Melbourne's oldest public building and the only surviving work of its first architect, Robert Russell, St James' was the successor of the original 'Pioneer Church', a simple wooden structure used for both Anglican and Presbyterian services and as a school, which stood on the corner of William and Little Collins streets.
Following the visit of Bishop W.G. Broughton from Sydney in April 1838, Russell, the government clerk of works with architectural responsibilities, was appointed architect of a permanent church. The foundation stone was laid on 9 November 1839 by Superintendent C.J. La Trobe, and the far-from-complete colonial Georgian building was used for worship from 1842. Russell's successor, Charles Laing, opted for a tower crowned by an octagonal domical termination instead of the proposed slender pyramidal spire.
On 28 January 1848 Melbourne's first Anglican bishop, Charles Perry, was installed at St James', which served as the pro-cathedral until St Paul's was opened in 1891. In 1913 the building was dismantled and re-erected with only minor modifications, apart from the tower, on its present site in King Street, West Melbourne. It was associated with the Mission of St James and St John, and through its connection with pioneer families stands today as a unique link with Melbourne's foundation era.