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Grant, Donald McLennan (Don) (1888–1970)

by Frank Farrell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Donald McLennan Grant (1888-1970), agitator and politician, was born on 26 February 1888 at Inverness, Scotland, son of Donald Grant, insurance agent, and his wife Mary, née McLennan. Educated at the High School, Inverness, he was apprenticed to a dental mechanic but, unhappy with his prospects, he migrated to Australia, reaching Sydney in 1910; he found work in a paper mill.

Opposed to the growing Imperialist militarism, Grant joined the Australian Freedom League in 1912 and became its joint treasurer with Patrick Minahan. He also became associated with the Industrial Workers of the World and, after the outbreak of World War I, emerged as a prominent anti-war speaker; in 1916 he was dismissed from his job for his activities.

Meanwhile Grant, tall, with his flaming red hair brushed back, drew record crowds to the I.W.W.'s regular Sunday meetings at the Sydney Domain, and in Melbourne. A fiery mob orator, with a thick Scots burr, he inveighed against conscription and expounded the I.W.W.'s opposition to the war through industrial action, including sabotage. After the arrest of Tom Barker, Grant informed a Domain meeting that 'for every day that Barker is in gaol, it will cost the capitalists ten thousand pounds'. This statement was an important part of the case against him when, on a visit to Broken Hill in October 1916, he was charged, with eleven other I.W.W. members, with treason, later altered to conspiracy to defeat the ends of justice and to commit arson, and incitement to commit sedition. Grant was convicted on all three counts and sentenced to fifteen years.

The campaign to free the 'I.W.W. Twelve' began in December 1916, when Grant's friend Henry Boote started widespread agitation. Eventually Norman Ewing's royal commission overturned most of the convictions. Grant was released in August 1920. At a meeting in Sydney Town Hall on May Day 1921 his criticism of Australian soldiers aroused wild anger in the conservative press, and allegations that he had said that he was 'glad' the soldiers had died haunted his later political career.

Grant became associated with the 'Trades Hall Reds' of the Labor Council of New South Wales and broke with the 'anti-political' I.W.W. in 1923 over the issue of joining the Labor Party. In 1922 he lost in the State seat of Sturt for the Industrial Socialist Labor Party, and in 1925, running for Labor, failed in the Senate elections. He was gaoled over unauthorized street demonstrations against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927. Elected to the Sydney Municipal Council in 1931, he represented Phillip Ward until 1944. In 1930-33 he was also a member of the socialization committee of the State Labor Party. Appointed to the Legislative Council in November 1931, he was elected to the reconstituted council in April 1934; in 1940 he refused to seek re-election, declaring the council to be 'the bulwark of vested interests, and even worse than the House of Lords'.

During the early years of World War II Grant worked as a dental mechanic. On 3 November 1943 at his home at New South Head Road, Double Bay, he married a librarian Elizabeth Jane Dowse with Presbyterian forms. Earlier that year he had been elected to the Senate, and became an adviser to the minister for external affairs Dr Bert Evatt. In 1946 he was an Australian representative to the Paris Peace Conference and a delegate to the International Labour Organization conference at Montreal, Canada. While overseas he was entertained by the provost and Town Council of Inverness. He also attended the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference at Nairobi in 1954. Grant lost Senate pre-selection in 1956 after attacking his old friend Evatt: 'If Machiavelli were alive today he wouldn't qualify to hand out leaflets at an Evatt meeting'. His parliamentary speeches had been generally well informed and carefully reasoned, and as the capitalist system evolved after World War II, he moved towards a left-Keynesian reformist approach as an alternative to communism.

Grant died in hospital at Darlinghurst on 9 June 1970 and was cremated without a religious service. He had suffered for some time from emphysema, which had hindered his performance in parliament towards the end. He was survived by his second wife, Marjorie Frances, née Templeton, whom he had married at his Double Bay home on 18 August 1955. His estate was valued for probate at $55,342.

Select Bibliography

  • H. E. Boote, The Case of Grant (Syd, 1917)
  • I. Turner, Sydney's Burning (Syd, 1969)
  • R. Cooksey, Lang and Socialism (Canb, 1971)
  • Labour History, Nov 1970, no 19
  • Grant papers (State Library of New South Wales, and National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Frank Farrell, 'Grant, Donald McLennan (Don) (1888–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/grant-donald-mclennan-don-6453/text11047, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 26 August 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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