draper, at 5-7 George Street, West (Broadway), Glebe. Business prospered: in 1891-92 the brothers took over three adjacent shops and four years later had a four-storey building erected at the rear in Grose Street. Further extensions with clock tower, globe and an electricity power house were built in 1904; the Broadway front was rebuilt in 1906.

Grace knew the importance of service and a good window display and it was not long before the slogan 'Be sure and get it at Grace Bros' was deeply embedded in the minds of faithful shoppers. The slogan was parodied by his staff, 'Be sure you'll get it at Grace Brothers—the sack at 21!';—the firm relied heavily on junior sales assistants. The removal, storage and shipping division emerged out of the firm's retail furniture business to become the largest of its type in Australia. In 1917 the partnership was incorporated as a private company, Grace Bros Ltd, with all the shares owned by members of the family; Grace became governing director.

Quiet and unobtrusive socially, Grace was, however, active in employer and business organizations. He was president of the Retail Traders' Association of New South Wales, and member of the Employers' Federation of New South Wales and Sydney Chamber of Commerce. In 1926 he opposed the introduction of the Workers' Compensation Act. Work was Grace's joy in life; he took great pleasure in displaying the slogan 'There's no fun like work' given him by Gordon Selfridge of London. He claimed that 'Work is quite as interesting as golf or billiards, or any other game … I will slip out of business as quietly as I came into it, and fill in my days in my garden or with an occasional game of golf'.

Grace died suddenly at his residence, Yasmar, Parramatta Road, Haberfield, on 5 July 1931 and was cremated with Anglican rites. He was survived by his wife Sarah Selina, née Smith, whom he had married at St Aiden's Chapel, Ballarat, Victoria, on 20 December 1911. His estate was valued for probate at £636,156.

Under the chairmanship (1931-38) of A. E. Grace the firm expanded to the suburbs. One of Australia's largest retail businesses, Grace Bros Pty Ltd became a public company on 7 October 1960. In 1979 the firm took over J. B. Young Ltd, giving it a chain of over 130 stores.

Select Bibliography

  • Rydge's, 1 June 1929, p 436
  • Wireless Weekly, 2 Aug 1935
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 July 1926, 17 May 1930, 6 July 1931, 21 Mar 1938, 3 Oct 1981, 1 Apr 1982.

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Grace, Joseph Neal (1859–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 31 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

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