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James Groom Short

Short's old Smithy, London.Demolished 1907 Short's old Smithy, London.Demolished 1907 London Topographical Society

“The Irrepressible and Everlasting Tinker”

As St Kilda declined in gentility during the twentieth century, it earned a reputation as a home of the mad, the bad and the dangerous. To be merely unconventional was commonplace. Yet nineteenth-century St Kilda was not just the home of successful merchants, professional men and their families. It was never as uniformly respectable as it might have seemed, and the unexpected and eccentric had been part of its social fabric from the beginning of white settlement.

One of its early European settlers was a Suffolk-born tinsmith named James Groom Short, and he was to prove to be an identity as colourful as anything the twentieth century could produce.

Short arrived at Port Phillip with his wife and daughter on 11 December 1850.1 He would seem to have arrived with some resources at his disposal, for unlike many migrants of the day, the Shorts paid their own fares to Australia, and were free of any obligation to work for an employer. By 1852, Short was in business, leasing premises in Flinders Street as a “founder” (foundryman) and a smith. When that property was sold late in 18522, he moved to a block of land he had purchased near St Kilda junction.

Short should have been a success story of early Melbourne. He and his family had landed here on the eve of one of the world’s great gold rushes, and there was wealth to be earned through the pursuit of his trade. Metal workers were in constant demand - gold seekers needed pans, sluices and other equipment, as well as billies, plates and mugs. Wheels for carts, ploughs and other agricultural tools were in constant demand, while the new homes and public buildings erected on profits of the diggings required both fittings and devices. All were scarce, and sold for prices that shocked English visitors.

Short’s new premises were in Nelson Street, Windsor, near the corner of Punt Road, on a block that ran through to Wellington Street.3 At that time, St Kilda junction was on the edge of urban settlement, separated from Melbourne by kilometres of grassland and scrub. The first bridge over the Yarra – a ramshackle timber construction - hadn’t opened until late 1845, and for several years afterwards the road from there to the junction was a roughly-made bush track, often impassable following rain, and sometimes beset by bushrangers. Fitzroy Street, the link between the junction and the growing beachside settlement of St Kilda, remained a meandering, uneven, sandy track until late in 1854.

Short’s wife ran a general store in Nelson Street, with his iron works behind it. The store was busy enough to employ seamstresses, shop assistants and porters, and found a role – like many such stores of the time – as something of a community centre, providing a poste restante for sellers of cattle or produce, for those seeking relatives or lost property, and for those letting businesses and properties.4

The iron works must have been of some scale, if the one example of its manufacturing which has been recorded is any indicator. “The learned gentleman called James Groom Short,” as the Geelong Advertiser described him, had a day in court in May 1854, claiming the substantial sum of £36 10s. 6d. for his work in building gates for the new Geelong prison. (There had been a dispute over the significant problem that “the gates were rendered too small for the openings for which they were intended.” The cause of the error was the use of a wrong plan. No one could identify where the incorrect plan had come from, and Short avoided any blame and won his case.)5

Short also became a land speculator in the booming village of St Kilda. He owned allotments near the top of the St Kilda hill, on the corner of Grey Street and Neptune Street (now the site of the Sacred Heart church), and he had also purchased a sizeable block (approximately 20m x 76m) on Fitzroy Street, St Kilda, about mid-way between Princes Street and Grey Street, where he was later to set up a smithy’s workshop.

His little empire also included five acres of land at Oakleigh, purchased in 1853. It was among the first blocks sold in the new township, then little more than a few shacks on the road to Gippsland. By 1857, Short’s block was described as “five acres of land …, all fenced in, with a compact wooden house and sheds erected thereon, in the occupation of Mr Dickenson. The whole is grubbed, and in cultivation, and has a frontage to the Government road.” 6

His properties made Short a potentially wealthy man, particularly after the St Kilda railway opened on 13 May 1857. The railway brought opportunities for greater suburban development, along with masses seeking refreshment and amusement by the seaside. There was now a frenzy of building in the little seaside village. Along the newly formed and kerbed Fitzroy Street, various substantial terraces were erected, often destined for use as rooming houses or holiday accommodation.

The Nelson Street property lay in another valuable location, still within easy walk of the St Kilda railway, and similarly close to Windsor station (on the Brighton line), which opened on 19 December 1859. It was also close to St Kilda junction, which was carrying an increasing flow of road traffic between Melbourne’s markets and the farms and market gardens of Elsternwick, Brighton, and Moorabbin. The landmark Junction Hotel had opened in 1853, and a ribbon of shops quickly grew from it, extending away along High Street towards the current site of St Kilda Town Hall.

The demand for their skills in those boom years had turned many tradesmen into successful businessmen, and they became powerful figures in Victorian society. That was not to be the future for Short, or for his family. His world was about to come crashing down around him. The first intimation of disaster came in February 1856, with a notice in The Argus7:

“THIS DAY. --TO be sold by auction, under distress for rent, at the residence of James Groom Short, at Oakleigh, on Saturday, 16th inst., at four o'clock, Furniture, blacksmiths' and carpenters' tools, potato crop, and sundries.”

Six months later Short was before the Insolvency Court. He was to spend the next eight years enmeshed in the deliberations of that Court, as his life spiralled into eccentricity and eventual mental illness.

Those who had known James Groom Short before he emigrated to Victoria might not have been surprised. Two decades earlier Short had been in business in Ipswich, Suffolk, as a ‘whitesmith [tinsmith] and ironmonger’. He came from a well-to-do family, his father having been a publican, and at least two of his brothers were local success stories, one as a farmer, the other as an inspector of police and subsequently a bailiff of the Suffolk County Court.

Short’s business career in Ipswich did not end well, but in a manner that was certainly a portent of his later life. In September 1837, an auction notice announced that his “entire Stock in Trade, Household Furniture, and other Effects” were to be sold under a warrant from the Sheriff for outstanding debts.8

Nine weeks later, Short appeared in court,

… indicted for a violent assault upon Mr. Wm. Collins, a sheriff's officer, whilst engaged in the execution of his duty. The assault arose out of a distress, which had been ordered to be made upon Short's premises, under a warrant to Collins, from the Under-Sheriff of Suffolk. The officer's assistant, it will be recollected, left the premises for a short time, locking the front door after him, to procure a loaf of bread. In his absence, Short got possession; and whilst Collins was in the act of getting over a back wall to re-enter the premises, Short struck him with an iron bar, and fractured his arm; and after being told that his arm was broken, struck him on the head, and knocked him into the filth of a privy. The trial occupied the whole of Friday, and from noon until ten at night on Saturday, when the jury, after deliberating forty minutes, found the defendant “Guilty of a common assault through the negligence of the officer." Mr. O'Malley contended that this was equivalent to an acquittal, but the Jury replying to the Recorder's inquiry, that they considered the defendant not guilty of assaulting the officer in the execution of his duty, but guilty of a common assault, and of more than necessary violence, the Recorder directed a verdict of guilty to be entered on the second count, and sentenced him to six weeks' imprisonment.9

That was a rare moment of good fortune in Short’s life, as conviction on the initial charge would have meant much more severe punishment, most probably transportation to Australia. Short would have arrived in the colonies much earlier, and under very different circumstances.

For the next thirteen years, Short appears only occasionally in public records. He married Mary Ann Scott, a farmer’s daughter, in Ipswich in November 1839.10 It would seem that Mary Ann was far better educated than most girls of her day, for Short was to testify before a court in 1856 that “[t]he memorandum he held in his hand was written by his wife to refresh his memory. She kept the accounts, because she was the best scribe.”11

There were three children of the marriage, James Ranson Short (1841), Anna Maria Short (1843), and Frederick Groom Short (1846). The two boys were to die in infancy, aged nine months and nineteen months respectively; Anna Maria was to live to 83.

By 1842, the Shorts were living in London, where they remained until they left for the colonies in 1850. They were living next door to Short’s iron foundry, an enterprise big enough to employ a number of men. Short’s name appears regularly during these years in the Government Gazette, seeking registration of patents for various creations, including metal balustrades (1847) and metal baluster panels (1849). 12 [These are more fraught engineering issues than may appear at first; a Google search for “baluster panels” leads immediately to a forum on the difficulties of designing them in architectural software!]

This was another business venture to not end well. On 6 August 1850, a petition for Short’s bankruptcy was lodged and formally recorded, and a second formal hearing into his affairs was scheduled for 9 January 1851.13

One of his descendants reports family tradition was that “James Short had been caught cheating at cards at Buckingham Palace and sent to Australia.” The real story is far more mundane. Facing imprisonment once more, this time for debt, Short made no effort to defend his property. On 4 August, two days before the bankruptcy petition was lodged, he, Mary Ann and their daughter Anna Maria boarded the ship Delta, bound for South Australia and then Port Phillip.

Like so many other emigrants, they were intent on creating a new life without the stain of old convictions. It was an easy enough to “invent your own past” in an age where the only records were dusty ledgers on the far side of the world, and where the delay between sending a query about an individual to London (assuming you knew who to send the query to) and receiving a response could easily be eight months. And to cap this, as the historian Christine Kenneally has noted, Port Phillip was a society where many had a convict background, and “[n]o one spoke of anyone else’s ancestry, let alone their own, and it was considered rude to ask.”14

None of this past was available to the officers of the courts who were to handle Short’s 1856 insolvency. If they had, they may have been prepared for what was to follow. They were no longer at risk of assault, for Short had found other ways of thwarting the operation of the legal system. It was to take eight years to complete the process of insolvency, and Short was to remain in active possession of at least one of his properties for well over a decade. Dealing with Short now involved hearings that were interminable and frustrating, if not maddening. A report of a sitting of the Insolvent Court in August 1857 shows how he was regarded:


A special meeting for the proof of a debt. The insolvent was in attendance, and examined at great length by Sir George Stephen. The circumstances elicited were not of importance. The facts of this insolvency have been frequently before the public through this and all the courts of the colony. Insolvent gave his evidence with so much prevarication that the Commissioner, after listening to his contradictions for a long time, at length committed him to prison for twenty-four hours.”15

The reporter was barely exaggerating. While Short’s case probably hadn’t been before every court in the colony, over the previous year he had been through enough of them to qualify as a veteran. During the latter half of 1856 and the year 1857, he averaged more than a court appearance per month.

The saga commenced in July 1856, with a petition for Short’s insolvency by William O'Neill, of Keilor. O’Neill was too impatient to wait for a public meeting of Short’s creditors, and on 3 September claimed possession of Short’s premises at Windsor. He testified that he obtained possession under a mortgage-deed, on which he had lent £700 to defendant in 1854, and that as the mortgage money had not been paid, Short had verbally agreed to transfer the property altogether. Short then remained on the premises as O’Neill’s tenant, but it had taken repeated legal action to obtain rent from him.16

Short’s defence was “that he never paid rent. The money paid was interest on the money lent. Defendant never made any agreement to take the place for twelve months. He never heard rent mentioned. The levies were made as for interest, and not as rent.” The Court was not impressed, and an order of ejectment within seven days was issued against Short.17

This defence was to have repercussions. A month later, on 3 October, at the City Court, a charge of perjury was preferred against Short by O'Neill, on the basis that the defendant had sworn that he never rented the premises from O'Neill or paid him rent. When the case was finally heard on 24 October, these matters were re-examined at length, in a manner that the correspondent of The Argus plainly disliked, for the silence around social origins and experience of the penal system had been breached:

“The case occupied nearly the whole of the day, and the prosecution and defence were alike conducted with unusual bitterness. In the course of the cross-examination of the principal witness and private prosecutor [O’Neill] it was elicited from him that he had not voluntarily come to Australia. Mr. Ireland addressed the jury in an eloquent and powerful speech (in replying upon the case), in which every particle of evidence against the defendant was urged with much vehemence, and the particular question pointed to was commented upon with great severity.”18

For the second time in his life, Short encountered a generous jury. It “returned a verdict that the defendant had sworn falsely, but had not committed wilful and corrupt perjury, and therefore was not guilty.”19

The acquittal did not end Short’s woes. While he was preparing for the perjury trial, he had faced the adjourned public meeting of creditors in his insolvent estate on 14 October. The Argus report provides a revealing summary of Short’s business ventures in the colony, while the tone of the latter part suggests that Short was quickly developing a sense of persecution.

“He [Short] had been six years in the colony. Was an engineer by trade. First carried on business as an engineer and ironfounder, next as a wheelwright and smith, in Flinders-street. This continued for about eighteen months. Since then had lived on his property at St Kilda, and built further; also carried on business as a wheelwright and smith there for about three months. Then let that property and bought some land in the Dandenong-road. Had a small farm of five acres at Oakleigh. Borrowed £800 of Mr. Turner, in 1854. The transaction would appear in memorandums in the handwriting of Mrs. Short. £600 was had first, in various sums, and when the amount had reached £800, a mortgage was executed to Turner. Turner made these advances sometimes in cash and sometimes by cheque upon the Union Bank, and once upon another bank. Had not paid Turner any interest for about fifteen months. From £50 to £100 was now due for interest. Turner is a gentleman retired from business, and was an ironmonger in Swanston-street. Insolvent applied the £800 to a speculation at Oakleigh. He borrowed £700 of Mr. O'Neill at mortgage. Used this money in Mrs. Short's store, and in erecting an engine for cutting wood. (The insolvent was here examined at length upon the various items of the schedule, both assets and liabilities.) Mr. O'Neill bought two horses for him at auction, about fourteen months ago, at Tattersalls. He offered to do this as an act of friendship, Insolvent was now using one of the horses in a dray. The other was sold at Bear's yard in about November last, as insolvent's own property. (Paper shown to insolvent: an agreement to rent the horses of O'Neill.) That paper was improperly obtained by O'Neill. Never paid O'Neill any rent for them. That paper had been used in the Police Court, the County Court, and now in this Court. This was the unholy trick by which he had been ruined. The horse and dray in insolvent's possession was the property of Mr. Turner, sold to the latter before O'Neill got judgment in the County Court. They were given to Turner as part security for his advances. Turner bought everything under the Sheriff's sale. (The insolvent was examined strictly as to every item of his household furniture, which was altogether valued in the schedule at £20.) Had brought an action against O'Neill, by the assistance of some friends, who supplied the funds to enable insolvent to vindicate himself from O'Neill's slanders.”20

The role of Mr. Turner may be of some significance, and is interestingly emphasised in The Age’s report of the examination. Short “owed Mr. Turner, of Gardiner's Creek-road [now Toorak Road], £800. He borrowed to carry it on a speculation at Oakleigh. He mortgaged property which cost him between £60 and £70 for the said loan of £800. He was once offered £1500 for the same property, and he regretted that he had not taken the offer.” Short further testified that one of O’Neill’s horses was bought by Turner, who had allowed him [Short] to use it for the purpose of making a living, and that Turner bought the whole of Short’s tools and equipment at the sheriff's sale at Oakleigh. It’s hard not to wonder whether there was some sort of unofficial – and possibly illegal – arrangement between Short and Turner.

George Turner had retired from his ironmonger’s business during the 1850s, and appears to have lived subsequently as an estate agent and property developer. His connection with Short did not end in 1857. In 1864 he was to become owner of Short’s block in Fitzroy Street, St Kilda, and fought an unsuccessful landmark court case to avoid payment of years of Short’s outstanding rates.21 And whatever the relationship, Short appears to have retained possession of the block until at least 1870.

The first meeting with Short appeared to convince the Commissioner of Insolvent Estates that the case might prove more difficult than he had foreseen, as he announced his “intention of holding three meetings in the estate.”22 But if he thought three meetings would close it out, he was hopelessly optimistic. Over the ensuing years, there were a procession of further meetings, as Short danced a fancy two-step with his creditors.

A second meeting on 12 November 1856 closed quickly, “[a]n intimation having been given that there was a probability of the estate being released from sequestration …,”23 but the outcome was not so easy. At a third meeting on 16 December, the Official Assignee requested that the “that this meeting may be adjourned, in order to afford him time to dispose of the estate.”24

Despite protests from Short, the sale of properties began. On 6 March 1857, the five acres at Oakleigh and the allotments on the corner of Grey and Neptune Streets, St Kilda, were auctioned.25 On 10 June, the two blocks between Nelson and Wellington Streets followed.26 However, preliminary notice of auction of the Fitzroy Street property did not appear until September 1858,27 and there is no subsequent report of an auction.

That may have been due to Short’s delaying tactics. In 1857, a new creditor’s claims resulted in two special meetings of creditors in May and August; it was at the second of these that Short’s prevarication provoked his overnight imprisonment. An attempt in September 1857 to record a “plan of distribution of available assets” foundered in the face of Short’s objections and the revelation of even more possible creditors.28 This process was to drag on until March 1864, when a new meeting of creditors was called,29 and it would seem that Short ultimately avoided insolvency, possibly through the proceeds of the eventual sale of the Fitzroy street property to George Turner in that year.

It was not merely Short’s commercial life that was falling apart at this time. At some point after 1856, it seems Mary Ann Short had suffered enough, and left him. It is impossible to know exactly when that occurred. We do know that she and their daughter Anna Maria boarded ship in Geelong in April 1864, bound for a new life in New Zealand. Family memory is that “Anna Maria was a governess to a John Brooks' family in Geelong. She must have met John Joshua Gresham, from Lincoln UK, there. He was a compositor (printer). He got a job in Dunedin NZ so went there in 1863. Anna Maria came over to marry him in 1864 and Mary Ann came with her.”30

It would certainly appear that the separation had occurred before December 1859, because Short’s evidence in another case at the St Kilda Police Court that month demonstrates that he was living a bachelor’s life, apparently in a shack attached to his smithy in Fitzroy Street. “Mr. James G. Short, the owner of certain property in Fitzroy-street, nearly opposite the Railway Station, was summoned by Mr. William Angus for having charged excessive damages for a trespass committed by a goat. …”31

The hearing produced this exchange:

Mr. Short.—The goats broke into my house, and eat my sugar. (Laughter.) The Bench.—You really must be quiet, Mr. Short. If you have any questions to ask the complainant, you can do so; but we cannot hear you at present. Mr. Short (excitedly).—I have been vilified, your Worships, and want to defend myself. The goats got into my room, one of them knocked down a basin of sugar, and the other eat a loaf of bread. Mr. Angus.—I don't believe there was anything of value in the place. Mr. Short.—The goats were running into my shop and lying upon the hot coals. (Roars of laughter.)

When Short was granted his opportunity to testify under oath, the Alice-in-Wonderland qualities of the case once more surfaced, as Short related that

… the goat in question had been running on his place for some six or nine months, and he had frequently asked the complainant to either take it away, or to put a rope round its neck and fasten it, so that it could only run on the green land unenclosed. Mr. Angus had not done either. On the occasion he alluded to the goat had broken into his house in his absence, and eaten a lot of sugar and a loaf of bread. When he came home and opened the door the goat sprang over a table and knocked it down. The fact was, it had done as much as 12s. damage. It had broken two china bowls and the crockery that was on the table, which he had used for breakfast. It broke also into the shop, and got on to the forge, thinking it a warm place. Every time it came it did 6d. or 9d. damage. When he spoke to Mr. Angus about it he told him to pound the goat, and he had done as he said.

The Chairman of the Magistrate’s Bench was clearly bemused, commenting that “it must be a strange sort of house if a goat can break into it, and cannot have been properly fastened. The Bench have no alternative but to reduce the damages to 1s.”

The farce ended with Mr. Angus applying for costs, “but the Bench thought there was no occasion for that. Mr. Short.—As he has applied for costs, I'll do the same. (After a moment's pause.) I should like an answer, your worship. The Chairman.—You can pay yourself, if you like, Mr. Short. That's all the costs you'll get.”

Short subsequently appears as resident at several addresses in Windsor over the next decade, but his continued abode in Fitzroy Street is indicated by a plaintive communication to St Kilda Council in September 1870 from a neighbouring tradesman, “informing the council of the erection of a nuisance, in the shape of a shanty, next to his residence, which was not only unsightly, but unsafe for any person to live in, and requesting the council would direct the attention of the inspector of nuisances to the matter.”32

James Groom Short had developed a taste for litigation by now, and while none of his subsequent appearances were to match the farce of the goats, most of the matters were trivial in the extreme – disputes over small payments for labour, or over failure to return tools or to pay for goods. He raised these matters in at least three courts – Hawthorn, Prahran and St Kilda. Along the way, he had developed a style which made him a favourite entertainment for court reporters, particularly the representative of the local newspaper, The Telegraph, St Kilda, Prahran and South Yarra Guardian. A report from Prahran Court in March 1869 provides a good example:33

AN ORATION FROM A WITNESS-BOX.— An old man of somewhat remarkable aspect, and who either is, or affects to be, very deaf, appeared on the sheet as a complainant under the name of James Groom, but who is well-known here as James Groom Short, and is famous for his oratorical powers, which he loses no opportunity of exercising. He came now to complain of Charles Day, his next neighbour, who on the 11th March came to his door and asked him, what he meant by interfering with a man. His description of the offence was something like this—" He said to me, I'll give you a hit in the belly that'll shut you up. At the thought of getting a hit in the belly, gentlemen, I stood like one thunderstruck, and didn't reply a word to all the wicked language he heaped upon me, but I hope, gentlemen, to heap coals of fire on his head. For I must explain to your worships, my object in coming here is not so much to complain of this, as in the hope that the fear of the Lord may be so impressed upon your worships' minds that you may be moved with inward workings of humanity in behalf of an unfortunate nurse-child which he, and a person who is very like a Bourke-street lady, have got to take care of, and which the mother don’t know how its [sic] used shameful." After many attempts to keep him to the point of the threatening language, which also failed, the case was dismissed, with 2s. 6d. costs, and 6s. for the defendant's loss of his day's labour. The humanitarian advocate departed, expressing his perfect contentment, as "he was sure the Lord would bless his work and soften their worships' hearts."

The same reporter appears to have been in court for Short’s next appearance at St Kilda in December 1870:34

“ORATORY IN THE WITNESS-BOX.—A pleasant expression of anticipated fun spread over the countenances in court when it was perceived that the irrepressible and everlasting tinker, Short, was to make one of his periodical appearances. These expectations were fully justified when the case of John Scott v. James Groom Short was called on…. . The defendant is very deaf, but like many other deaf persons has a convenient habit of hearing just as much of an observation as suits himself, and misapprehending the rest in the most provoking manner….”

Short was accused of assaulting a young lad from the Industrial Schools in the employment of Mr. Wise, a shoemaker in Fitzroy-street. Short first applied for a postponement because the barrister who was to appear for him “had left him in the lurch,” but when the barrister was called he explained that “the defendant had told him all sorts of lies about the case, and he had refused to have anything to do with it.”

By now the fun was really beginning for the journalist, as the boy Scott was called by the Court:

The complainant on entering the witness-box, was adjured by the defendant in a solemn tragedy tone, and with hands uplifted in the attitude of a priest invoking a blessing on his acolyte, to "tell the truth, my boy, the blessed truth, that highest attribute of mental man. I know you are a poor orphan boy, and I regard you with the tenderest feeling that fills a fond father's breast." The lad said he had been sent by his employer to Mr. Merrifield's, and the accused had attacked him in the manner described without the slightest provocation on his part. His evidence was given in the most declamatory style, one hand upon his breast and the other sawing the air in the true school-speech-day manner; but when he became excited by the quite irrelevant questions of Short, who paid not the slightest attention to his answers, and went on with his own declamation at thorough cross-purposes, the rhetorical contest between the two Demosthenes became too rich for the gravity of everybody that witnessed it, and the whole court was convulsed with a burst of laughter, in which even the judicial gravity of the. bench was compromised

Short was with difficulty made to comprehend that he was fined 10s.; and 10s. costs, and “went away, like Shylock, after his defeat, with head bowed low beneath this stroke of destiny muttering ‘Oh! my God, my God ! he's respectable, and I'm not, and that's all about it.’”

The Argus also reported the case, but with suggestions that there was more to the story, including the description of Short as “an old man,” and his defence “that the lad had been in the habit of throwing stones at his house.”35 As it happens, the boy’s employer, Mr. Wise, had been the tradesman who had lodged the complaint about Short’s “shanty” with St Kilda Council three months earlier, and there must be a suspicion that he encouraged his apprentice’s harassment of Short.

Three months later, on 21 March 1871, Short was back in St Kilda Court.36 The magistrates had to deal with him twice that day. The first matter ended well, The Argus reporter recording that “James G. Short was summoned by William Caffyn for an unlawful assault. The Bench considered Caffyn was the aggressor, and dismissed the case with £2 2s. costs.“ However, his second appearance had a sadder outcome, as “Short was brought up as a lunatic, and sent to the Yarra Bend Asylum.” The coincidence of the two appearances suggests that this judgement resulted either from his behavior in the conflict with Caffyn or from his demeanour in court that day, or even possibly from a combination of the two.

The Admission Warrant provides little indication of the reasons for his confinement, beyond a pro forma medical report that states that he “is not a Dangerous Lunatic but requires to be kept under restraint.” It lists his address as “off Fitzroy Street,” his condition as “temperate,” and his nearest relation as a brother in Suffolk, England. The warrant does provide one curiosity; while it is mostly completed by the St Kilda Sergeant of Police, the “supposed cause” provided for Short’s illness is entered in a different hand, presumably later: “loss of property.” It seems a remarkably accurate – though hardly medical – diagnosis.37

The Kew Asylum Case Book offers little more. Short is recorded as suffering ‘delusional insanity’, a term which included both delusions of persecution and of grandeur. He was an unexceptional patient, “clean, tidy and in good health.”38 Short was to remain in confinement at Yarra Bend and then at the new Kew Asylum until 1874, but not without interruption. The Victoria Police Gazette of 24 September 1872 included in its list of escaped prisoners:

“JAMES GROOM SHORT, 58 years of age, 5 feet 10 inches high, stout build, round shoulders, very deaf, florid complexion, black hair turning grey, beard, whiskers, and moustache, escaped from the Lunatic Asylum, Yarra Bend, 22nd September. Offender wore old blue coat, corduroy trousers, dark tweed vest, light felt hat, and blucher boots. He is not dangerous; is supposed to have gone to St. Kilda, where he has friends.”39

Six months later, on 11 March 1873, the Gazette announced that Short had been arrested by the St. Kilda police.40 It is no tribute to local policing that it took so long. Short stood 178cm, at a time when the average height of urban recruits to the Victorian military forces was just short of 170cm. He would have been an imposing and readily recognisable figure, even in a crowd.

His recapture was not the final act in Short’s story. He was assessed as “cured” and released on 1 June 1874, perhaps as a result of a shift towards moving many inmates deemed harmless back into the community. Those released in that year include more than a few assessed as “incurable” a few years earlier.41

Short immediately returned to his old haunts and his old habits. The Prahran rate book for 1875 records him once more in Windsor, at 12 Hanover Street (now McIlwrick Street). He is still listed as a tinsmith, and on 1 May 1875, he is back in court, suing a customer for a small debt.42

That was the last sputter of the flame. Six weeks later, on 15 June, James Groom Short died in the Alfred Hospital, of “fatty degeneration of the heart,” and was buried the next day in a pauper’s grave at Melbourne General Cemetery. His death certificate records that he was “reported to be married; further particulars not known.”43

Tales of failure in nineteenth-century Australia are more plentiful than tales of success, though less often recorded. That is hardly surprising, for even before the golden era, emigrants to the colonies included many who were on the move because of previous failures, and who were poorly suited to the added demands of colonial life. James Groom Short would seem among that number.

Short was an artisan of some apparent skill across a range of metal work – tinsmith, blacksmith, and iron founder – and a man of imagination in that work. He had shown that in the patents sought while in his London foundry, and even in the midst of his disintegration, a notice in the Victorian Government Gazette of July 1864 lists an application for a patent from Short for “improvements in fire-lights.”44 Similarly, his evidence before the Insolvency Court in October 1856 had indicated that a significant sum of his debts had been incurred in “erecting an engine for cutting wood.” That may have merely meant a steam-driven saw, but such a machine was a substantial ambition in 1850s Melbourne. Technical skills do not ensure business acumen, however, and that is a quality Short would seem to have seriously lacked.

James Groom and Mary Ann Short would seem to have been driven by the desire for respectability, that great virtue of the Victorian age. In the booming young colony of Victoria, unlike the English society they had left behind, wealth was a far greater blessing than birth, and led easily to respect in a society where social relationships were being established anew, oblivious of people’s histories.

To seek speedy accumulation of wealth through speculation in land was an obvious road to take. Melbourne was a mere twenty years old, a rapidly growing city with property prices increasing sharply, particularly after the gold rushes. However, to take that road using money borrowed at high rates of interest was always risky, particularly when your business ventures didn’t seem to be producing income that could pay the loans off. Short had borrowed £700 from William O’Neill at 12½% interest (or 20% if we trust Short’s claim), and his testimony suggests that the agreed interest on the £800 owing to George Turner was at a similar rate. A risky business, and a disastrous one.

There seems little doubt that Short’s difficulties were compounded from the beginning by mental illness. Unlike many of his contemporaries, alcoholism seems to have played no part in his downfall, the use of “temperate” as a description of his condition when committed to the asylum in 1871 suggesting that drink was not the cause of his problems.

There is no way of knowing the degree of illness Short suffered, and how much it was complicated by his profound deafness. His attack on the sheriff’s officer in Ipswich in 1837 was particularly disturbing, and while that degree of violence was never repeated, his performances before the courts during the 1850s and 1860s suggest his grasp on reality was not strong. His behaviour at that time was certainly sufficient to drive his wife and daughter away.

Characters like Short rarely leave a mark on history, but it may be that he helped shape the future Fitzroy Street. Through the 1850s and 1860s, two large allotments between Grey and Princes remained undivided while cottages and shops sprang up on the blocks about them. One allotment survived intact due to the doggedness of Short’s occupation, the other due to the patience of the family of land speculator James Purves. Purves’ block was not finally sold or built on until 1911, while Short’s block was ultimately sold by his associate George Turner in 1873, and a thirteen-room mansion was built on the site. The present streetscape of Fitzroy Street may owe much to the survival intact of the two allotments. Had they been broken up into smaller blocks in the 1860s, the task of consolidation of properties might well have prevented the erection of the landmark buildings which dominate that section of the street, the Waldorf, the Majestic and the Regal.

Beyond that, Short only leaves us a sad memory of a figure who would have been part of everyday life for residents of early St Kilda, a big, shambling man wandering the footpaths, largely cut off from communication with those around him by his profound deafness. His sense of persecution and his readiness to upbraid those about him for imaginary wrongs would have made him difficult company, and it is hard to avoid a feeling that many of his neighbours would have celebrated the boost to local respectability provided by his disappearance from the suburb.


  1. Descendants say it was on the Delta, which arrived at Port Phillip from London via Adelaide 11 Dec 1850 [transcription at http://www.portphillipdistrict.info/SE_and_I_Passenger_Lists_1849-51_364.htm says only ‘Jane Short and child’ - I haven’t seen the original] This date matches Insolvency Court testimony from 1856.
  2. The Argus, 1852, December 3, p. 7.
  3. The Argus, 1853, April 18, p. 1. The allotments were at the rear of the building known in recent times as the Taiping restaurant. A boundary change following the massive junction roadworks of the early 1970 moved what was left of Nelson Street from Windsor to St Kilda.
  4. The Argus, 1853, October 13, p. 1., Advertising. The Argus, 1854, August 15, p. 1, Advertising. The Argus, 1854, September 25, p. 1, Advertising. The Argus, 1854, December 9, p. 1.
  5. SERIOUS CHARGE AGAINST THE POLICE. Geelong Advertiser and Intelligencer, 1854, May 9, p. 4 (DAILY).
  6. The Age, 1857, February 28, p. 7.
  7. The Argus, 1856, February 16, p. 3.
  8. The Suffolk Chronicle; or Weekly General Advertiser & County Express, Saturday 02 September 1837, The Ipswich Journal, Saturday 02 September 1837
  9. Bury and Norwich Post, Wednesday 08 November 1837
  10. http://person.ancestry.com.au/tree/38904870/person/19302032250/facts
  11. INSOLVENT COURT. The Age, 1856, October 15, p. 5.
  12. https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C12308453, https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C12308904, https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C13145393, https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C13145844, https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C13145576.
  13. https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/21166/page/3527/data.pdf, Morning Post, Thursday 09 January 1851
  14. Kenneally, Christine, The Invisible History of the Human Race, Black Inc, Carlton, 2014, p. 105
  15. INSOLVENT COURT. The Age, 1857, August 6, p. 3.
  16. DISTRICT COURT. The Age, 1856, September 3, p. 2 (SUPPLEMENT TO THE AGE).
  17. DISTRICT COURT. The Age, 1856, September 3, p. 2 (SUPPLEMENT TO THE AGE).
  18. SUPREME COURT. The Argus, 1856, October 25, p. 5.
  19. SUPREME COURT. The Argus, 1856, October 25, p. 5.
  20. INSOLVENT COURT. The Argus, 1856, October 15, p. 5.
  21. CITY AND SUBURBAN POLICE. Leader, 1866, February 17, p. 3.
  22. INSOLVENT COURT. The Argus, 1856, October 15, p. 5.
  23. INSOLVENT COURT. The Age, 1856, November 12, p. 7.
  24. INSOLVENT COURT. The Argus, 1856, December 17, p. 6.
  25. The Age, 1857, February 28, p. 7.
  26. The Age, 1857, June 8, p. 7.
  27. The Argus, 1858, September 16, p. 3.
  28. THE LAW COURTS. The Age, 1857, October 23, p. 6.
  29. The Argus, 1864, March 31, p. 7.
  30. Information from family, December 2016.
  31. The Argus, 1859, December 10, p. 5.
  32. The Telegraph, St Kilda, Prahran and South Yarra Guardian, 1870, September 3, p. 4.
  33. THURSDAY, MARCH 18. The Telegraph, St Kilda, Prahran and South Yarra Guardian, 1869, March 20, p. 3.
  34. The Telegraph, St Kilda, Prahran and South Yarra Guardian, 1870, December 17, p. 7.
  35. The Argus, 1870, December 14, p. 6.
  36. The Argus, 1871, March 22, p. 6.
  37. Public Records Office, VPRS 7417 Register of Patients.
  38. Public Records Office, VPRS 7399/P1 Case Books of Male Patients
  39. Victoria Police Gazette of 24 September 1872
  40. Ditto 11 March 1873
  41. Public Records Office, VPRS 7399/P1 Case Books of Male Patients
  42. THURSDAY, APRIL 29. The Telegraph, St Kilda, Prahran and South Yarra Guardian, 1875, May 1, p. 3.
  43. http://person.ancestry.com.au/tree/38904870/person/19302032250/facts (also BDMI)
  44. THE GAZETTE. The Argus, 1864, July 13, p. 6.