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Murdoch, Sir Walter Logie (1874–1970)

by Fred Alexander

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

Sir Walter Logie Forbes Murdoch (1874-1970), popular essayist and university professor and chancellor, was born on 17 September 1874 at Rosehearty, a fishing village north-west of Aberdeen, Scotland, fourteenth and last child of Rev. James Murdoch, minister of the Free Church of Scotland, and his wife Helen, née Garden. Rev. Patrick Murdoch was his eldest brother. After a childhood at Rosehearty and in England and France, Walter arrived with his family in Melbourne, aged 10. He attended Camberwell Grammar School and Scotch College. At the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1895; M.A., 1897), as a member of Ormond College, he won first-class honours in logic and philosophy.

After teaching experience, country and suburban, to the end of 1903, Murdoch's academic career began with appointment as a Melbourne University assistant lecturer in English. This was in what had virtually become a combined department under the classics professor Thomas Tucker. Murdoch published his first essay, 'The new school of Australian poets', in 1899, and he continued writing for the Melbourne Argus, under the pen-name of 'Elzevir', in a column which appeared weekly from 1905 titled 'Books and Men'. On 22 December 1897 at Hawthorn, Melbourne, Murdoch had married Violet Catherine Hughston, a teacher.

1911 marked a turning-point in Murdoch's life. Passed over in favour of an overseas applicant, (Sir) Robert Wallace, for the re-created independent chair of English at Melbourne University, he spent the next year as a full-time member of the Argus's literary staff. He was then selected as a founding professor of the University of Western Australia, where in 1913 lectures began, and continued for many years, in tin sheds in the heart of Perth.

The literary and other friendships formed in Melbourne still exerted a strong nostalgic influence upon the middle-aged Murdoch. This has been established by his warmly sympathetic, but not uncritical, biographer John La Nauze; but the fact that he felt deeply his geographical and intellectual isolation in Perth was not evident to even his close associates there. Through the inter-war years, Murdoch broadened his influence upon Australian life—most noticeably within the western State but extending throughout the Commonwealth.

On the young campus he had a considerable following outside his own department and his immediate academic colleagues. In addition to the appeal of his wide-ranging and often informal literary lectures, of his sardonic wit and his ready debunking of the pompous and ultra-respectable, Murdoch was known for his help to students and junior colleagues in difficulties.

Sympathy for underdogs and a willingness to champion lost causes extended beyond Murdoch's academic environment. It coloured his second major contribution to Western Australian life: his association with several other members of the foundation professoriate in building closer links between the university and the community. His most effective medium was the column he contributed to the 'Life and Letters' page of the West Australian on alternate Saturday mornings. Combined from 1933 with occasional day and evening talks on radio—he was to prove a very effective broadcaster—and appearances on public platforms, frequently in the chair, it brought Murdoch a wide and varied local following. Simple language, challenging titles, erudite literary allusions, subtle or open criticisms of popularly accepted practices or beliefs, served to attract, in his biographer's words, varying types of people 'who read him, all with interest, most with pleasure, some with disapproval, over many years'. 'No other writer in the history of Australian letters has built so wide a reputation on the basis of the essay as a form of communication.'

These essays should be judged in the first instance as part of the community activities of the University of Western Australia. They were directed at the widespread literate, but by no means academic, population of the still very isolated State. But Murdoch's audience did not stop there. Indeed, the 'Elzevir' articles had begun to reappear in the Argus in 1919, and the essays in varying forms found an all-Australian market when Murdoch succumbed to the persuasion of his flamboyant nephew (Sir) Keith Murdoch, and his writings were syndicated on the Melbourne Herald network. Walter Murdoch's essays came to be read by others, then and much later, through collection and book form, from Speaking Personally (1930) onward. Moreover, in old age, for nearly twenty years from 1945, he conducted a weekly 'Answers' column, 'little essays' on any and every question, syndicated throughout most States and New Zealand and read by a huge public.

It is perhaps fortunate that Murdoch did not in his best creative years allow himself the leisure to write more ambitious works than his essays and some early textbooks. What he described as his one 'real book', Alfred Deakin: A Sketch (1923), was the result of work done in a year's leave in and around Melbourne. It was not successful financially, nor as an introduction either to a larger joint biography (later abandoned) or to La Nauze's definitive two-volume Alfred Deakin: a Biography (1965).

Murdoch's limited interest, in his middle and later years, in Australian writing has often been criticized. However, in 1918 he published the Oxford Book of Australasian Verse (revised, 1923, 1945) and in 1951, after many years delay, with Henrietta Drake-Brockman, Australian Short Stories which was much better received than the verse anthology.

In addition to his academic teaching and the benefits which the young university obtained from his extramural activities, Murdoch was to remain a member of its governing body after he resigned from his chair in 1939. Chancellor in 1943-48, he was appointed C.M.G. in 1939 and K.C.M.G. in 1964; the university awarded him an honorary D.Litt. in 1948. He had been president of the local League of Nations Union from its foundation in the early 1920s until 1936, was president of the Kindergarten Union in 1933-36, and supported movements for women's rights.

Murdoch did not escape contemporary campus criticism, either for his teaching or his administrative policy. Literary purists deplored his lack of linguistic studies and specialist courses for advanced students. Some members of the university senate declared that, as chancellor, he made a poor chairman. On the first charge most observers would have accepted his biographer's assessment: 'He was a good academic man for the time, the place and the circumstances'. This judgement is consistent with admission that, as his tenure of the chair of English lengthened, Murdoch became bored with teaching, was less accessible on the campus and no doubt less prompt in returning student assignments. His study at South Perth was a retreat where he might concentrate on keeping his own literary deadlines.

In matters of academic policy and administration, his limitations as chairman were more than offset by his grasp of basic principles and his readiness to work for a cause—before World War II in intimate collaboration with the university's first full-time vice-chancellor, Hubert Whitfeld. Murdoch sometimes engaged in vigorous public controversy; more often, as he aged, in subtle and skilful manoeuvring. As chancellor he brought great dignity to the office and the university profited thereby.

The friendliest of critics should note one phase of Murdoch's life and one aspect of his writings: his passionate advocacy during the 1930s of Douglas Credit. For a time this limited the credibility of his essays; it also affected his judgement on some aspects of university policy, such as the filling of a vacant chair of economics. The phase symbolized his sympathy for the underdog—in this case, the many affected by the Depression, and his search for an escape from its cause. It did not prevent him from actively opposing the idea of secession from the Commonwealth as a solution to Western Australia's economic ills. Much later, in 1950-51, he vehemently and stalwartly fought the attempt to outlaw the Communist Party.

Though the last years of Murdoch's long life were spent more or less as a recluse, with increasing deafness and declining eyesight, he remained mentally alert to the end. In 1964 he paid the last of several visits to his beloved Italy. When in the month of his death he was given a bedside message from the premier that the State government was to name its second university after him, he was able to send an appreciative acceptance. He added, sotto voce, 'It had better be a good one!'

The Murdoch family at South Perth was a closely knit household with Violet Murdoch keeping open house for a large circle of friends, academic and otherwise, until her prolonged post-war decline, and death in 1952. The only surviving son Will had begun a journalistic career but died in 1950. There was a close intellectual and personal relationship between father and elder daughter Catherine King, who gained distinction from running for many years an Australian Broadcasting Commission women's session which had a wide range of listeners, rural and metropolitan, of both sexes. Murdoch was frequently cajoled into taking part.

On 8 March 1962 at Perth Registry Office, Murdoch married his secretary-companion and nurse, Barbara Marshall Cameron. Survived by her and by the two daughters of his first marriage, he died on 30 July 1970 at South Perth and was buried in the Anglican section of Karrakatta cemetery.

An oil portrait of Murdoch by Louis Kahan is in the senate room of the University of Western Australia; Kahan's pen and wash drawing is in the foyer of the senate room at Murdoch University, which also holds a bust by Hetty Finley. Murdoch's gold-rimmed spectacles had always seemed poised half-way down his nose. His audiences were often beguiled by his genial if mischievous smile, the pipe which he smoked incessantly, and by his simple, sometimes satirical, introductory comments—all of which tended to disguise the often unconventional and unpopular opinions which he proceeded to present forcefully.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Alexander, Campus at Crawley (Melb, 1963)
  • J. La Nauze, Walter Murdoch: A Centenary Tribute (Perth, 1974)
  • J. La Nauze, Walter Murdoch: A Biographical Memoir (Melb, 1977) and for bibliography
  • F. Alexander, ‘John La Nauze on Walter Murdoch’, Westerly, Dec 1977
  • Walter Murdoch papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Fred Alexander, 'Murdoch, Sir Walter Logie (1874–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/murdoch-sir-walter-logie-7698/text13477, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 26 September 2017.

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

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