Framing the Melbourne scene



Vale Bishop James Grant (1931-2019), best known to Melbourne urban historians as co-author with Geoffrey Serle of The Melbourne Scene 1803-1956 (Melbourne University Press, 1957).

As a student in the 1980s, I was more acquainted with the Hale & Iremonger reprint, an absolute treasure trove of primary extracts from contemporary newspapers, letters, journals and published works that was always a valuable resource for writing essays on any aspect of Melbourne’s history.

An article from the Port Phillip Patriot described how bathers at Mr Riddle’s Baths on the south side of the Yarra could ‘enjoy a cup of Mocha and a mild havana’ after bathing in 1844; extracts from R.E.N. Twopeny’s 1883 Town Life in Australia noted that ‘There is a bustle and life about Melbourne which you altogether miss in Sydney’; and the ‘Report of the Royal Commission on the Railway and Tramway Systems of Melbourne and Suburbs’ (1911) bemoaned the ‘inconvenience and danger to vehicular traffic caused by level crossings’.

Robin Gollan, reviewing writings on Australian History for 1957 for Historical Studies, was rather scathing of the crop as a whole: ‘This was not a vintage year; some good books and a great number of mediocre and bad books’. But out of the histories of place (‘the usual range of worthwhile books, chit-chat, and glossy souvenirs’), The Melbourne Scene ‘is the best’.

Interviewed in 2017 for Trinity Today, Bishop Grant recalled enrolling in a four-year Honours degree at the University of Melbourne, and the brilliant tutorials of Professor A.G.L. Shaw. After he graduated, Grant was hired as a research assistant by Geoffrey Serle (1922-1998), who had been commissioned to compile a published collection of historical extracts on the history of Melbourne to coincide with the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. Serle was busy on other projects, and Grant ended up writing a significant amount of the introductory text for the book.

His ambitions to become an academic historian were foiled by the lack of openings, and Grant went on to train for the Anglican Church and was ordained a curate for Murrumbeena in 1959. James Grant contributed two entries to the Encyclopedia of MelbourneSt James’ Old Cathedral and St Paul’s Cathedral—and we treasure his foundational contribution to Melbourne urban history writing at a moment when historical consciousness about the city’s past was just gaining ground in the postwar decades.

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