Grace Bracken was born in June 1805, at Midgley, near Halifax, Yorkshire, England, and was baptised on 9 August 1805 at Halifax. She was the fourth daughter of eight children of Grace Appleyard and her husband, Jonathan Bracken, a paper manufacturer, who also owned and leased out industrial property. Grace had a stable and comfortable childhood, and appears to have been well educated, for she was widely read and literate.
On 22 June 1829, at Halifax, Grace married Thomas Hirst, the son of a Halifax solicitor. The marriage brought instability and financial insecurity. Thomas Hirst lacked business skills, and the family was usually heavily in debt. The young couple began in Bradford, moved to London, and then returned to Yorkshire. Thomas started business as a woollen merchant, then tried the cotton industry, then worked for a carpet manufacturer. During these years Grace Hirst gave birth to eleven children. One son died in infancy and two daughters died of scarlet fever.
It was Grace's emotional strength, strong religious conviction and resilience that made Thomas believe that the family's situation was not hopeless. By 1851, however, he had decided that the only solution to their difficulties was emigration. Grace, desperate to remain close to her family, strongly resisted the idea, until finally persuaded by the promise of prosperity. In 1851 their eldest son, James, left to prepare a place for the family at New Plymouth, New Zealand.
Grace and Thomas Hirst sailed with five of their eight children on the merchant ship Gwalior in December 1851. They took some capital, a number of commissions to look after land for absentee landowners, and a stock of goods for sale. The voyage was a nightmare. The captain was an alcoholic given to outbursts of violence. Grace nursed him through fits of delirium tremens and also nursed a doctor on board whose health broke down. The ship was inadequately provisioned and the crew mutinous. After a six month voyage the Hirsts were taken ashore by a coastal trader which found the Gwalior drifting off the Bay of Islands. They spent a brief period in Auckland, where rumours about their voyage made them objects of great curiosity, before continuing to Taranaki.
In Taranaki they discovered that James had arrived and departed. Thomas established himself as a wool classer and buyer, travelling around the country while Grace and her daughters began trading. The Bracken family kept up a flow of exports from England – cloth, blankets, shoes, paper, household appliances – which enabled Grace to remain in business through the 1850s and 1860s. She displayed entrepreneurial skill in identifying her market and converting unwanted goods into saleable items.
The Hirsts first built Egmont House in New Plymouth. This was let as a provincial superintendent's residence when they moved in late 1854 to a small farm, Brackenhirst, at Bell Block. Most of the farm work was done by Grace Hirst and the children. She produced butter and cheese for the market, exporting butter to Auckland and Sydney, and candles, vinegar and soap for domestic consumption. She frequently assisted neighbouring families as a midwife and nurse, attended at the births of many of her own grandchildren, and helped lay out the dead. She was also active in fundraising for the Anglican Church.
When martial law was declared in New Plymouth in February 1860, the Hirsts shifted back to town. Later that year they visited England. They left for New Zealand again in September 1861, on what proved to be another memorable journey. Their ship, the William Brown, caught fire off the coast of Madeira and was destroyed. The Hirsts were rescued and eventually made their way back to England. Distressed by the ordeal, Grace postponed her return to New Zealand until 1862, although Thomas set out again almost immediately.
Grace Hirst arrived back in New Zealand, on the Silver Eagle, in January 1863. Brackenhirst had been largely destroyed during the Taranaki war, and the Hirsts purchased a section in New Plymouth, on which they built Willowfield. They also built a row of houses on the section to provide a home or income for each of their children. On the death of Grace Hirst's brother in 1870 the family inherited a substantial sum of money, which was invested in land and mortgages. An annuity received by Grace also contributed to the family economy.
Apart from trips to Nelson, Wellington, and to her children's homes scattered around Taranaki, Grace Hirst spent the rest of her life in New Plymouth. From this time, especially after the death of Thomas in October 1883, she lived as the matriarch of her growing family. She was ever ready to travel to a daughter in distress, take grandchildren into her home, nurse the pregnant and the sick, and comfort bereaved friends. She continued to be, in Thomas's words, 'the mainstay' of the family, providing financial and emotional support.
In 1893 Grace Hirst was proud to report that New Zealand women had been given the vote. She went to the poll at the age of 88 with her daughters and grand-daughters. She died at New Plymouth on 8 September 1901.