McGrath is a common surname. There are McGrath families scattered throughout NSW – in towns like Grenfell, Mudgee, Cooyal, Forbes and Braidwood. Like the O’Sullivans, the McGraths came out from Ireland in boatloads in the mid-nineteenth century, bold but broke. By the early twentieth century they had gained a solid enough footing in Australian society to believe they had a future.
The McGrath who piqued my interest was the one in this photo, H A McGrath, General Cash Draper, Boot Importer. Here you see his prosperous looking store in the newly built ‘Kandos Stores 1918’, Angus Avenue.
In 1910 Hugh Anthony McGrath established a drapery store in Portland. Eighty kilometres from Kandos, Portland was also a twentieth century town with the same imprint of industry, cement. There Hugh taught his son James Patrick the basics of business and marketing and the importance of contributing to community. Both had key roles in the Hibernian Society (a Catholic fraternal ceremonial welfare group something like the Masons). Both were trustees of the cemetery. I imagine that at the annual Hibernian Ball in March 1912, James danced with Elsie Milliss in her grey silk voile ensemble trimmed with silk net. They almost certainly danced at the Catholic Young Men’s Society dance in May where Elsie played some of the music. They married that year and quickly established a small family – Josephine (1913) Kevern (1914) and Naomi (1915). Their fourth child Maxwell would be born at Kandos in 1918.
Hugh was among many Portland people who invested in Kandos at the first land sale in August 1915, purchasing lot 16, section 5 (6 lots east of Jaques Street on the north side of Buchanan Street). While Hugh was the investor in Kandos, James was the pioneer. By February 1916 he was selling goods out of a tent and building a store on the block of land in Buchanan Street. However it wasn’t long before father and son decided Angus Avenue was the business hub of town and Hugh contracted Country Concrete Company to build him a store. It is an imposing store as you can see. According to the Mudgee Guardian it had “a distinct air of progressiveness”. Double-fronted, two-story, with overhead balcony and paved entrance, it was built with CCCs locally manufactured ash and cement concrete blocks, 9 inches by 18 inches. H A McGrath didn’t purchase Kandos Stores at that time but took out a five year lease for one of the two spacious shops and residences.
I don’t know whether Elsie joined James in the tent with the three children under four, but the family was certainly together at Kandos in November 1917, when four year old Josie needed stitches after falling on a broken glass bottle in the garden. Elsie and James were a good team. He was mainly in the shop and she in the residence, but it wasn’t long before they were employing staff to help in both. While Elsie had a musical talent and ensured the children learnt music at the convent and performed in public, his talent was in marketing.
Three or four times a year James took out large ads to promote their merchandise, each ad unique, each ad promoting a different collection of goods, but always reminding customers of their continuing policy – “H A McGrath’s the cash draper”, “small profits quick returns”, “good value low prices”. James had a strong voice and connected with his customers. He tempted them: “Gillespie’s celebrated Buffalo boots, nailed or sprigged, black or tan, watertight fronts, 15/6”. He was commanding: “come early, come often”. And confident: “you won’t get anything as cheap and good elsewhere”. It’s not surprising that success followed. In 1923 father and son formed a partnership, H A McGrath & Son of Kandos, and purchased Kandos Stores. According to the local paper they had established McGrath as a household name, showed unbounded faith in the town and intended to open more branches.
James seemed to work as hard for the town as he did for his business. He was in numerous groups to advance Kandos, in particular the Progress Association, the Hospital Board, the Cricket, Rifle and Tennis clubs. He served on numerous committees – for the Band, Labour Day, Peace Celebrations, St Patrick’s Day Sports, Catholic Church Building, Kandos Cemetery, Children’s Xmas Tree. Elsie was there too donating trophies and medals, helping run bazaars, playing music at concerts and dances, singing in choirs.
Then came the accident. Shortly before 7pm, on 20th February 1924, driving on the Rylstone road near Henbury with his two young sons, James’ Overland car and a motor bike with carrier, collided. It was a freak accident. The drivers saw each other, they were driving slowly, they each swerved to avoid, there was a wrong swerve, and sixteen year old Fred Deveigne was thrown out of the carrier, suffered horrific head injury and died in hospital a few hours later. The coroner returned a verdict of accidental death with no blame attachable to the car driver.
Perhaps it was a blow too heavy for James. Or perhaps Elsie’s serious illness in July convinced the family “to leave for fresh fields”. In October 1924 the firm H A McGrath and Son was dissolved and James arranged for auctioneers to sell all their household effects, including a large rocking horse able to seat three children, “everything as good as new”. They left with the good wishes of the town at three farewells. I hope they rediscovered a good life. But where? I don’t know.
H A McGrath & Co then traded under the management of newly wedded Charles Silvester McGrath and his wife Ellen both from Eugowra (a nephew I believe). Marketing was definitely in the family. In January 1926 Charles won first prize with his window display when the Great White Train pulled into Kandos and Rylstone. The manager of the train enthused that Charles’ display of cement production was the most unique of all towns visited. Charles and Ellen began a family in Kandos, Charles got involved on various committees and enlarged the business. One Xmas he gave free gifts to children. Another year he arranged for a free bus for Charbon residents on Friday and Saturday. Their lives were not without trouble though. Their 2 year old almost lost his life after being stuck in a drain. Another time the bus Charles had hired for the hospital committee caught alight after a collision. Charles, being the last one out, had his eyebrows “singed off”. “I felt like a rat caught in a trap,” he said.
It was Hugh’s death in 1932 that might have brought the business to an end, after trading in Kandos for sixteen years. Or perhaps it was Charles’ health (he was reported very ill in April). In any case J B Simpkins auctioned Charles’ and Ellen’s personal goods in October and Miss Solomon opened her business in H A McGrath’s building in March 1933. Where did they go? I don’t know.
In 1939 Hugh’s estate was finally being settled and Kandos Stores was put up for sale on the instructions of the Public Trustee. J B Simpkins purchased the building, which was passed on to his daughter Phyllis. In 2006 she left the building to Mid-Western Regional Council and specified three-quarters of the proceeds go to the upkeep of Simpkins Park and the other quarter to Kandos Museum.
This is a story of entrepreneurship in a new town. And the partial story of a family of McGraths who came, lived and left. Their imprint remains on a solid Kandos building and a couple of photos.
The featured image is of Kandos Stores from NSW State Library Collection, by Myles Dunphy 1921.