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Sir John Grice (1850–1935)

by Judith Tyers

This article was published:

Sir John Grice (1850-1935), businessman, was born on 6 October 1850 in Melbourne, fourth son of Richard Grice and his wife Anne Lavinia, née Hibberson. He was educated at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School in 1861-66 and then at the newly opened Wesley College, where he won a prize as the first boy from Wesley to matriculate with credit at the University of Melbourne.

Grice graduated LL.B. in 1871 and B.A. in 1872. He founded the University Boat Club, rowed in the first intervarsity boat race (1870) and was a member of an intercolonial four-oared crew in 1872. Although he was admitted to the Bar in 1872 he joined the family firm of Grice, Sumner & Co. He spent some nine years in South Australia as director of the shipping firm Ormerod & Co. of Robe, Kingston and Naracoorte (from July 1878 known as John Grice & Co.). On 8 May 1878 at St John's Church, Toorak, he married Mary Anne, daughter of David Power of Moorak, Mount Gambier, South Australia.

After his father's death in 1882 Grice returned to Melbourne and the family business. In 1887 he joined the board of the National Bank of Australasia. He was active in the crisis of 1893 when the bank's payments to depositors were suspended for eight weeks, salaries reduced and staff retrenched. As chairman from 1906 he combined constant demands for caution in the bank's activities with a strong nineteenth-century commitment to laissez-faire economics. He was completely opposed to the establishment of a central banking authority. He resented the power given to the Commonwealth Bank in 1929 to acquire compulsorily all the gold reserves of the trading banks. In 1932 he resigned as chairman but remained on the board until his death.

As chairman of directors of the Metropolitan Gas Co. from 1901, Grice also attracted publicity. In the 1920s he was prominent in combating threats to nationalize the company. During a protracted strike of 1920 the company took a strong stand, articulated in the press by Grice, against the striking workers over a pay claim. His attitude to employees' demands, which was also reflected in his attempts to prevent the formation of a bank officers' union in 1920, did not make him popular with those who worked for the companies he directed. As a fellow board-member, however, he was considered an honest, astute advocate who could drive a hard bargain, yet command respect.

Grice was also chairman of directors of the Dunlop Rubber Co. of Australasia Ltd (later Dunlop Perdriau Rubber Co.), the Trustees, Executors & Agency Co. Ltd, the Emu Bay Railway Co. Ltd, North British & Mercantile Insurance Co. Ltd, Howard Smith Ltd, the New Zealand Loan and Mercantile Agency Co. Ltd and the Australian Glass Manufacturers Co. Ltd. He had interests in Queensland as director of the Portland Downs and Malvern Hills pastoral companies.

In 1888 Grice had been elected to the Council of the University of Melbourne. He became vice-chancellor in 1918 at a time when the council felt his business experience would be useful in the task of overcoming financial difficulties. He donated £2000 to the university in 1920 and later gave gifts to the school of architecture; his portrait, painted by Longstaff in 1927, now hangs in that department.

Like his father, Grice was long associated with the (Royal) Melbourne Hospital. He took an active part in its affairs as a member of its committee of management from 1886 and as president in 1905-18. As the first voluntary treasurer of the Victorian branch of the Red Cross, Grice contributed to the war effort; these services were recognized by his knighthood in 1917. He remained interested in Wesley College; when in 1918 he was elected president of the old boys' association he marked the occasion by establishing the Grice scholarship for sons of officers who had been killed in World War I.

Family life was centred on Coolullah, South Yarra, and Coolangatta, his holiday home at Mount Macedon. Of his six surviving children, the eldest son was killed in the South African War and another died of wounds in World War I. Twins John and James entered the medical and engineering professions. Elsa helped to found the Country Women's Association in Australia after World War I.

Grice is remembered by his descendants as fairly remote and rather stern. No doubt time spent with family was reduced by work commitments, although friends were frequently contacted at the Melbourne Club, either for formal dinners, or to play a rubber or two of bridge.

After a period of slowly failing health, Sir John Grice died at South Yarra on 27 February 1935 and was buried in St Kilda cemetery. His wife had predeceased him. His estate was sworn for probate at about £40,000.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Henderson (ed), Early Pioneer Families of Victoria and Riverina (Melb, 1936)
  • G. Blainey, Gold and Paper (Melb, 1958)
  • Age (Melbourne), 18 June 1920, 28 Feb 1935
  • Argus (Melbourne), 28 Feb 1935
  • Grice papers (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Judith Tyers, 'Grice, Sir John (1850–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

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