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James Millar Main (1924–1984)

by Helen Bourke

This article was published:

James Millar Main (1924-1984), historian, was born on 11 December 1924 at Warracknabeal, Victoria, only child of Victorian-born parents Charles Huntsman Main, newsagent, and his wife Faye, née Millar.  The Mains also owned a wheat property at Wallup.  Jim was educated at local primary and high schools, and at Scotch College, Melbourne.  Residing at Ormond College, he graduated from the University of Melbourne (BA Hons, 1946) with first-class honours in history, the R. G. Wilson scholarship and a Dwight prize.  He had also enrolled in law but did not complete the degree.  In 1949, after he had spent three years as a history tutor and temporary lecturer at Melbourne, a scholarship took him to Oriel College, Oxford (B.Litt., 1951); Asa Briggs supervised his thesis on working-class political reform movements in Britain before 1832.

Appointed lecturer (1951) and senior lecturer (1955) in history at the University of Melbourne, under Professor R. M. Crawford, Main taught eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British history, and a course in British constitutional history for the law faculty.  In 1966, joining a small diaspora of colleagues attracted to the new universities, he moved to a senior lectureship at the Flinders University of South Australia, Adelaide.  One of four foundation members of its history department, he was promoted next year to reader.  He developed his interest in Australian history, introducing a course on Australia’s experience in two world wars and a pioneering honours topic on colonial South Australia; he convened the honours year, co-ordinated research seminars, and supervised and examined theses.

Main’s publication record was not commensurate with the high calibre of his scholarship.  Historical Studies (1955 and 1966) carried two carefully written articles on British working-class radical reform; his later work on Henry George and the Commons Preservation Society in England was not published.  His research into Australian political history resulted in an influential article, 'Making Constitutions in New South Wales and Victoria, 1853-1854' (Historical Studies, 1957), and in two chapters in The Flinders History of South Australia (1986) on the political and social foundations of South Australia.  He also edited a documentary history, Conscription: The Australian Debate, 1901-1970 (1970).

Crawford perceptively suggested that Main’s modest temperament inclined him more to 'the teacher’s choice' than to research publication.  He developed an exceptional rapport with his students.  With a great gift for friendship and hospitality, he invited them to share many a convivial evening of food, wine and lively discussion at his Glenelg home, or to join him at the opera or the races at Morphettville.  Student welfare was an important concern and he took seriously his role as Flinders’ delegate on the inter-university student loan tribunal.  To the intellectual and social life of a fledgling institution, Main contributed valued scholarship, civility and culture.  His love of Italian art and music, especially Bernini’s sculptures and Verdi’s operas, was well known, as was his delight in the novels of Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope and Henry James.  He never married and was a nominal Presbyterian.

Main died of myocardial infarction on 24 June 1984 at his Glenelg home and was cremated.  He left over $700,000, the substantial part of his estate, to Flinders University as the J. M. Main bequest for the provision of Australian history research materials.  The James Millar Main prizes in history were established from a donated memorial fund.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Studies, vol 21, October 1984, p 312
  • Flinders Journal of History and Politics, vol 10, 1984, p 1
  • Flinders Journal of History and Politics, vol 11, 1985, p 1
  • Main papers (Flinders University Library)
  • personal knowledge

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Helen Bourke, 'Main, James Millar (1924–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


11 December, 1924
Warracknabeal, Victoria, Australia


24 June, 1984 (aged 59)
Glenelg, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.