Dictionary of Sydney

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Grace Brothers

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Grace Brothers

From its location on Broadway, just outside Sydney's central business district, Grace Bros grew to become one of the city's largest department stores. Although not the first department store to establish suburban outlets, Grace Bros was the first to strategically plan and develop an extensive network of branches in suburban Sydney. But it was the Broadway store, located on the main road for those entering the city from the south and west, which laid the basis for a retail empire.

The first Grace Bros store, specialising in drapery, opened in 1885 at 203 George Street West, established by English immigrant brothers, Joseph Neal Grace and Albert Edward Grace. Both had worked in the retail trade in England and Joseph Neal was employed at Farmer & Co, one of Sydney's largest retailers at the time, soon after arriving in 1883 and before he decided to branch out on his own. From humble beginnings, the brothers quickly expanded: firstly, to purchase the premises of draper John Kingsbury 60 yards (50 metres) down the road at 5–7 Broadway in 1887. Four years later, numbers 9–11 had also been acquired and the company was soon operating departments for drapery, clothing, boots, carpets and crockery. In 1897, a four-storey Robert Boyd-designed building was constructed at the rear of the site and Grace Bros established new departments for furniture, electro-plate, ironmongery, paper hangings and oils & colours. [1]

The Broadway store

In 1904, Grace Bros made arguably its greatest impact on Sydney's landscape with the erection of a new five-storey building on the western corner of Broadway and Bay Street. The glass and steel globe bearing the company name that topped this building (together with its partner, not erected until 1926) became a symbol of the company, visible from many parts of Sydney and used for decades in advertisements, promotions and company stationery. The globe was initially 14 feet (4.2 metres) in diameter, made of opal glass, supported by bronze griffins with outstretched wings and illuminated at night by a private electricity plant built by the firm to operate elevators, clocks and lighting. The globes were, however, removed for a period during World War II and again in the 1980s. The current versions, replaced in 1998, are reconstructions from lightweight material. [2]

The 1904 building, designed by architect Walter Newman, was known as 'the Model Store'. In addition, a host of products were given the Model prefix (ie the Model boot, the Model piano, the Model tyre) and the firm's monthly catalogue, first issued in 1907, was called the Model Trader . As a symbol of how quickly the firm grew, by 1909 Grace Bros were posting 12,000 copies of the Model Trader per month to customers. [3] Its success led to the publication of a larger general catalogue in November 1909.

The period to 1930 was one of continual expansion, the pace only stymied for a few years during World War I. The self-assurance of the company was a by-product of the family that ran the business. As if willing itself to succeed, the company's motto from the 1880s declared 'We will deserve success'. Although a later motto introduced around 1900, 'The store that keeps faith with the public', was more modest, the Grace family kept a tight rein over the business – in 1917 when Grace Bros became a limited liability company, shares were issued only to Grace family members.

The success of the business relied heavily on a large and diverse staff. The 1907 New South Wales Arbitration Court Shop Assistants Case revealed that many large retailers gave their staff poor pay rates and working conditions. Grace Bros were singled out for not providing paid leave to the majority of staff, working staff long hours, regularly fining staff for minor offences such as arriving late for work, and over-employing young women because they could be paid lower rates than either men or women with more experience: in this period, over 60 per cent of Grace Bros employees were women and over 40 per cent were women under 23 years of age. [4] As staff numbers rose from about 900 in 1905 to 1667 in 1910 and then nearly 3000 in 1923, the Grace Bros motto, 'Sure to get it at Grace Bros' (introduced in 1916), was parodied by staff who claimed the one thing they would be sure to get was 'the sack at 21!', [5] before their rates of pay were required by law to be increased. On the other hand, many employees, especially women, considered working for large retailers like Grace Bros to be a much better alternative than other occupations. An added advantage was the large array of cultural pursuits and sporting clubs and facilities offered to staff.

Growth and diversification

Building works continued apace around Broadway up to 1930 as the company purchased more land and erected more buildings. From 1911, architects Morrow & De Putron, becoming Morrow & Gordon in 1925, carried out most building work on Grace Bros Broadway and their later suburban stores. [6] This firm was also responsible for designing the Grace Building (1930) on the corner of York and King streets in the city, a Gothic-Art Deco fusion based on the Chicago Tribune Building (1922). Although arguably an architectural success, the building proved to be a commercial failure. Following construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge (1932) it was mistakenly believed York Street would become one of the principle thoroughfares of the city. This area had traditionally been home to warehouses and softgoods buyers – the ground floor of the Grace Building was designed as a display area showcasing Grace Bros products, while the upper floors were offices imagined as places where buyers and sellers could meet and discuss samples. [7]

Growth was not limited to construction of buildings. In order to fill its expanding store, Grace Bros established a London buying office in 1908, to purchase direct from English manufacturers, thereby keeping costs low. A small manufacturing enterprise of its own had begun as early as 1899 with the manufacture of clothing, while a factory was established in nearby Chippendale from which by 1913 the company was also fitting upholstery and making mattresses and picture frames. In 1910, the company boasted that the store comprised 95 departments. One year later, Grace Bros established a removal service, which became a profitable and highly visible part of the company's business portfolio.

Like all department stores, Grace Bros supplied not just products, but also a wide range of services: in the early 1920s the Broadway store housed a pharmacy, hairdresser and portrait photography studio, while regular concerts, performances and displays were held in store. Grace Bros were also keen to be seen supporting the latest ideas in arts, crafts and interior decoration. For example, during the 1920s artist Roi de Mestre (later known as Roy de Maistre) had his patented colour harmonising chart sold through Grace Bros for interior decorators, and both de Mestre and Thea Proctor produced painted furniture for sale through the store. [8] In 1937, the sizeable Grace Auditorium opened and quickly became one of the city's premier dancing and dining venues.

Suburban expansion

In the early 1930s, trade suffered not only because of the Depression but also because the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge led to the diversion of city tram and bus routes, affecting passing trade. As a result, Grace Bros management commenced a policy to extend its services into the suburbs, initially intending to retail a selection of merchandise and not to replicate every department in the new locations. The first suburban branch to open was Parramatta in 1933, following by Bondi Junction in 1934. [9]

Although refurbishment and reconstruction of existing buildings occurred during the 1950s, the decision to become a public company in 1960 provided the Grace Bros with money to expand. A round of new stores were opened in the 1960s, arguably the most famous at Roselands, near the Sydney suburb of Bankstown. Opened in 1965, Roselands was not just a Grace Bros store but a fully undercover shopping centre with 80 specialty shops, 10 acres (4 hectares) of shopping space and room for 3000 parking spots. [10] By 1971, the chairman of Grace Bros, Bert Augustus 'Mick' Grace, explained that the company's vision was to put a store within 10 minutes drive of every Sydney home and stated:

Today within easy driving distance of 90 per cent of Sydney's population there are eight Grace Bros retail stores with a total area of two million square feet affording maximum convenience in terms of merchandise, service, accessibility and parking.' [11]

While other large Sydney retailers were suffering financially during the 1960s and 1970s, some having to close their city stores and many being taken over, Grace Bros continued to expand and trade profitably. By 1981 the company portfolio of suburban branches opened in the previous 20 years included: Chatswood (1961), Warringah Mall (1963), Top Ryde (1964), Roselands (1965), Miranda Fair (1971), Liverpool (1972), Mt Druitt (1973), Hornsby (1979), Burwood (1981), Macquarie Centre (1981) and Maroubra (1981). In addition, other businesses were acquired, including the country stores of JB Young and the Fossey's chain of stores. In 1980, as employee numbers rose to 13,000, Grace Bros also established a city presence as it took over the lease of Mark Foy's old Piazza store on the corner of Elizabeth and Liverpool streets. [12]

In early 1983, with a third generation of the family at the helm in the person of Michael Grace, Grace Bros attempted an instantaneous expansion through purchase of the New South Wales stores of Melbourne-based retailer Myer Ltd. Although many were based in regional centres, the purchase did include a prized presence in Sydney's central shopping district on Market Street in the old Farmers department store. However, Grace Bros's joy lasted just four months, because the company was taken over in turn by Myer. The Grace Bros name lived on until 2004 when all stores were rebadged with the Myer name. [13]


[1] GP Walsh, 'Grace, Joseph Neal (1859–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 9, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1983, p 65, available online at http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/grace-joseph-neal-6442/text11025, viewed 18 July 2011; Nicholas Brash, Anne Burke and Colette Hoeben, The model store 1885–1985: 100 years serving Sydney, Kevin Weldon & Associates, Sydney, 1985

[2] Sydney Morning Herald, 14 July 1903, p 3; 24 June 1904, p 4; Meredith Walker and Peter Marquis-Kyle, The illustrated Burra Charter: good practice for heritage places, Australia ICOMOS, Burwood, Victoria, 2004, p 63

[3] The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, Royal Commission on postal services: minutes of evidence, vol 2, 1910, p 1406

[4] Edna Ryan, Two-thirds of a man: women & arbitration in New South Wales 1902–08, Hale & Ironmonger, Sydney, 1984, esp chapter 6 'The shop assistants', pp 135–183; Sydney Morning Herald, 9 May 1907, p 4; 10 May 1907, p 5; 16 May 1907, p 4

[5] GP Walsh, 'Grace, Joseph Neal (1859–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 9, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1983, p 65, available online at http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/grace-joseph-neal-6442/text11025, viewed 18 July 2011, p 65

[6] Morrow & Gordon Architects Pty Ltd, Architectural drawings, 1896–1982, State Library of New South Wales, Mitchell Library, PXD 529

[7] Frances Pollon, Shopkeepers and shoppers: a social history of retailing in New South Wales from 1788, Retail Traders' Association of NSW, Sydney, 1989, p 34

[8] Heather Johnson, 'Modern rooms', in Ann Stephen, Philip Goad and Andrew McNamara, (eds), Modern times: the untold story of modernism in Australia, Miegunyah Press in association with Powerhouse Museum, Carlton, Victoria, 2008, pp 22–29; The Home, Sydney, April 1927, pp 50–51

[9] 'Branch Stores: new policy by Grace Bros Ltd', Journal of the Retail Traders' Association of NSW, 31 January 1933, p 8

[10] Grace Bros Holdings Ltd, Chairman's address, Sydney, 1964

[11] Grace Bros Holdings Ltd, Chairman's address, Sydney, 1971

[12] Grace Bros Holdings Ltd, Chairman's address, Sydney, 1980

[13] 'How Grace Bros lost a retail empire…', Sydney Morning Herald, 19 June 1983, p 9