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Murphy, Herbert Dyce (1879–1971)

by S. Murray-Smith

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

Herbert Dyce Murphy (1879-1971), by John George Hunter

Herbert Dyce Murphy (1879-1971), by John George Hunter

State Library of New South Wales, Home and Away - 38008

Herbert Dyce Murphy (1879-1971), sometimes known as Dyce-Murphy, gentleman adventurer and raconteur, was born on 18 October 1879 at Como, South Yarra, Melbourne, son of Alexander Dyce Murphy and his wife Ada Maud Florence, daughter of John Rout Hopkins. Herbert's other grandfather was Sir Francis Murphy.

In his childhood Lord Lucan told him the story of the charge of the Light Brigade, which inspired lifelong study of the Crimean War. Herbert attended Cumloden school, Melbourne Church of England Grammar School (1889-90), visited Russia with his mother and went to Tonbridge School, Kent (1894-95). His uncle Sir William Waller, lord lieutenant of Suffolk, took him as a schoolboy on three Arctic voyages on the yacht Gladiator. Herbert then made two trips to Australia on the barque Loch Broom, apparently as third mate under the notorious 'Bully' Martin. When he informed his parents that he would not dedicate himself to the family's massive Queensland and New South Wales pastoral interest ('I had seen people on stations becoming vegetables'), his financial support was withdrawn.

Murphy matriculated from Brasenose College, Oxford, in May 1900 and passed Responsions. No further examination record survives, but he claimed to have held scholarships, studying history and engineering, and styled himself M.A. (Oxon). He was acquainted with Hilaire Belloc, John Buchan and Herbert Asquith among others, and some years later enjoyed escorting the Empress Eugenie with whom he shared Kirkpatrick forbears. During vacations he enlisted as navigator on the Dundee whaler Balaena, returning from Franz Josef Land and northwards with accounts of extraordinary adventure; shipped in the Hope, transporting reindeer from Norway to Russia; and visited the United States of America.

After seeing Murphy perform a female role in a Greek play at Oxford, the director-general of military intelligence recruited him for secret work. Murphy already held a territorial commission. Trained by a family friend Lady Broughton—entering and leaving hansom cabs was the most difficult trick—he lived for several years as a woman. In a period of poor diplomatic relations with France and Belgium, 'Edith' Murphy closely studied their railways. 'There were 100,000 wagons on the French northern railways and I must have examined each one twice'. He wrote technical papers on engineering matters. For a period he shared a house at Kew with a retired ship's master 'who could never work out how I knew so much about a ship'; a painting shows Murphy in elegant dress and hat with the mariner, who eventually bequeathed him considerable property.

He greatly enjoyed his feminine life. A French lieutenant proposed to him in the Bois de Boulogne. Photographs survive of him at Henley, and he always firmly claimed that he was the delightful, auburn-haired woman, with white parasol, in Phillips Fox's 'The Arbour', originally sketched at Bath about 1902, the artist being unaware of his identity. Murphy asserted that he worked for the War Office for some five years and was awarded two service medals—that no records survive means little—but the period was probably shorter. His voice was becoming more masculine, his hands were growing and he found it difficult to keep up the impersonation.

Murphy's story goes that he next shipped out from the Canary Islands on a two-year voyage on a New Bedford whaler under ruthless Quaker officers; he was navigator, and tutor to the skipper's daughter. His stories of adventure and near-disaster on this voyage, including visits to sub-Antarctic islands, are convincing in their verisimilitude and there are external corroborations. After he deserted in New Zealand, by his own account he was received coolly in Melbourne by his family, now aware of his transvestite activities. He returned to Europe and worked and invested in Norwegian whaling, about 1906 buying for £2500 the fine brigantine-rigged yacht Francesca. He adopted two Norwegian orphan girls whom he educated and launched successfully into the world. They accompanied him on many voyages, including one to Tierra del Fuego and another to Novaya Zemblya where the yacht was frozen in for nine months; they were reduced to eating seals, Arctic owls, and lemmings which Murphy said tasted 'beastly'.

Murphy volunteered for Ernest Shackleton's 1908 Antarctic expedition as a surveyor, but was turned down for supposed effeminacy—a charge he always vigorously denied. (Sir) Douglas Mawson, however, accepted him for his 1911-14 expedition. Murphy was in charge of stores, during 1912 in command of the southern supporting party, and of winter quarters during Mawson's absence. Mawson wrote of him as 'Our stand-by in small talk, travel, history, literature and what not' and elsewhere referred to his 'services cheerfully rendered'. C. F. Laseron commented: 'He tells of social life in Melbourne, of one of his friends who proposed to two girls in one evening, and of how both accepted him, and of complications which followed. From this he wanders to … hair-raising scandals with lurid details of complicated domestic situations with ludicrous climaxes … He holds himself up to ridicule as well as his other characters. Yet he never loses his air of diffidence; his whole method is apologetic. His stories have a curious suggestion of truth; they are convincing and at the same time too impossible to be true'.

During World War I, after a year in army intelligence, Murphy returned to Australia, joined the Australian Imperial Force in 1916, but was discharged for inferior vision. He was then described as 5 ft 8¼ ins (173 cm) in height, and his occupation as orchardist. He bought a property at Whittlesea, Victoria, and ran sheep. He later moved to Mount Martha where his rambling, weatherboard house became a holiday centre for many Melbourne boys and girls—Murphy preferred the girls—often from underprivileged backgrounds. Many of them recall the 'golden' days with excitements ranging from motor excursions and the trolley-railway in the garden to Murphy's library, log-fires at night and his anecdotes of the Arctic and Antarctic. Murphy silently assisted the education of several needy children.

A High-Churchman, Murphy was for at least thirty-five years a member of synod and was a Mornington shire councillor in 1926-36 (president, 1932-33). He was a skilful photographer, a life member of the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria and of the Ship Lovers' Society to whose Dog Watch he contributed spirited articles (1948-53) on his experiences, and was in wide demand as a speaker and singer of shanties. Although a member of the Melbourne Club for some thirty years, he claimed to have entered it only once. On 13 February 1934 at St John's Church, Toorak, Murphy married Muriel Idrene Nevile Webster.

His interest in Antarctica had continued: from 1920, for three months annually, he became ice-master to the Norwegian whaling fleet there, his task the handling of the mother-ship in the ice. He claimed to have continued this work until 1965; the Norwegian underwriters 'nearly had a fit' when they discovered he was 85.

Few Australian lives can compare in variety and adventure with Murphy's. The drive and confidence of his personality stemmed from the social status of the 'Port Phillip gentlemen'. Though he stepped outside this tradition, he remained bound to it in many ways, not least in the determined self-confidence, comparable with Percy Grainger's, with which he maintained, and sometimes flaunted, his aberrant psycho-sexuality. He was right to deny effeminacy, though the extent to which his physical exploits were a deliberate offset to his admiration of girls and women, and his desire to enter into their roles, may be considered.

Behind Murphy's infectious charm and unaffected manners lay an organized mind with magnificent powers of recall and reminiscence. Something of a Munchhausen perhaps—some of his claims appear to be fantasies. However, much of even his most outrageous stories 'check out', and in his embellishments he was striving for the symmetry of art. It was therefore fitting that Patrick White used Herbert Murphy as a model, in part, for the character of Eddie Twyborn in The Twyborn Affair.

Survived by his wife, Murphy died childless on 20 July 1971 at Mornington and was buried in the cemetery there.

Select Bibliography

  • C. F. Laseron, South with Mawson (Syd, 1947)
  • Bohemia, 1 May 1947, 1 July 1950, 1 Dec 1951
  • People (Sydney), 1 Dec 1954
  • Shiplovers' Society of Victoria, Newsletter, Oct-Dec 1971
  • Australasian Post, 11 Mar 1965
  • Mornington Leader, 12 Dec 1963, 4 Aug 1971
  • tape recorded interview with S. Murray-Smith (State Library of Victoria)
  • interview notes by J. W. Gliddon (privately held).

Citation details

S. Murray-Smith, 'Murphy, Herbert Dyce (1879–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/murphy-herbert-dyce-7705/text13491, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 19 September 2014.

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

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