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Murphy, Sir Francis (1809–1891)

by Margot Beever

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Francis Murphy (1809-1891), by unknown photographer, c1896

Francis Murphy (1809-1891), by unknown photographer, c1896

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/1275

Sir Francis Murphy (1809-1891), pastoralist and parliamentarian, was born in Cork, Ireland, son of Francis Down Murphy, head of the Cork Convict Transport Department, and his wife Mary, née Morris. Educated for the medical profession in Cork, Trinity College, Dublin, and London (M.R.C.S., 1835), he migrated to Sydney in June 1836. Appointed by Governor Bourke colonial surgeon to the Bungonia district in January 1837, Murphy abandoned his medical career after acquiring pastoral and agricultural interests in the area.

A successful farmer and prominent in local affairs, particularly as magistrate on the Goulburn bench for eight years, Murphy married Agnes, daughter of Dr David Reid, in 1840. Six years later they moved to Port Phillip, following Agnes's brother David who had overlanded in 1838, and took over the Tarrawingee run on the Ovens River. At one stage running 13,000 sheep and employing 42 hands, Murphy worked Tarrawingee until at the first elections for the Legislative Council after separation he became member for the Murray district. When the council met in November 1851 he was elected chairman of committees, a post he relinquished in March 1853 to become president of the Central Roads Board. Tarrawingee was sold that year. Murphy lived with his family at Mayfield, a substantial house on the Yarra River at Collingwood. He stayed after the district became a noxious industrial suburb, not holding himself aloof but engaging in local roads, bridges and clean-air issues, and was a member of the East Collingwood Volunteer Rifles, eventually with the rank of major.

In the Legislative Council from 1851 to 1855 Murphy introduced useful pastoral legislation and was instrumental with others in preserving provision for National schools in Victoria. In 1854 he was on the committee which recommended government action on railways, and active in debates on the form of the new constitution to come into effect in 1856. His record as head of the Roads Department was mixed. Often accused of neglecting busy country routes in favour of little-used town roads, he was also praised as an efficient administrator who blended his patronage with integrity.

Murphy resigned from the Roads Board in November 1856 to take up the main role of his career in government, as Speaker of the Legislative Assembly. One of the oldest and most experienced members returned at the first elections under responsible government, he won the chair by 39 votes to 17 in a contest with C. J. Griffith, who had stated his intention of joining in debate, while Murphy promised to take no part in accordance with English precedent. He was Speaker for fifteen years, holding the seat of Murray Boroughs until 1866 when he moved to the Grenville electorate, which he lost at the elections of 1871. He was a member of the 1861 royal commission on Burke and Wills, sat by invitation on the commission which in 1864 decided the site for the New Zealand capital, chaired the Industrial Exhibition Commission in 1866 and was on the royal commission on intercolonial legislation in 1870. In December 1871 he won a seat for Eastern Province in the Legislative Council, retiring in November 1876. At the same time he resigned as trustee of the Public Library and two years later from the Council of the University of Melbourne, of which he was a founding member.

Murphy was a conservative but during his years in the Legislative Assembly adopted no defined political stance; according to critics, he tended to support the stronger in any contest. Twice he gave substantial aid to the liberal cause. In 1861 his support during the election campaign for J. H. Brooke's proposal to make land available for small farms by issuing occupation licences had assisted the return of the radical Heales government. More importantly, Murphy's ruling as Speaker in 1865 that the combination of appropriation and tariff legislation was not a tack encouraged the constitutional deadlock which brought to a head conflict between the Houses of Parliament. At the election which followed in January 1866 the Opposition campaigned against him in Murray Boroughs, but he soon obtained ministerial aid in securing a new seat. Overall, however, Murphy more resembled a senior civil servant than a politician. Impartiality and unique experience partly explain his long tenure as Speaker at a time of extreme political and institutional fluidity. He was also firm and dignified in control of the House, helpful to members new to procedure, punctilious in attendance and manner. Members observed that he was alert throughout the most tedious debate, always politely interested, never resorting to 'ironical language'.

Murphy was well paid for his conscientiousness, for most of his term at £1500 a year. He was appointed K.B. in 1860. A pension of £1000 was proposed when he retired as Speaker in 1871, but reduced to a lump sum of £3000 under pressure from members who argued that he was not in need. Indeed his personal fortune was large. On the profits from his early pastoral speculations he accumulated extensive town property and other investments, often in association with Sir James Palmer. He became a director of the National Bank in 1863 but resigned in 1870 when as chairman of the board he was criticized for poor management of the bank's affairs.

Murphy visited Europe several times between 1876 and 1883 and then lived in retirement. Aged 82 he died on 30 March 1891 in Melbourne; after an Anglican service he was buried at Boroondara cemetery. He was survived by his wife, three sons and six daughters, among them Francis Reid, member of the Queensland Legislative Assembly, and Frances Emma, wife of Herbert James Henty.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Blainey, Gold and Paper (Melb, 1958)
  • G. Serle, The Golden Age (Melb, 1963)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 1856-71
  • Argus (Melbourne), Nov 1856, 31 Mar 1891
  • Leader (Melbourne), 24 May 1862
  • Age (Melbourne), Oct-Nov 1871.

Citation details

Margot Beever, 'Murphy, Sir Francis (1809–1891)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/murphy-sir-francis-4275/text6913, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 22 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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