Text by Brian Allison, Curator, Exhibitions and Public Programs, Grainger Museum, University of MelbourneContributors
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Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne
John Grainger was born on 30 November 1854 at 1 New Street, Westminster. His parents were John Grainger, Master Tailor and Mary Ann Grainger, née Parsons.
Little is known about Grainger’s early life prior to emigrating to Australia. Winifred Falconer, his companion later in life, wrote in an unpublished manuscript in the mid-1930s that he lived with an uncle who was an important influence on him during his childhood. We don’t know why Grainger was brought up in his uncle’s home. His parents were not deceased — they are listed as still living in Westminster in the 1881 census. Percy believed that his father received much of his education at a monastery school in France at Yvetot (between Le Havre and Paris).
The experience of French culture in his formative years left Grainger with a lifetime love of French architecture. At some point, early in his career, he made a detailed study of French revival styles, particularly Renaissance revival architecture — a style in which he proved to be very proficient.
Little is known about his early training. In Grainger’s unsuccessful application to become a Fellow of the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects (RVIA) he states he studied architecture with I.J. Eden & W.K. Green of Westminster ― presumably an architectural partnership. He records that he studied engineering with a W.E. Wilson, also of Westminster.
A clipping from the Australian Argus newspaper on 4 August 1879 states:
'Granger [sic] of Jenkins and Granger [sic] has been in the colony about 3 years. He came from London where he worked with Mr Wilson, the well-known engineer of the Metro. District Railways, and with him made a special study of iron bridge making.'
Marshall’s Biographical Dictionary of Railway Engineers lists a William Wilson (1822–1898) who acted for contractors on the Metropolitan and District Railway. Grainger was probably apprenticed to Wilson or was a junior in his company; either way he received a solid grounding in civil engineering practices, in addition to his considerable architectural skills.
By the age of 25 he had amassed the knowledge and experience to design the celebrated Princes Bridge in Melbourne. This complex project would have been demanding for a seasoned practitioner twice his age. He allegedly lied about his age to inspire confidence in the Public Works Department officials to whom he submitted the original design.