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James Macpherson Grant (1822–1885)

by Geoffrey Bartlett

This article was published:

James Macpherson Grant (1822-1885), by unknown engraver, 1863

James Macpherson Grant (1822-1885), by unknown engraver, 1863

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN25/08/63/8

James Macpherson Grant (1822-1885), politician, was born at Alvie, Inverness-shire, Scotland, son of Louis Grant and his wife Isabella, née McBean. The family migrated to Sydney in 1836. James was articled to the solicitors, Chambers & Thurlow. He qualified in 1847 and soon became Thurlow's partner but was restless. In 1844 he had visited New Zealand, and fought in the Hone Heke war; in 1850 he made a speculative voyage to California and next year went with his brothers to the Bendigo diggings. He was a legal adviser to co-operative companies and one of the seven guarantors for Ebenezer Syme who bought the Age, and was one of its early contributors. By 1854 he was a prospering Melbourne solicitor. In Sydney he had shown radical sympathies and in Bendigo was an active political speaker. Now he threw himself, without charge, into the successful defence of the Eureka Stockade rebels.

In November 1855 Grant was elected for Sandhurst to the Legislative Council and in October 1856 for Sandhurst Boroughs to the new Legislative Assembly. He decided not to stand in 1859 but was persuaded to contest Avoca, his constituency thenceforward. He soon established himself as a legal reformer and republican radical. These views, his fondness for drink and the tendency for outbursts of sudden ferocity to sweep away his normal urbanity damaged his practice, but his political position rapidly improved. In Heales's ministry on 20 February 1861 Grant became vice-president of the board of land and works and commissioner of public works. The ministry fell in November 1861 but in James McCulloch's coalition of June 1863 Grant became vice-president of the land and works board and commissioner of railways and roads; in September 1864 he became president of the board and commissioner of crown lands and survey.

His land bill, on which the government had fought the 1864 election, was passed in March 1865 but the exigencies of finance and coalition and the power of the council made compromises necessary; despite Grant's vigorous administration his stronger safeguards against evasion only made it more expensive. However, Clause 42 authorized smallholding licences near goldfields at ministerial discretion; Grant's regulations developed these licences until from November 1868 they were widely available for up to 160 acres (65 ha). Administrative powers were used to ensure genuine settlement. Generally it worked, despite scandals. Grant had some responsibility for these because of the disorganization of his office and his reluctance to delegate authority, yet few thought him corrupt.

A constitutional crisis and these scandals delayed amending legislation until December 1869. Grant's second Act extended free selection before survey to 320-acre (130 ha) lots at 20s. an acre paid over ten years and retained the safeguards of improvement conditions, a revocable licence for the first three years and extensive ministerial discretion. Imperfections remained but scandalous evasion ended.

Grant's career seemed to be finished. He had held office for nearly six years when McCulloch's government fell in September 1869, and the Land Act was passed under its successor. Yet when McCulloch regained power in April 1870 Grant was dropped. Despite the ministry's more conservative tone the parting was amicable; ill health was probably the explanation. Grant was certainly poor and characteristically had waived his inchoate rights when ministerial pensions had been abolished. The government therefore put £7000 on the estimates for his family; he resigned in July but immediately had the vote deleted because it threatened to provoke another constitutional crisis. At the 1871 election he re-entered the assembly. His health had improved; he had temporarily abandoned alcohol and his financial anxieties were allayed by a public subscription of £3000 and the introduction of payment of members. Moreover, the current lands minister was allegedly pro-squatter.

When McCulloch fell in June 1871, Grant readily accepted his old post in the radical ministry of (Sir) Charles Gavan Duffy but little was achieved before the government fell in June 1872. Duffy soon nominated Grant leader of the Opposition but it was disintegrating and Grant lacked authority to hold it together. That was the achievement of Graham Berry in 1875-76. Grant served in his first cabinets as minister of justice from August to October 1875 and May 1877 to March 1880. In the constitutional crisis of 1877-78 he was a keen supporter of tough measures against the council. He broke with Berry in 1880 for seeking a compromise reform bill and was omitted from Berry's ministry in 1880-81. After Berry's Reform Act was passed Grant helped Sir Bryan O'Loghlen to defeat the ministry in July 1881 and became his chief secretary and minister of public instruction. Grant's prestige was invaluable to a weak ministry; his education post also diminished fears that O'Loghlen might tamper with the secular education system. The ministry fell in March 1883 after a snap election but Grant declined to lead the Opposition because he supported the policies of the liberal and conservative coalition although he deemed such alliances unparliamentary. Soon afterwards his health gave way. He died aged 63 on 1 April 1885 and, after a service at Elsternwick Presbyterian Church which he had helped to found, was buried in Melbourne general cemetery. He was survived by his wife Mary, née Gaunson, a son and three daughters.

Compact and sturdy, Grant always looked impressive with a fine forehead and bold eyes but he had never sought first place. He was not obtrusive in debate, organization or agitation and, although a convinced protectionist, generally ignored finance. Probably he suffered from self-doubt, yet he was quick, ingenious and strong on detail and could speak clearly and effectively. When parliament voted £4000 to his widow it settled a debt of honour.

Select Bibliography

  • E. C. Booth, Another England (Lond, 1869)
  • R. Carboni, The Eureka Stockade (Melb, 1947)
  • M. L. Kiddle, Men of Yesterday (Melb, 1961)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 1856-85
  • Argus (Melbourne), 22 July 1856, 2, 4, 6 Apr 1885
  • Leader (Melbourne), 21 June 1862, 4 Apr 1885
  • Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 18 Apr 1874
  • G. R. Bartlett, Political Organization and Society in Victoria 1864-1883 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1964)
  • Black papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • Governor's dispatch, 11 Sept 1869, CO 309/91.

Citation details

Geoffrey Bartlett, 'Grant, James Macpherson (1822–1885)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 21 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

James Macpherson Grant (1822-1885), by unknown engraver, 1863

James Macpherson Grant (1822-1885), by unknown engraver, 1863

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN25/08/63/8

Life Summary [details]


Alvie, Inverness-shire, Scotland


1 April, 1885 (aged ~ 63)
Brighton, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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