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Douglas Grant (1885–1951)

by Chris Clark

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Douglas Grant, c.1918

Douglas Grant, c.1918

Douglas Grant (1885?-1951), draughtsman and soldier, was an Aboriginal man born about 1885 in the Bellenden Ker Ranges, Queensland. In 1887 his parents were killed, apparently in a tribal fight although some accounts claim it was during a punitive action launched from Cairns, and he was rescued by two members of a collecting expedition from the Australian Museum, Robert Grant and E. J. Cairn. The former sent the infant to the Lithgow (New South Wales) home of his parents and later adopted him. As Douglas Grant the child was raised with Robert Grant's own son Henry, received a good education at Annandale, Sydney, and trained as a draughtsman. He became a clever penman and sketch artist and at the Queen's diamond jubilee exhibition of 1897 won first prize for a drawing of the bust of Queen Victoria; in addition he learned taxidermy from his foster-father.

For ten years Grant was a draughtsman at Mort's Dock & Engineering Co. in Sydney. About 1913 he resigned to work as a woolclasser at Belltrees station, near Scone. In January 1916 he enlisted as a private in the 34th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force, but when his unit was about to leave for overseas service he was discharged because of regulations preventing Aboriginal people leaving the country without government approval. He again enlisted and in August embarked for France to join the 13th Battalion. On 11 April 1917, during the 1st battle of Bullecourt, he was wounded and captured. He was held as a prisoner of war in a camp at Wittenberg, and later at Wünsdorf, Zossen, near Berlin. He became an object of curiosity to German doctors, scientists and anthropologists—the sculptor Rudolf Markoeser modelled his bust in ebony—and was given comparative freedom.

Grant was repatriated to England in December 1918, and visited his foster-parents' relatives in Scotland where his racial features, combined with a richly burred Scottish accent attracted attention. In April 1919 he embarked for Australia and after demobilization on 9 July returned to work at Mort's Dock. Several years later he moved to Lithgow, where he was employed as a labourer at a paper products factory and a small-arms factory. He was active in returned servicemen's affairs in this period and conducted a 'Diggers session' on the local radio station. In the early 1930s, by which time both his foster-parents and his foster-brother had died, he returned to Sydney. He worked as a clerk at the Callan Park Mental Asylum and lived there, constructing in his spare time a large ornamental pond spanned by a replica of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. After World War II he lived at the Salvation Army's old men's quarters in Sydney and after 1949 at La Perouse. He died of a subarachnoid haemorrhage in Prince Henry Hospital, Little Bay, on 4 December 1951 and was buried in Botany cemetery. He was unmarried.

A popular member of his battalion, Grant had also impressed his German captors as a man of superior intellect; to his fellow prisoners he was aggressively Australian. His attainments included a wide knowledge of Shakespeare and poetry and considerable skill as an artist and bagpipe-player. Despite his acceptance of white culture, in later life he suffered rejection and frustration on account of his race. He was nonetheless an exceptional man.

Select Bibliography

  • T. A. White, The Fighting Thirteenth, (Syd, 1924)
  • H. Gordon, The Embarrassing Australian (Melb, 1965)
  • Journal (Legislative Council, New South Wales) 1888-89, 1, p 185
  • British Australasian, 2 Nov 1916
  • Army Journal, Mar 1973
  • Reveille (Sydney), Dec 1931, Jan 1932, Feb 1952
  • Sydney Mail, 20 Mar 1918
  • Grant papers, MS 2766 (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Chris Clark, 'Grant, Douglas (1885–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Douglas Grant, c.1918

Douglas Grant, c.1918

Life Summary [details]


Queensland, Australia


4 December, 1951 (aged ~ 66)
Little Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.