Joseph Hatch was born in London, England, probably in 1837 or 1838, the son of Josiah Joseph Hatch, a furrier and alderman in the City of London, and his wife, Mary Ann Cover. He was educated first by his uncle, the Reverend S. S. Hatch, and later at various schools, including Melton Mowbray grammar school in Leicestershire. Afterwards he worked for a printer at Finsbury, then for a perfumery company.
In 1856 Hatch emigrated from Liverpool on the Eagle Speed. He arrived in March 1857 at Melbourne, Australia, where he worked with Youngman, McCann and Company, wholesale druggists. In 1862 the firm sent him to advise on opening a branch in Dunedin, New Zealand. Having done so he stayed and set up as a druggist in partnership with J. D. Hayes in Invercargill.
Joseph Hatch, a man of boundless energy, immediately entered into public life and business. In 1863 he was a foundation member of the Invercargill Chamber of Commerce and the Invercargill Fire Brigade, becoming an active member of the volunteers. Hatch served on the Invercargill Borough Council from 1876 and was mayor from 1877 to 1878. He represented Invercargill in the House of Representatives from 1884 to 1887. For many years there was scarcely an organisation in Invercargill in which Hatch did not take some part. His interest was never casual or perfunctory. He had decided opinions and made them known to all concerned. He was a gifted speaker, provocative, persuasive and entertaining, and in his career used this to good effect. With supreme confidence in his own judgement and a complete unwillingness to consult, his public life was often marred by conflict. As a final solution Hatch on several occasions called a public meeting to gain public support. He could be relied on to draw a crowd and generally carry them with him, even if it sometimes meant bending the truth.
In business Hatch was just as active. Besides operating two chemist shops, he established the first bone mill in Invercargill and manufactured soap, candles and glycerine. Later he manufactured sheep-dip and rabbit poison. He also exported rabbit skins. For many years Hatch was the chairman of the Southland Tramway Company in Invercargill.
During a sojourn in Riverton from 1865 to 1869 Hatch equipped several small vessels for sealing. In 1873 he purchased the Awarua, a 45-ton schooner. He intended to extend his operations to the islands of the southern oceans but was frustrated by the government's introduction of closed seasons for sealing.
In June 1887 Hatch announced his intention to dispatch the Awarua to Bass Strait, where no sealing restrictions existed. Some of the locals suspected that the vessel's actual destination would be the restricted southern ocean. They were right. Four days after clearing Stewart Island the Awarua sailed into Port Ross, Auckland Islands. The crew, to their surprise, were enthusiastically greeted by eight survivors of the barque Derry Castle, which had been wrecked on the island more than three months earlier. This resulted in the secret of the Awarua's destination becoming public when the vessel arrived in Melbourne with the castaways in September. The news was received in Invercargill shortly before the parliamentary elections of 26 September 1887. Joseph Hatch's last meeting, attended by 1,200 people, was a disaster, with continual uproar, interjections and questions which could not be adequately answered. For once Hatch's skill with words was insufficient to still the doubts raised; he was soundly defeated at the polls.
In 1889 Hatch moved his centre of operations to Macquarie Island, halfway between New Zealand and the Antarctic Circle, where his men obtained oil from elephant seals and penguins. It was a bleak, inhospitable island with no sheltered anchorage for ships; sudden violent storms made servicing extremely difficult and dangerous. In March 1890 a gang was landed which would normally have been relieved or resupplied in three to four months. Hatch, being busy with the purchase of a new vessel, the Gratitude, and undertaking voyages to help meet the cost of its purchase, callously postponed resupply. In December the government was prevailed upon by relatives of the stranded men to send a vessel to relieve the shore gang. The Kakanui, a small coastal steamer, was dispatched. Five days after it sailed Hatch's Gratitude returned to port; had they waited a little longer, Hatch could have carried out his own relief. All were taken off Macquarie Island by the Kakanui in January 1891 except the headsman and his wife, who elected to stay; but on the return voyage the Kakanui was overwhelmed in a storm and 19 people on board lost their lives. An inquiry held in Dunedin in March and April 1891 cleared Hatch of any wrongdoing, but local opinion, summed up by the Southland Times, considered he was guilty of culpable negligence.
Joseph Hatch continued his penguin oil business for 25 years. However, he lost three vessels at Macquarie Island and at times was close to financial disaster. On two occasions his men had to be relieved by government steamers and much hardship was experienced by those who chose to join Hatch's shore gangs at Macquarie Island. He moved to Hobart, Australia, in 1912. From about this time he faced a campaign objecting to the continued slaughter of penguins, and his lease of the island was cancelled in 1920.
Hatch had married Sarah Annie Wilson in Castlemaine, Victoria, on 21 December 1869. There were four sons and three daughters of the marriage. It is thought that his wife died in September 1923. Joseph Hatch died in Bellerive, Tasmania, on 2 September 1928.