William Grace was born in Queensland, County Cork, Ireland, in 1832. He emigrated to the United States in 1846 and lived in New York before moving to Callao, Peru, where he worked as a shipping clerk. In 1854 he established Bryce, Grace and Company and within a few years controlled most of the shipping along the coasts of Peru and Chile.
Grace returned to the United States and established the shipping firm, W. R. Grace and Company in New York in 1868. Grace also helped finance Peru's war with Chile and in return received rights over its silver mines and other raw materials such as oil and guano. This resulted in him becoming known as the "Pirate of Peru".
Grace was twice elected as mayor of New York (1880-88) and was a generous contributor to Irish charities. William Grace died in New York on 21st March, 1904.