James Gordon Stuart Grant was born in the Glenlivet district, Banffshire, Scotland, probably some time between 1832 and 1834, the son of Elizabeth Stuart and her husband, Angus Grant, an agricultural labourer. He married, on 26 May 1862 at Melbourne, Australia, Frances Jane Richardson, who had emigrated from England in 1850. By 1875 they had a daughter.
According to his own account Grant was educated at Aberdeen Grammar School; King's College and Marischal College, at the University of Aberdeen; New College, at the University of Edinburgh; and finally at the University of St Andrews, where he excelled in moral philosophy and political economy. At least parts of this claim can be verified: he matriculated at King's College, Aberdeen, in 1847–48, and took third equal place in the moral philosophy course at the University of St Andrews in 1850–51. At the conclusion of his studies Grant emigrated to Melbourne. He had been there only a short time when W. H. Reynolds persuaded him to join a group of emigrants bound for Dunedin, New Zealand. Grant himself believed he had been promised the rectorship of the projected Otago high school. He arrived in Dunedin by the Gil Blas in September 1855.
While awaiting the establishment of the high school, Grant gave lectures and sermons on a variety of topics (in Gaelic on occasion) and founded his own school, the Dunedin Academy, where the hours of instruction were limited so that pupils might not develop 'a positive aversion to learning'. To his intense dismay, the authorities insisted that no promise of preferment had been made to Grant and another person was appointed rector of the high school ('the second Rector', Grant insisted). The inauguration of the new institution caused his academy to fade away. During 1857 Grant made a 'grand tour' of New Zealand to publicise his plans for schools which would be 'Nurseries for a Colonial University', but then returned to Dunedin, where he continued to crusade against 'darkness, ignorance and selfish mammonism.'
Among his earliest schemes was a public library for Dunedin. If private donations should fail to provide the necessary finance, Grant wrote, 'I myself will deliver a public lecture on some attractive subject, and a collection can be made on behalf of this great object.' He was willing to lecture on virtually any subject to any kind of audience, indoors or out of doors, and, said T. M. Hocken, 'sometimes travelled considerable distances to indulge the fancy'. Hocken, who heard him speak, did not find his style captivating: 'His addresses were of an inflated and ponderous kind, quite unsuited to gain the attention of his audience, or to impress them with any confidence in his ability.' His orations ranged from 'Moral greatness' to 'Grog – the element in which Dunedin lives, moves and has its being'. Some of his efforts were billed as sermons, and he offered himself as an 'Independent' preacher in opposition to the Presbyterian establishment. A ready-made audience was also to his liking: he invariably participated in public meetings called to debate various moral and municipal issues. His public visibility did not bring him popularity: in 1858 he forced a poll by standing against James Macandrew for the Dunedin seat in a by-election for the General Assembly, an action which drew forth a scathing editorial in the Otago Colonist about the 'mountebank', and a total of three votes for Grant.
The Otago goldrushes of the 1860s transformed Dunedin and brought into question the dominance of the Scots-Presbyterian leadership, as Old Identities and New Iniquities wrestled with the political and moral consequences of wealth and population growth. In these upheavals there arose opportunities for Grant to be more than a gadfly. There was a much augmented constituency from which the lecturer might draw an audience, and for a time his pedantic allusions and grandiose schemes of improvement could be applauded by relatively unlettered newcomers as wisdom and vision. When the shortage of labour led some employers to increase the hours of work for their employees, Grant spoke to large meetings in the Octagon in favour of the eight hour day, and thereby gained some reputation as a defender of the rights of wage-earners. He was both unable and unwilling to fashion a political faction out of this potential support. At the same time he showed himself to be as antagonistic to the new merchant-politicians as to those who had denied him the rectorship: in his earliest effort at pamphleteering, in 1863, he pilloried Julius Vogel. Vogel sued for libel; and since he lacked friends who would stand bail, Grant had to spend several weeks in prison before the trial. He conducted his own wordy defence and the jury found him not guilty.
Early in 1864 he began the Saturday Review, a weekly of philosophising and strident political criticism, which he wrote almost entirely himself. He also took up the cause of those currently out of work. In the winter of 1864 he addressed a crowd of several hundred unemployed and led them in procession from the Octagon to the provincial council to demand satisfaction from the government. The superintendent met the demonstrators and talked with them, and they dispersed. Two days later Grant led a larger body right into the council buildings and began to interrupt the debate in progress: he was removed from the chamber by the sergeant at arms, and was subsequently required to apologise and pay a small fine. He couched his own account of this event in terms of Cromwell's actions, but his political preferences were for Cromwell the dictator rather than the social revolutionary.
When Grant went again to the chamber it was as an elected representative: in a by-election in October 1865 he topped the poll, a consequence of some sturdy support from working people. He joined a council distinguished by ineptitude, but still managed to shine, notably in his resistance to the eradication of the noxious thistle on the grounds that it was the emblem of Scotland.
In the meantime the trenchant journalism of the Saturday Review had caused trouble for himself and for others. There were plenty of citizens in agreement with his condemnations of squabbling in the Synod of Otago and Southland and debauchery at the Vauxhall Gardens; but when a contributor libelled a woman, he was horsewhipped in the street by a defender of her honour: both contributor and editor were the same evening thrown out of a local theatre. On another occasion Grant thrice tried to sell a police inspector a copy of the Saturday Review which made unflattering remarks about the inspector. The goaded policeman finally assaulted Grant, who took his assailant to court. The court recognised the provocation and fined the inspector 1s. Debts forced the closure of the Saturday Review in 1871.
Grant's brief period of political influence was over by the later 1860s, even if his notoriety continued. He did not stand for re-election to the provincial council in 1867 and tried instead for the superintendency. In this election Macandrew made his triumphal return to the office he had been forced to vacate early in the decade. Accusations that Grant was vote-splitting on behalf of Macandrew's rival, Thomas Dick, proved to be beside the point: of 3,653 votes cast for the three candidates, Grant received two. He was an unsuccessful candidate for the Dunedin mayoralty in 1868 and thereafter regularly offered himself in parliamentary elections. In an 1869 by-election he polled 179 votes to the winner's 577; in the last of his long series of attempts, in 1884, he received a single vote, presumably his own.
Neither age nor electoral failure mellowed Grant: he maintained his old animosities, especially against those whom he held responsible for his failure to gain the rectorship or who were influential in educational matters. His efforts to interrupt an address by D. M. Stuart, the chancellor, led to his being thrown down the steps of the University of Otago. An agitated intervention by Grant during a farewell presentation to Vogel in 1869 caused a bystander to lay a calming hand on his shoulder: Grant claimed a vicious assault but the magistrate fined the defendant a token amount. He could still gather an audience at the Octagon, and in 1870 led a crowd of some 300 unemployed to present a petition to the provincial council. The council, mindful of the indignities of 1864, gave him no hearing.
The Delphic Oracle, which ran from 1866 to 1870, was followed by the Stoic, which lasted for 13 issues in the early 1870s. In the decade after the Stoic ceased to appear, Grant issued the majority of his 60-odd pamphlets. These effusions, usually 16 pages in length, exhibited the fullest range of his learning and his obsessions. Some, such as The Elysian fields and The flowers of Hymettus, quoted from and discussed Shakespeare's plays: occasionally an unrelated diatribe filled any space left over. He wrote on learned topics in pamphlets such as Classical education and Philosophical thoughts on evolution. Fiery darts and Firebrands and Dodonean oracles were libels on local citizens. Grant pronounced on the church, the Empire, the observance of the Sabbath, and the need for harbour reclamation. On the title page or at the conclusion of his essay he invariably added after his name: 'First Rector of the High School of Otago, and Founder of the Eight Hours' system of Labour'. Only a chronic shortage of cash to pay printers stood in the way of more frequent publication.
Grant sold his pamphlets by hawking them about the streets and so became known to later generations of citizens. His unprepossessing appearance – he was short and had a disproportionately large head, which cartoonists further exaggerated – had always taken away from his public declamations: as he aged his girth increased and in ill-fitting clothes he became a figure of fun. Although his denunciations were still feared, those who were libelled did not trouble to take him to court. To peddle his wares to passers-by was so much a way of life that when he could no longer afford to produce his own pamphlets and periodicals he bought up religious tracts from other sources and sold them instead: in this way he eked out a precarious existence.
By the end of the 1870s he was a widower. He had returned home one winter's day in 1875 to find his wife, Frances, gone: Grant blamed his enemies for her defection. She arrived back in Dunedin a year later, insane, unable to recognise her husband, and was committed to the lunatic asylum, where she died on 4 December 1878. Thus he lived his last years quite alone, and in poverty. On his deathbed he made a final appeal for funds, not to launch another pamphlet but to clear his lodging debts. These and the costs of his funeral were met by public subscriptions; he died in Dunedin on 27 February 1902.
Grant was not entirely atypical of his time and place. His criticisms of municipal squalor were echoed by others. Personal abuse, whether in the streets, at public meetings, or in the newspapers, was commonplace in early Dunedin. What was unusual about Grant was his extravagant self-esteem, his persistence in scurrilous attacks, and his refusal to adjust to colonial circumstances. His expectations were a little too elevated: he believed that Dunedin might become a place where 'public taste would be educated, vice would die away, and virtue would again walk the earth in divine beauty.' Others could not share such a rare vision: they saw only the dangerous demagogue, or the incorrigible eccentric.
Dunedin was not likely, wrote Grant, 'to see another man of my stamp.' He looked forward to a time (he suggested 1980) when a statue to honour his memory would be unveiled in Dunedin. Instead he has been memorialised in books of history and reminiscence as a mordant jester and privileged libeller. He has a place in local mythology among the 'characters' who are perceived to have rejected the norms of settler society and pursued their own singular avocations.