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GRAFTON, JAMES BEATTY, businessman and politician; b. 9 Sept. 1826 in Toronto Township, Upper Canada, son of Stewart Grafton and Margaret Beatty; m. 26 Sept. 1856 Charlotte Sydney Smith, and they had four daughters and two sons; d. 14 May 1909 in Dundas, Ont.

James Beatty Grafton’s grandparents, of Irish origin, immigrated to Upper Canada from North Carolina in 1811, settling on Yonge Street near York (Toronto); Stewart Grafton, a farmer and Methodist lay preacher, moved from there to Toronto Township in the 1820s. James was educated in a school near his family’s farm at Sydenham (Dixie) and at Upper Canada Academy, the Methodist school in Cobourg with which his maternal grandfather, the Reverend John Beatty, was long associated.

At age 16 or 17 Grafton was apprenticed to the Toronto dry-goods firm of Malcolm and Gillespie. Some four years later he was engaged as a journeyman merchant at Beamsville or Cobourg, possibly representing Malcolm and Gillespie. He then went on to do three years at the Hamilton store of J. and J. Roy, where he gained experience in the wholesale end of the dry-goods trade. In the spring of 1853 he moved to Dundas to open his own retail dry-goods establishment. His partner, Andrew Gregson, a local woollens manufacturer, brought capital and inventory to the firm. The partnership proved profitable, despite the commercial depression which began in 1857; by August of that year Gregson and Grafton had established a branch in Hamilton, backed by D. McInnes and Company.

When the partnership was dissolved in 1858, Grafton immediately formed a new one with his brother, John Stewart, under the name of J. B. and J. S. Grafton. To manufacture their own blankets and cloth, the brothers rented a woollen mill in nearby Ancaster and in 1863, with Robert Ellis, they purchased it. In 1864–65, in partnership with Joseph Ellis, they built a second mill, the Cold Springs Woollen Mill at Brantford. By 1868 they would have a clothing factory as well. In Dundas the Graftons expanded their premises and stock in 1867, and felt confident in claiming that they were the most extensive dry-goods retailer in the town. Not surprisingly, they jobbed dry goods on the side.

By the end of 1869, however, the Grafton partnership faced financial difficulties. One of the mills burnt that year; not being adequately insured, the brothers declared insolvency. They immediately reconstituted their business, however, and it did well in the boom of the early 1870s and in the following depression.

With the introduction of his elder son, James John, into the business in 1873 at the age of 16, J. B. Grafton set the basis for a transfer of control. The process was accelerated when J. J. Grafton was made a partner in 1884, joining his uncle and father, in the renamed Grafton and Company. By then the son was participating in the overseas buying trips that Grafton Sr had started making some 20 years earlier. Such trips were in part a response to demands from better-off customers, who apparently had no special liking for the Graftons’ lines of cheaper, Canadian-made woollens.

The addition of new blood to the partnership certainly explains part of the firm’s growth from the late 1880s. Some expansion, however, was clearly necessitated by Dundas’s stagnation as a commercial centre. When the Dundas Cotton Mills closed about 1885, there were doubts that the Grafton firm could survive because of the loss of the large clientele provided by the mills – some 800 workers. The Graftons were led to open stores in Owen Sound (1889), Peterborough (1892), Hamilton (1895), London (1896), Brantford (1899), and Woodstock (1905). The choices of location reflected the Grafton brothers’ early experience in Dundas – a small town with an active industrial base, surrounded by a healthy agricultural hinterland. All the new locations had good railway connections as well. The store on King Street in Dundas was maintained, and by 1900 the Graftons had established their clothing factory across from it. The Grafton family thus formed one of the earliest retail chains in Canada.

Retail chains faced significant administrative difficulties balancing central control with local managerial autonomy and market conditions. The Grafton company resolved the tensions by drawing its branch managers into the processes of central administration, though this practice could restrict the geographic scope of expansion. The managers, virtual lifetime employees, were given an effective voice in running the company, sometimes as directors. The expansion of the firm was followed by a shift in 1904 from a partnership to a joint-stock corporation; control was, however, closely held by J. B. Grafton, his wife and son James, and his bookkeeper and manager in Dundas. His brother and long-time partner, John, who would die in 1906, was apparently not a shareholder.

The firm’s lines, in the early years, consisted of an array of dress goods, hats, bonnets, ribbons, blankets, men’s apparel, house furnishings such as carpets, and even grain bags for farmers. Given this range, the store in Dundas was able to serve the entire community. Customers faced a cash-only policy after the insolvency of 1870, and fixed prices by the 1890s. They were comforted, however, by a policy of guaranteed satisfaction, introduced by 1898, and by weekly sale days. Moreover, incentives were offered: substantial purchases were accompanied by “gifts” of pictures and even furniture.

The Grafton firm advertised heavily from the 1870s onwards, directly and through advertising disguised as news. The spring and autumn “openings,” where the latest fashionable imports were displayed in festive surroundings, provided excellent opportunities; by the turn of the century the Graftons advertised in the Dundas Star far more frequently than local and Hamilton competitors. Heavy advertising was to be found too in the towns where the branches were located. The emphasis in advertising on the firm’s own manufactured brands made the chain a recognizable regional entity. The Grafton company’s promotion could have an innovative edge. In the weeks before Christmas, for example, advertisements were illustrated with stereographs. The firm had its name emblazoned on the Ancaster-Hamilton stagecoach, and as early as 1863 it sent Christmas cards to some 300 preferred customers.

Paternalistic relations with employees were the norm in the factory and at the retail level. Working hours were reduced at the end of the 1870s out of concern for workers and because of cut-backs in business during the depression. In the early 1880s, however, the Dundas store was evidently open from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., and to midnight on Saturdays, in order to serve working-class customers better. Staff turnover, especially in skilled jobs and management, was remarkably low. Pay scales were adequate. Indeed, the firm was willing to cooperate with the garment workers union, which became established in the factory by 1900, and advertisements regularly carried “Union Made” badges. When long-term employees retired, they were generously treated. J. B. Grafton also went to the trouble of buying group memberships at the Young Men’s Christian Association for his male employees.

The sense of obligation to the community displayed by the Graftons was an extension of the firm’s paternalism and of the family’s religious sensibilities. Their wealth made charity feasible. J. B. Grafton’s youngest daughter, Edith, for instance, organized a night school for boys unable to attend public school, ran a Methodist Sunday-school class for girls, and undertook numerous personal charities. The firm functioned in a similar fashion. It provided substantial support for the construction of the Grafton Infirmary of the Hamilton Mountain Sanatorium for Consumptives by 1906 and the YMCA building in Dundas.

J. B. Grafton took his religion seriously. He was an active member of the Dundas branch of the Upper Canada Bible Society, and one of the few lay members to be elected an officer, in 1863. A lifelong member of the Dundas Methodist Church, in 1899 he was appointed to the senate of Victoria University in Toronto, a Methodist institution. He had also supported and been a director of the Wesleyan Ladies’ College in Dundas (founded 1857) and the Dundas Wesleyan Boys’ Institute (1873).

Though not a “pushing” man in political terms, Grafton was well known as a Conservative by the 1890s. He viewed some political activity as a civic duty: he was elected, unopposed, to Dundas Town Council in 1860 and again in 1871, and he served on the public-school board.

Having given over all active supervision of the firm to his son by the mid 1890s, Grafton was not averse to enjoying the good things in life. In 1896 he expanded his home in Dundas, the Maples, and spent the summer on the Atlantic coast in Massachusetts with his wife and unmarried daughter. The following year he took a four-month European holiday with Charlotte and two of their daughters. This was a considerable advance over the pleasant vacations the family could afford to take on Lake Couchiching, Ont., during the depression of the 1870s. Extended holidays became the norm because of the health problems that Grafton faced as early as 1895. In 1907 he underwent serious surgery; he died at his home two years later. The family firm continued under the direction of J. J. Grafton, who died in 1939. It was subsequently headed by his wife, Sarah MacMahon, and then by a Grafton cousin, Stewart Philp; the chain was finally taken over by an outside group in 1964.

Ben Forster

Various materials relating to James Beatty Grafton are available in the Grafton Group Limited Arch., Toronto.

AO, F 277, Grafton family; RG 22, ser.204, reg.Y, no.7279. Baker Library, R. G. Dun & Co. credit ledger, Canada, vol.25. Dundas, Ont., Parks and Cemeteries Dept., Grove Cemetery, burial records. HPL, Scrapbooks, H. F. Gardiner, 62: 32; 134: 57–58. Hamilton Spectator, 15 May 1909, 13 May 1953. London Free Press, 1 April 1910. Star (Dundas), 1893–97, 1900, 1905–7, 20 May 1909, 12 Jan. 1928. True Banner (Dundas), 1858–85. A. D. Chandler, “Management decentralization: an historical analysis,” Business Hist. Rev. (Boston), 30 (1956): 111–74. DHBHamilton, the electric city; history, government and prosperity of the Birmingham of Canada, evolved out of the primeval forest in less than one hundred years ([Hamilton, Ont.], 1901; copy at AO). The history of the town of Dundas, comp. T. R. Woodhouse (3v., [Dundas], 1965–68), 3: 3–4. Lets Talk Business Hamilton (St Catharines, Ont.), October 1985. The story of Grafton and CoLtd. from 1853 to 1942 (Dundas, 1943). Town of Dundas centennial celebration, June 29th to July 26th, 1947, marking the 100th anniversary of the incorporation of the town: official historical souvenir programme ([Dundas, 1947]). The wheels of progress ([Hamilton, 1980]; copy in Dundas Public Library), 39–40.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Ben Forster, “GRAFTON, JAMES BEATTY,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 19, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/grafton_james_beatty_13E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/grafton_james_beatty_13E.html
Author of Article:   Ben Forster
Title of Article:   GRAFTON, JAMES BEATTY
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1994
Year of revision:   1994
Access Date:   May 19, 2024