Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Murray, John (Jack) (1851–1916)

by Geoffrey Serle

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

John (Jack) Murray (1851-1916), grazier and premier, was born on 8 July 1851 at Koroit, Victoria, son of James Murray (d.1885) and his wife Isabella, née Gordon. His strict Presbyterian parents had migrated from Scotland in 1839. James farmed at Koroit, then took up Glenample station at Port Campbell. Jack, as he was always known, attended Allansford National School and, eventually from 1868, Henry Kemmis's Warrnambool Grammar School on the Hopkins River. His education was thorough. He remained very widely read with an unusual capacity for extended quotation; Burns and Sir Walter Scott were his prime loves and he knew the Bible thoroughly. His younger friend J. F. Archibald recalled: 'Jack came of a physically ponderous family, but mentally he was most alert. Even in his youthful days he was a Doctor Samuel Johnson in figure and in wit'.

Murray visited Britain when about 20 and reportedly was horrified by the poverty he saw. He returned to the family property near Allansford and became a well-to-do grazier. As the local favourite son, enormously popular for his good fellowship but condemned by the Warrnambool Standard as the leader of the 'wayward' and 'troublesome' native-born faction, he stood unsuccessfully in 1883 for Warrnambool in the Legislative Assembly against J. G. Francis. On the latter's death next year Murray won the by-election and remained undefeated for thirty-two years, becoming 'Father of the House'. He had cobbled together support from radicals, trade unionists, Catholics and the native-born, and soon proved himself as an efficient local member by his part in gaining the railway extension from Camperdown to his town. On 4 April 1888 he married Alice Jane Bateman at Warrnambool.

He was quite uncommonly radical for a provincial member. He had imbibed the doctrines of 'red-hot liberalism' from Sir Graham Berry, supported Henry George's land tax, Irish Home Rule, one man one vote and the female franchise, hated militarism especially as displayed in the 1890 strike, and was a mocking republican. He detested the plutocracy: 'the desire for the accumulation of wealth destroyed everything that was noble and admirable in the human character'. W. G. Spence listed him as in 1892-97 a parliamentary member of the Progressive Political League. However, Murray never signed the Labor pledge and always regarded himself as a Liberal.

Alcohol was his problem; as often as not, by most accounts, he was under the influence in the House. 'Never was man more tantalising. He seemed capable of anything, yet achieved nothing … He could not lead, and he would not follow … He was caustic, cynical and unequalled in epigrammatic wit … but perversity possessed him'. In the late 1890s, however, he was cured by J. T. P. Caulfield, became a total abstainer and henceforth frequently lectured frankly on the evils of drink.

Murray outraged Imperial loyalists by vehemently and persistently opposing Australian participation in the 'capitalist' South African War, though he condemned Boer treatment of black Africans. He was often reviled as a traitor but he held his seat narrowly in 1900 against George Maxwell. Thereafter he was unopposed in four elections and in 1908 and 1911 doubled the opposing vote.

Surprisingly the conservative (Sir) William Irvine selected him in June 1902 as chief secretary and minister of labour after he had seconded the no confidence motion against Peacock. When (Sir) Thomas Bent took over from Irvine in February 1904 Murray became president of the Board of Land and Works and commissioner of crown lands and survey and carried legislation for closer settlement which had become a widely agreed policy. On 15 August 1906, however, he resigned dramatically on the floor of the House over the issue of compulsory land purchase which Bent opposed; Murray had had enough of Bent's domineering leadership. For two years now, in alliance with W. A. Watt he waged guerilla warfare, satirizing Bent's ebullient style. (Sir) Frederic Eggleston compared the struggle to 'a bull fight, with Bent the bull, Murray the toreador, and Watt the chief matador'. 'There never was a more delightful and exasperating stone-waller than Murray. His lambent sarcasm never failed.' Late in 1908 Murray and Watt moved for the kill: Bent's authority was crumbling, several ministers resigned, and on 3 December Murray carried a no confidence motion. After the election Murray was commissioned to form a ministry and Watt backed him as treasurer; Murray took the Chief Secretary's and Labour departments.

Murray's government (8 January 1909–18 May 1912) was essentially a Liberal-country coalition but also covered the period when Liberal factions were formally consolidating in the face of growing Labor strength. At the November 1911 election he won a large majority with two-thirds of the assembly more or less in support. His government continued developmental policies but the Legislative Council blocked its measures of land reform. However, a basic development in state secondary education was carried through, the Country Roads Board was initiated, and public utilities reorganized. Murray spent much of his trip to the Coronation in 1911 examining schemes of electrified public transport. Watt had been generally recognized as the driving-force of the ministry and in mid-May 1912, under some pressure in cabinet, Murray passed the premiership to him while retaining his portfolios.

Murray's health was deteriorating. Roy Bridges noticed that 'his natural good humour was lost in periods of mental and physical depression'. His heart was giving trouble and he resigned his ministries on 19 February 1913. On 22 December, however, he rejoined Watt as chief secretary, continued under Peacock from June 1914 and in August 1915 even resumed the ministry of labour. Murray withdrew entirely, however, when Peacock reconstructed his ministry in November.

His advanced views on a range of questions before 1900 had taken some living down: that he became a largely disillusioned radical, and 'mellowed', helped him to win the political following which his intellect and parliamentary qualities inspired. He had great natural tact and subtlety in judging the temper of members, together with honesty and generosity. Those who knew him best were certain that his apparent indolence was an affectation of lethargy and that he was a speedy, efficient administrator. His ultimate political achievement, however, was a puny reflection of his hopes and capacity.

One unorthodox cause Murray continued to maintain was his defence of Aborigines, especially those at Framlingham near Warrnambool, many of whom he knew personally. In 1890 he saved part of Framlingham Reserve in the face of governmental attempts to disperse the Aborigines. As chief secretary in 1902-04 and from 1909 he was formal chairman of the Board for the Protection of the Aborigines and, like none of his predecessors, took his duties seriously. He repeatedly intervened, legislated in 1910 to require the unwilling board to aid half-castes, and eventually in 1913-14 attended all board meetings, then did not convene it but administered directly. Murray was allied with his two sisters, especially Mary who nurtured the Framlingham folk for decades as well as generally working for the local poor.

Jack Murray had hundreds of friends and by all accounts stuck to them. He had keen interests in racing, especially trotting, and cricket and was a trustee of the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

On 4 May 1916 Murray's pony bolted in a Warrnambool street; he pulled him up but when he stepped down from the trap fell dead. He was buried with Presbyterian forms after a state funeral attended by close on 2000 people including Aborigines from Framlingham; the procession was nearly two miles (3.2 km) long. A portrait is held by the Warrnambool Public Library. His wife and three daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Osburne, The History of Warrnambool from 1847 to 1886 (Melb, 1887)
  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • E. H. Sugden and F. W. Eggleston, George Swinburne (Syd, 1931)
  • C. E. Sayers, By These We Flourish (Melb, 1969)
  • L. M. Field, The Forgotten War (Melb, 1979)
  • S. Lawson, The Archibald Paradox (Melb, 1983)
  • D. Barwick, ‘Equity for Aborigines? The Framlingham case’ in P. Troy (ed), A Just Society? (Syd, 1981)
  • Warrnambool Standard, 15, 18 Feb 1884, 5 May 1916
  • Bulletin, 2 Jan 1892
  • Punch (Melbourne), 2 Feb 1905, 30 Sept 1909
  • Town and Country Journal, 13 Jan 1909
  • Age (Melbourne), 5 May 1916
  • Argus (Melbourne), 5 May 1916
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 11 May 1916
  • K. Rollison, Groups and Attitudes in the Victorian Legislative Assembly, 1900-1909 (Ph.D. thesis, La Trobe University, 1972).

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'Murray, John (Jack) (1851–1916)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/murray-john-jack-7710/text13503, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 31 October 2014.

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

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