James Michael Searle was born in Canning Street, Carlton, on 4th November 1861. His parents were typical goldrush era immigrants. His father, Edward William Searle, described himself on the birth certificate as a labourer, aged 30, born in Dublin, Ireland. He appears to have arrived in Victoria in late 1852 at the height of the initial goldrush, and according to family members possibly spent a period on the Bendigo goldfields, before settling in Melbourne. James' mother, Honora Purcell, was born in Tipperary, Ireland. She had arrived in Melbourne in May 1853, having left Birkenhead migration depot, Liverpool, on the ship Derry Castle, on 7th February, travelling with two sisters. They were part of a group of 250 single women, principally from Ireland; forming the bulk of a consignment of 360 Government assisted emigrants. Edward and Honora married at Carlton in 1856 and settled initially in Collingwood, where three children were born Edward William (1857), Richard (1858) and William Nicholas (1860), only the second of whom survived as an older sibling by the time James was born.
Prior to James' birth, the family had moved to Carlton, where James' parents would spend the rest of their lives. Four further siblings would follow: Mary Eliza (1864), Annie (1866), Nicholas (1869) and Michael John (1873). According to family descendants, Edward Searle worked as a grave digger at the Melbourne General Cemetery in Carlton, although on James' death certificate his profession is listed as "Gardener".

Given the family's strong Catholic background, it is likely that James Searle was educated at one of the local parish Catholic schools - possibly either the Sacred Heart School in Rathdowne Street, Carlton, or the St Brigid's School on Nicholson Street, North Fitzroy, the latter being a parish with which James maintained a connection later in life. As a boy he appears to have taken a strong interest in both the natural world and all things scientific. After schooling he most likely completed an apprenticeship with one of Melbourne early watch and clock making firms, although the identity of the firm he was indentured to is unknown at this stage. "Watch Maker" was the occupation listed on his death certificate and it was a trade that he would fall back on at intervals throughout his life. At this time an apprentice watchmaker was trained in technical aspects relating to the manufacture and assembly of components for clocks and watches, although in many cases they would have been working in the repair of imported timepieces rather than local manufacture. The trade at this time in some firms also encompassed the manufacture and repair of various types of scientific instruments and equipment - including optical instruments such as microscopes and telescopes, and in a few cases businesses also extended into the manufacture of early electrical apparatus such as telegraph instruments and electric dynamos or motors, as there was as yet no defined trade of electrical engineer. With the Working Men's College (now RMIT University) not established until 1887, there were few other avenues available to a young boy with a practical interest in things scientific and mechanical in Melbourne at the time that James Searle completed his education and training. The University of Melbourne offered a civil engineering course for a small cohort of more academically-minded students who had completed matriculation, but there were no other tertiary technical schools or colleges in Melbourne at this time. Thus for young boys with interests like James Searle, the primary options were undertaking a mechanical engineering apprenticeship or an apprenticeship as a watchmaker and scientific instrument maker.

James Searle married Jessie Colk, at Carlton in 1885, and they had seven children born in Collingwood and Carlton - Annie May (1885; later Mrs. T. Healy), Edward William (1887), George Lawrence (1889), Leslie James (1892-1983), Francis Stanislaus (1895-1936), William Joseph (1898-1952), Jessie Carmal (1900; later Mrs. W. Dowling).

In July 1885, James Searle was elected as a member of the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria (FNCV), and he became a regular attendee at the organisation's monthly meetings in the rooms of the Royal Society, on the corner of Victoria Parade and Exhibition Street. His interests during this period appear to have been diverse and eclectic judging by the variety of natural history specimens he exhibited at FVCV meetings, such as "fish from Alphington, &c." (Feb 1887); "three snakes" (Oct 1887); "beetles, &c., from Alphington and Studley-park" (Feb 1888); "coleoptera, &c., collected since last meeting" (Mar 1888); "five species of land shells" (Aug 1888); "fungi, lichens, &c." (Sep 1888); "lepidoptera, &c, collected since last meeting" (Nov 1888); "orchid in flower (Eriochilus autumnalis)" (Apr 1889); "a number of live birds; also snakes, &c., in spirits" (May 1889); "a five legged frog from Yarrawonga" (Feb 1889); "insects collected at Tooradin" (Nov 1889); "different stages of butterfly, Jalmenus evagorus" (Feb 1890); "tin ore from Tasmania, Barrier Ranges, New South Wales, and India, also lignite from pump works, Studley-park"; and, "lizards, spiders and insects taken on the Yarra Falls Excursion and a snake from Western Australia" (Mar 1891). Through the FNCV, Searle developed friendships and associations with leading members of Melbourne's amateur and professional scientific community, including Baron Von Mueller, Professor Baldwin Spencer and A.J. Campbell. Searle became a regular visitor at the old Natural History Museum of Victoria, established on Russell Street in 1898, and is recorded as the donor or collector or over 100 specimens in Museum Victoria's natural history collections in disciplines ranging from

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