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Grant, Archibald Wesley (Arch) (1911–2005)

by David Carment

Archibald (Arch) Wesley Grant, a long-standing Historical Society of the Northern Territory member, was born on 5 February 1911 at Timaru in New Zealand, the son of Wesley Livesy Grant, biograph operator and draper, and his wife Eliza Margaret Grant, nee Penhall, clerk, and died in Sydney on 21 February 2005.

He was educated at schools in New Zealand and then at Gosford Intermediate High School in New South Wales, Australia. After working in the motor industry and as a cinema projectionist, he was accepted as a candidate for the Presbyterian ministry in 1934. He studied under the Home Mission Scheme while stationed at Brighton-le Sands, Portland, and Mascot and from 1937 to 1939 attended St Andrew’s Theological College in Sydney. In October 1939 he was licensed in the Presbytery of Sydney. On 9 September 1939 at the Presbyterian Church, Homebush, he married Erla Bullock, the daughter of Samuel and Mary Bullock. There were two sons and two daughters of the marriage.

Ordained as a Minister on 22 November 1939, Grant was called to work for the Australian Inland Mission (AIM) at Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory. He and his wife departed Sydney on 1 December by train. While in Adelaide, he bought essential furnishings and tools. At Alice Springs the Grants were met by the Reverend Kingsley Partridge, who drove them to Tennant Creek. They arrived there on 10 December. ‘Here’, he later recalled, ‘we were in a real frontier town’ with minimal facilities and intense summer heat. During the following days Grant built an additional room at the AIM welfare hut where he and his wife could live and concreted floors of the club building. His main task was to provide for the spiritual needs and general welfare of local miners and their families, which was made easier once he was sent a vehicle to give him the necessary mobility. In June 1940 he attended the opening of the Inter-Church Club in Darwin.

In September 1940 the Commonwealth government decided on the construction of a road to link the railhead at Alice Springs with Birdum. The major construction was between Tennant Creek and Birdum. Grant enlisted as a part-time Army chaplain and ministered to the workers involved. He was then associated with members of the Country Women’s Association in Tennant Creek, who provided refreshments to troops who moved in large convoys along the new road. As a result he was made an Honorary Member of the Association. In 1941 he ministered to the men building the new road from Tennant Creek to Mount Isa in Queensland.

With the entry of Japan into the war, Grant was called to full time Chaplaincy, being appointed to Darwin. In September 1941 his wife and young daughter had gone south for health reasons. At the beginning of February 1942 he was appointed Area Chaplain at Adelaide River, with responsibility for troops between Manton Dam and Katherine. Following the bombing of Darwin on 19 February 1942, he helped with the care and welfare of evacuees from Darwin and the many seamen whose ships were sunk. Often these people were without any personal belongings. He selected the site of the Adelaide River War Cemetery, now the largest war cemetery in Australia. This was needed as casualties were sustained. Grant conducted several early burials there. He also helped transfer a cinema plant from Darwin to Adelaide River, where a large open-air theatre was established which he ran for a while by himself. There were two double feature shows a week with huge audiences. Involved with the relocation of 119 Army General Hospital from Darwin to Adelaide River, he ministered to its Australian and American sick and wounded. Between 1943 and 1945 he served in other parts of Australia and overseas but returned to the Territory, stationed in Darwin, in 1945. He took his discharge from the Army in 1946.

With his wife and children he was back in Darwin in April 1946 as Presbyterian Minister. Living conditions there were very rough as food supplies were short and there was no skilled labour to rebuild their house, which had been virtually destroyed by termites. With the Reverend C. D. Alcorn, the Methodist Minister in Darwin, and the Reverend Dr John Flynn, he formed the United Church of North Australia, which involved the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian churches. While only a missionary arrangement, it had active local support and later became a model for the Uniting Church in Australia.

After serving as Minister of Bankstown, New South Wales, from 1950 to 1955, between 1955 and 1959 Grant was Minister at the John Flynn Memorial Church in Alice Springs. In this appointment he ministered to residents at the ‘Old Timers Settlement’ near the town and patrolled a vast area in Central Australia. He assisted in organising health surveys of Aboriginal people and with the polio immunisation of children, visited the remote Giles weather station during and immediately after its construction, ministered to the gang building the Gunbarrel Highway and performed essential maintenance work at the hospital in Oodnadatta, South Australia.

From 1960 until his retirement in 1977 he was Minister at Fairfield and Haberfield, both in Sydney. In 1965 to 1966 he was New South Wales President of the Australian Council of Churches and in 1965 was President of the National Aborigines Day Observance Committee in Sydney. Prominent in the formation of the Uniting Church, he was the first defendant in a court case where people opposed to the formation decided to contest the matter. The opponents were unsuccessful but Grant found the legal proceedings very traumatic. In 1978 he was awarded the British Empire Medal (BEM). He and his wife retired to Dee Why and later, in 1994, to Belrose. Erla Grant predeceased him.

Grant maintained a very active interest in the Northern Territory, which he quite frequently revisited. His historical work on Methodists and Presbyterians in the Territory was of particular value. Among his publications were Camel Train and Aeroplane: The Story of Skipper Partridge (1981), Palmerston to Darwin: 75 Years Service on the Frontier (1990), Australia’s Frontline Matron: Edith McQuade White (1992) and Aliens in Arnhem Land (1995). He also published several articles in the Northern Territory Dictionary of Biography and the Journal of Northern Territory History. Some of these publications were illustrated with his own excellent photographs. In February 1992 he made a special trip to participate in some commemorative activities in Darwin to mark the 50th anniversary of the first Japanese air attack. A special concern was the fate of the former Methodist church in Darwin, built in 1897 and the oldest surviving church in the city. Disappointed that the Uniting Church wanted to demolish the building, he worked tirelessly within the Church and with organisations such as the National Trust to try to have the building preserved. In 1995 the Northern Territory Government registered the building as a Heritage Place. It was, unfortunately, moved to the Botanic Gardens in Darwin in 2000 but was restored there as far as possible in its original form. Grant spoke at the ceremony to mark completion of the restoration.

A man of great dedication and energy, Grant served the Northern Territory tirelessly and effectively in various capacities. He combined a keen intellect with practical skills and was held in high regard among the many Territorians with whom he worked. Throughout his long career his wife Erla provided him with invaluable support.

Original publication

  • Journal of Northern Territory History, no 16, 2005

Citation details

David Carment, 'Grant, Archibald Wesley (Arch) (1911–2005)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/grant-archibald-wesley-arch-437/text438, accessed 21 July 2019.

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