Inner west icon: War hero Douglas Grant, brave campaigner for his people

ACTIVIST: Douglas Grant in the 1940s.
ACTIVIST: Douglas Grant in the 1940s.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are advised that this story contains images and names of deceased persons.

In Taylor Street in Annandale, on a formerly weed-infested Sydney Water site next to Johnston's canal, is the Douglas Grant Memorial Park.

The locals who go there to shoot hoops, climb the play tower or soak up some sunshine may barely register the name, but there was a time in the 20th century when Douglas Grant was a famous Australian - a World War I hero, an international cultural curiosity, and a courageous advocate for the rights of Aboriginal people.

IN UNIFORM: Douglas Grant in 1918 as a soldier of the Australian Imperial Forices.

IN UNIFORM: Douglas Grant in 1918 as a soldier of the Australian Imperial Forices.

He grew up in the inner west, where he went to Annandale Public School and worked as a draughtsman at Morts Dock, Balmain.

As an older man in the 1930s, he was an inpatient at the Callan Park Mental Hospital in Rozelle, the trauma of war - and of being Indigenous and outspoken - having taken its toll.

He left his mark at Callan Park, in the form of the ornamental war memorial that sits to this day like a silent sentinel at the edge of Callan Park Oval, home of the Balmain Tigers Football Club.

Designed by Grant in memory of his fallen comrades and built by the patients of Ward B, it is a Harbour Bridge replica with sandstone pylons that spans a wishing well crafted in concrete.

The Governor of NSW, Air Vice Marshal Sir Philip W. Game, officially unveiled it on August 4, 1931 - pipping the actual Harbour Bridge opening by seven months.

ORPHANED: Douglas Grant with his foster family, Elizabeth and Robert Grant and foster brother Henry. Picture: National Archives of Australia

ORPHANED: Douglas Grant with his foster family, Elizabeth and Robert Grant and foster brother Henry. Picture: National Archives of Australia

Macquarie University film-maker Tom Murray has delved deep into Grant's story, and retold it for new generations in a feature-film documentary,The Skin of Others, that was screened at the 2020 Sydney Film Festival, and will have a postponed cinema release next year.

"This is a really courageous, brave, incredibly intelligent, thoughtful man we all should know about," says Murray, an Associate Professor and Research Fellow in Macquarie's Faculty of Arts.

As a toddler, Grant was orphaned in a Frontier Wars massacre in Far North Queensland in 1887, and subsequently fostered by a Scottish-born couple, Elizabeth and Robert Grant, who were in the area at the time collecting specimens for the Australian Museum in Sydney.

After a couple of years in Lithgow, the family moved to Annandale which, as Murray describes, "was a Scottish diaspora town, there were lots of Scottish people and a lot of Scottish heritage around Douglas Grant as he was growing up, which is why he could recite the poems of Robbie Burns, play the bagpipes and speak in a Scottish brogue."

On the Western Front of World War I, Grant was injured at Bullecourt and taken prisoner by the Germans, who studied him as part of a social science experiment, and had a sculptor create a portrait bust of the "racially genuine" solider (a bust which Murray tracked down in 2016 to the sitting room of a retired accountant in rural Wiltshire, England).

TRIBUTE: Douglas Grant, at right, with nurses and other returned soldiers at the Callan Park war memorial he designed in memory of his fallen WWI comrades. Picture: State Library of NSW

TRIBUTE: Douglas Grant, at right, with nurses and other returned soldiers at the Callan Park war memorial he designed in memory of his fallen WWI comrades. Picture: State Library of NSW

In the camp, the highly literate Grant became the principal advocate and lobbyist for his fellow POWs, procuring supplies such as socks, soap and, for the Indian prisoners, lots of curry powder.

Back in Australia, as Murray explains, through the 1920s Grant wrote "vehement, powerful" journalism in the popular press about the plight of the Aboriginal people including, in 1929, a damning piece condemning the violence against them following the Coniston massacre in the Northern Territory.

"Douglas Grant of course had already been in two significant wars - Australia's Frontier Wars and World War I - by the time he was having a breakdown and going into Callan Park hospital," Murray says.

SENTINEL: The war memorial still stands at Callan Park Oval today. Picture: Geoff Jones

SENTINEL: The war memorial still stands at Callan Park Oval today. Picture: Geoff Jones

"Like a lot of returned soliders in the 1920s he would have been suffering from PTSD.

"I think it was also the stress he was under as an Aboriginal activist - it's a fair assumption that he would have attracted the interest of police and government authorities who probably watched him."

From 1931 to 1939 Grant was at Callan Park, where back then they also had a golf course "and he played golf with the nurses, and they spoke very fondly about Douglas Grant - I think he was quite a popular guy there," Murray says.

He used to bust out of Callan Park every now and then and go to the Garry Owen just across the road, says Murray, the Darling Street pub that these days prides itself on being a top place for tradies.

LEST WE FORGET: Douglas Grant Memorial Park in Annandale. Picture: Geoff Jones

LEST WE FORGET: Douglas Grant Memorial Park in Annandale. Picture: Geoff Jones

Grant was unmarried when he died in 1951 at a war veterans' home in La Perouse. He was buried at Botany Cemetery.

If you can't wait for the cinema release of The Skin of Others, it is scheduled to be broadcast on SBS on January 25.

And next time you're passing by Callan Park Oval, which is on the Bay Run, drop by the war memorial, make a wish if you like, and remember Douglas Grant.

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