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Murdoch, Sir James Anderson (1867–1939)

by Howard Wolfers

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

Sir James Anderson Murdoch (1867-1939), retail trader, politician and philanthropist, was born on 10 March 1867 in Edinburgh, son of Thomas Murdoch, master cabinetmaker, and his wife Margaret, née Anderson. Educated at Adair's and Herriot's schools, at 13 he joined George Barclay & Sons, wholesale woollen merchants. In 1884 he migrated to Melbourne and, after working as a salesman and in a hosiery shop, moved to Sydney in 1887. While employed by Edward Hordern, he became active in the Early Closing Association of New South Wales and in 1889 was founding secretary of the Shop Employees' Union. Late that year he joined Finney, Isles & Co., Brisbane, but returned to Sydney next year to manage the menswear firm F. J. Palmer. At St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Sydney, he married Isabella Binning on 26 August 1891. From 1896 they lived at Midhope, Wahroonga, with a renowned garden.

In 1893, seeking independence, he opened a men's mercery, Murdoch's, in Park Street. His business slowly prospered in the 1890s and by 1914 he had 400 employees. He attributed his early success to dealing directly with manufacturers, avoiding wholesale firms. Priding himself on their welfare, he gave his employees annual bonuses, distributed according to efficiency. In 1909 he formed a limited liability company and instituted a co-partnership scheme which attracted great public interest. Hard-working employees were offered either a cash bonus or four-shilling shares in the company, which paid the same dividend as ordinary £1 shares and were retainable only while in Murdoch's employ. As a result he claimed that he had fewer labour problems and greater efficiency and retention of workers.

In October 1915 Murdoch volunteered for service (at his own expense) with the Australian branch of the British Red Cross Society. In Egypt next February he was appointed third commissioner. Transferred to France in April, he was appointed honorary lieutenant-colonel in September. He administered depots at Boulogne and Rouen until he moved to England in 1917 as chief commissioner; he was closely involved in work for prisoners of war. His 'valuable services' were twice brought to the attention of the secretary of state for war and he was appointed C.M.G. in 1918, returning to Sydney in December.

Murdoch's Ltd in Park Street expanded rapidly after the war. In 1922 seven-storey factories were built at Surry Hills, in 1928 Murdoch's Ltd was registered as a public company and next year it acquired additional premises in George Street. Remaining chairman of the company, Murdoch was also a director of the Commonwealth General Assurance Corporation Ltd (1920-30), Melbourne Hotels Ltd (1922-38), Standard Portland Cement Co. Ltd (1924-38), Arthur Rickard & Co. (Extended) Ltd (1925-30), Linoleum Holdings Ltd (1937-38) and National Studios Ltd (1937-38).

Murdoch was a council-member (president, 1920-22) of the Master Retailers' Association (from 1921 Retail Traders' Association of New South Wales). Under his leadership it presented an organized front against the solidarity of labour; advocating co-operation, he criticized trade unions and the arbitration system. He also served on the Employers' Federation of New South Wales and the Sydney Chamber of Commerce and was a foundation executive-member of the State branch of the National Roads Association of Australia in 1920-29. In 1919, as an assessor, he had assisted Justice R. D. Pring, royal commissioner enquiring into wheat contracts and the State Wheat Office.

In 1920 Murdoch joined the National Consultative Council and that year was a founding vice-president of the Citizens' Reform Association (president, 1922-30). He believed in applying business principles to politics (later expressing admiration for Mussolini) and was determined to 'clean up the city' by organizing against Labor politicians on the Sydney Municipal Council. In 1927 his demands for a royal commission influenced the Bavin government to appoint three civic commissioners, replacing the elected council, to fight corruption. A powerful behind-the-scenes organizer, Murdoch had been nominated to the Legislative Council in 1923. He spoke seldom there and then mainly on business, arbitration and local government. He did not seek election to the reconstituted council in December 1933 but was chairman of the United Australia Party Consultative Council in 1934-35. In 1930 contracts granted to Standard Portland Cement Co. Ltd had been questioned in parliament; in 1938 J. T. Lang resurrected claims of collusion over these contracts and accused Murdoch and others of secret dealings in the sale of the State Monier Pipe Works. A royal commission exculpated Murdoch of all charges.

He loved Scottish causes. In 1919 he had joined the board of Burnside Presbyterian Orphan Homes under its founder Sir James Burns and was chairman in 1923-37. In 1922 he donated a school (leased to the Department of Public Instruction) for the orphans. In all he contributed some £18,000. He spoke with a Scots accent and was a vice-president of the Highland Society of New South Wales in 1927-30. He was also a director of Sydney Hospital (vice-president, 1925-30), a trustee of Kuring-gai Chase and vice-president of the Australian Federal Capital League. From 1927 chairman of the Canberra Burns Memorial Fund, he contributed £500 towards the statue of Burns (unveiled 1935), and gave £5000 for the organ in St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Canberra. He was appointed K.B.E. in 1928.

Enjoying racing, fishing and golf, Murdoch was a committee-member of the Australian Jockey Club in 1928-39. He was fairly successful as an owner in the 1920s, although success in the big races eluded him. He established a stud, Bendooley, at Bowral, better known for its Aberdeen Angus cattle and private golf-course than horses. A Freemason, he belonged to the New South Wales Club. The press and his peers viewed the small, jovial and public-spirited figure with affection and regard for his honesty and integrity. Survived by his wife and three daughters, Murdoch died of cardiovascular disease at Manly on 30 January 1939 and was cremated with Presbyterian forms. He left the bulk of his estate, valued for probate at about £370,000, to his family. His portrait by Jerrold Nathan is held by the Burnside Homes; another is owned by his grandchildren.

Select Bibliography

  • F. A. Larcombe, The Advancement of Local Government in New South Wales, 1906 to the Present (Syd, 1978)
  • Scottish Australasian, 10, no 109, 6 Jan 1919, p 6655, 12, no 138, 14 Feb 1921, p 7870, 25, no 8, 21 Feb 1935, p 83
  • Sydney Tatler, 28 Dec 1922
  • Retail Traders' Association of New South Wales, Journal, 5, no 3, Sept 1923, p 61
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 3 Aug 1923
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 31 Jan 1939
  • letters and correspondence of J. A. Murdoch, 1915-18 (Red Cross Archives, Melbourne)
  • family papers (privately held).

Citation details

Howard Wolfers, 'Murdoch, Sir James Anderson (1867–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/murdoch-sir-james-anderson-7691/text13463, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 24 February 2018.

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

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