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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Murdoch, John Smith (1862–1945)

by D. I. McDonald

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

John Smith Murdoch (1862-1945), by unknown photographer

John Smith Murdoch (1862-1945), by unknown photographer

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L61725

John Smith Murdoch (1862-1945), architect and public servant, was born on 29 September 1862 at Cassieford, Elgin County, Scotland, son of John Murdoch, farmer, and his wife Bathia, née Smith. Educated at Rafford School and Forres Academy he trained as an architect in Edinburgh and worked at Inverness, Glasgow, and with the Scottish railways before migrating to Victoria about 1884. He was a draughtsman in Queensland's Department of Mines and Works in 1885-87 then worked privately. Rejoining the public service, in March 1894 he became a draughtsman in the Department of Public Works, rising to district architect in 1902.

In July 1904 he transferred to the Commonwealth as senior clerk, public works branch, Department of Home Affairs. Senior assistant to the director-general Percy T. Owen from 1909, Murdoch was a member of the reviewing board for the national capital design competition, won by Walter Burley Griffin in May 1912. While overseas that year in connexion with plans for Australia House, London, he negotiated with the Royal Institute of British Architects on a proposed international competition for a parliament house and in Chicago, United States of America, called on Griffin. The two later fell out, partly over Griffin's belief that Murdoch was one of the departmental officers who was hostile to his capital design and partly over differences about conditions for the parliament house competition, which in any case was finally abandoned.

Promoted architect in 1914, and chief architect, Department of Works and Railways, in 1919-29, Murdoch was responsible for the design and construction of many early Canberra buildings, such as the provisional parliament house, the power-house and the Hotel Canberra. With (Sir) John Sulman and K. A. Henderson he assessed residential-area plans for Canberra in 1923. In 1926 he was an adjudicator of competitions for design of the Australian war memorials in Canberra and Villers-Bretonneux, France. As Commonwealth architect he was responsible for the design of the General Post Office, Perth (1923), Spencer Street Post Office and the High Court of Australia (1925, now Federal Court), Melbourne. He laid out Forrest Place, Perth, and Anzac Square, Brisbane.

Director-general of works from 1927, Murdoch transferred with the department to Canberra in 1929. He retired in September and was appointed to the Federal Capital Commission, serving until its abolition in April 1930. C. S. Daley, a close colleague greatly influenced by Murdoch, remembered him as a man of 'wide cultural and human studies', generous in his 'quiet and constant benefactions to charity, and assistance to public servants in misfortune'. He had been interested in Scouting and the Canberra Relief Society. A fellow (1914) and councillor (1925-30) of the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects, he was a fellow (1926) of the Royal Institute of British Architects and foundation member of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects. In 1927 he was appointed C.M.G.

Murdoch, a bachelor, died on 21 May 1945 at Brighton, Melbourne, and was cremated. A dour Scot, Murdoch had been mindful of the need to conserve public funds. Although in 1916 he had 'no particular enthusiasm' for the Canberra project, describing it as 'a sort of mythical thing' on which expenditure could not at the time be justified, during the period of inter-war development he made a positive contribution to its architecture and was responsible for significant Commonwealth buildings throughout Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • D. I. McDonald, ‘Architect J. S. Murdoch and the provisional parliament house’, Canberra Historical Journal, Mar 1985, p 18, and for bibliography.

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Citation details

D. I. McDonald, 'Murdoch, John Smith (1862–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 22 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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