Joseph Frear and his twin sister, Betsey, were born in Grasby, near Grimsby in Lincolnshire, England, on 10 November 1846. Their parents were Ann Whitehead and her husband, William Frear, an agricultural labourer and woodman. In all there were seven children in the family.
At the age of about 12 Joseph Frear, along with members of his family, emigrated to New Zealand on the Matoaka, arriving in Auckland on 26 September 1859. They travelled with a party led by Thomas Ball, a chemist from Brigg, Lincolnshire. Ball planned a religious settlement near Mangonui in Northland, where Wesleyans and members of other Christian denominations could live and worship together. William Frear and his two eldest sons settled there as farmers. Not wishing to enter the same occupation, Joseph Frear took a job driving a team of bullocks in the Northland gumfields. He went to the Thames goldfield in 1868 and 1869 and worked in Auckland and Mangonui, accumulating savings of £300.
In 1874 Frear moved to Hamilton where he was to spend the rest of his life. First he worked as a carpenter, helping to build cottages for settlers arriving on government immigration schemes. Then for nearly two years he was employed by J. Taylor on the construction of the first bridge built by Europeans over the Waikato River, at Ngaruawahia. The bridge opened in November 1876. His next job was helping with the construction of the Union Bridge, Hamilton, which was opened in November 1879. Frear then went into partnership with his former employer, and as Taylor and Frear they obtained the contract for constructing the police barracks at Hamilton East, completing the work in April 1880.
Soon after this Frear purchased a section on the corner of London and Victoria streets in Hamilton West and opened his own business as a builder, contractor and timber merchant. He was one of a group of tradesmen and small-scale entrepreneurs who invested in the future of Hamilton and whose business was generated in the growing town and the surrounding farming districts. Frear took pleasure in his achievements as a self-made man, and prided himself on being able to work harder than any man he employed.
Frear was elected to the Hamilton Borough Council from September 1884 to April 1886 and again from July 1888 to April 1889. He also served on the committees of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce and the Hamilton West School. When he was successfully established in his business Joseph Frear married Sarah Matilda Haydon on 22 March 1889 in Auckland. The couple were to have three daughters and a son; one of their daughters died in infancy and their son was killed in the First World War.
At the beginning of the twentieth century the commercial area of Hamilton began to spread north along Victoria Street past Garden Place towards the railway station. Garden Place, which was situated on a hill, had been designated a road in the first survey of Hamilton. Joseph Frear purchased an adjoining area of land on the northern side of the hill, where he built two houses with commanding views and established the only large apiary in the town.
In 1906, when property values had begun to increase, the Hamilton Borough Council proposed that the central part of the Garden Place frontage to Victoria Street should be closed and leased for commercial building. Thinking that his adjacent property would depreciate in value, and anxious to preserve the open space, Frear immediately protested to the council. To demonstrate his objection he removed a fence erected across the frontage, later returning the fencing materials to the council. His protest was supported by the ratepayers of Hamilton, who at a public meeting held in November 1908 rejected the council proposal by a large majority. In later years Frear liked to say that he was responsible for preserving the open space in the centre of Hamilton. Garden Place was eventually to become a pleasant area of lawns, trees and fountains.
Believing in the future growth of Hamilton, Joseph Frear invested in property in Victoria Street and Ward Street. In 1916, on the corner of Victoria Street and Garden Place, he built a two-storeyed shop of brick and reinforced concrete known as Frear's Buildings. The main tenant was the jewellery firm of James Pascoe, which eventually bought it from the Frear family. Frear also had confidence in the future of Frankton, which was originally a separate town and later a western suburb of Hamilton. He purchased a prime site there and in 1924 erected another large two-storeyed building. The Bank of New South Wales was the major tenant.
Frear had strong religious beliefs. He held regular family Bible-reading services, and was particularly fond of the Book of Job. He belonged to the Primitive Methodist Connexion, was a Seventh-day Adventist for a time, then joined the Methodist church. At the end of his life he was an Anglican. Joseph Frear died on 23 December 1926. His wife, Sarah Frear, died six months later, on 21 June 1927, leaving a generous bequest towards the extension of St Peter's Cathedral, Hamilton.