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Murray, Robert William (1777–1850)

by C. R. Murray

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

Robert William Felton Lathrop Murray (1777-1850), landowner, soldier, convict and journalist, was the only son of Robert Lathropp and his wife Ann, née Williams, of West Felton, Shropshire, and Smith Square, London. Educated at Westminster School and Cambridge University, he was granted a commission in the 2nd Royal Manx Fencibles in 1795. On coming of age he assumed the additional surname of Murray, claiming descent from a certain Robert Murray who, as the son of Sir William Murray, baronet, of Dynnyrne, Scotland, had married into the Lathropp family in 1630 and taken their name. A government announcement in the London Gazette, 3 April 1802, refers to him as Sir Robert Lathropp Murray, and this title was used in other periodicals of that time. He served in the Peninsular war, and the Army Lists from 1807 to 1814 show him attached to the 7th Foot, 1st Foot and from 1811, captain in the Royal Waggon Train.

In January 1815 he was tried for bigamy before the Recorder of London, and sentenced to transportation for seven years. It was alleged that he had married Alicia Marshall in Northern Ireland in 1797, and, during her lifetime, Catherine Clarke in 1801. He did not regard the first marriage as legal, and published his objections, a report of the trial, and a petition to the Prince Regent by his wife Catherine in a pamphlet entitled An Appeal to the British Nation 2nd ed (London, 1815). A plea to the House of Commons, sponsored by Sir Samuel Romilly, was rejected on 10 April 1815.

After his trial he appears to have omitted the final letter from his original surname, being known in Australia as Robert Lathrop Murray. His first mention is as clerk and constable of the Sydney bench, an employee of D'Arcy Wentworth, in 1816. He was granted a pardon soon after arrival, and was recorded in the Sydney Gazette as principal clerk in the Police Office, and in 1820 assistant superintendent. He also engaged in outside business which took him to Hobart Town in 1821. In the next eight years he was given some large grants of land to the south of the town; he lived first at Dynnyrne Distillery in south Hobart and later built Dynnyrne House, which gave its name to a suburb. Across the Derwent, a mile (1.6 km) beyond Kangaroo Point (Bellerive), was his country house, Wentworth.

In 1824 a number of letters signed 'A Colonist' began appearing in the press, violently criticizing the administration; at a public function on 7 April 1825 Murray acknowledged their authorship. He became editor of the Hobart Town Gazette on 8 July, and of the Colonial Times from 19 August 1825 to 4 August 1826. His attacks on Lieutenant-Governor (Sir) George Arthur continued, becoming in effect a war for the freedom of the press; but by 1828 when he returned to journalism, he had modified his attitude and tended to favour Arthur. Meanwhile he had been tried for an earlier financial irregularity and, after a confused verdict and a long-delayed judgment, received a pardon. Arthur had also been gratified, on moral grounds, by Murray's marriage on 1 December 1827 to Eleanor, the daughter of Thomas and Sarah Dixon, of Ralph's Bay. He also became active in Freemasonry, being senior installing officer from 1828; he is recognized as the father of the order in the colony.

His second period of journalism began with the first issue, on 6 February 1828, of Murray's Austral-Asiatic Review. This continued under various names, sometimes amalgamated with the Tasmanian and sometimes with Murray in partnership or as editor under another owner until, as the Tasmanian and Austral-Asiatic Review, with Murray as editor and John Macdougall as proprietor, it ceased publication on 26 June 1845. Murray's support of Arthur was to bring him into opposition to Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Franklin, who quarrelled with the officials of the Arthur faction. After the recall of Franklin, Murray defended his successor, Sir John Eardley-Wilmot, who encountered increasing opposition from a section of the colonists headed by the Patriotic Six. By the time Wilmot received notice of recall Murray himself was preparing to leave Van Diemen's Land.

Legislation passed at Westminster in 1842 on Irish marriages (5 & 6 Vic. c. 113) gave him hope that his conviction could be set aside, and by November 1847 he had his affairs sufficiently in order to leave for England. But old age and ill health had weakened his fighting spirit and he was unable to attain reinstatement in the army, which would have entitled him to a large sum in back pay. However, he was able to enter into possession of his estate at West Felton Hall where he died on 2 November 1850. His wife and her younger children had followed him to England; she proved her right to his property in the Vice-Chancellor's Court in December 1852. She then sold the English estate and in 1853 returned to Australia, dying in 1898.

Murray had children by each of his wives; a daughter by Alicia Marshall was living with Ann Lathropp when the latter made her will in 1803, and Catherine Clarke had a daughter who died in 1824. There was also a son, Edward Kent Strathearn Murray, whose mother, Mrs Lydia Marriott, was said to have been married to Murray in 1806; but no such marriage could be legal, as both Alicia Marshall and Catherine Clarke were alive in 1815. By Eleanor Dixon three sons and five daughters survived him, and their descendants all live in Australia.

Norwood Young (Napoleon in Exile: Elba, London, 1914, 287) claimed that 'a certain R. W. Murray' was received by the emperor at Elba, and 'being supposed to be a natural son of an English prince, his visit was regarded as evidence of an understanding between Napoleon and the Royal family'; on return to England Murray was transported for bigamy but 'the real offence was believed to be high treason'. If such were indeed the case, his transportation and prompt pardon in Australia suggest the protection of an eminent patron, who was himself sufficiently involved to wish Murray out of the way. The Duke of Kent had maintained a correspondence with him on military matters, and was apparently godfather to Lydia Marriott's son; but neither he nor any other son of George III could have been Murray's father, the eldest having been born in 1762. Murray himself made no such allegation, but claimed merely to be heir to a baronetcy as the son of Robert Lathropp.

Whatever his antecedents in England, it is by his life in Tasmania that he will be remembered. In the words of the Tasmanian historian Ronald Giblin, 'At a time when public opinion in England was still engaged in the strife, he was the man who put up the stoutest fight for Freedom of the Press in the island colony'.

Select Bibliography

  • A. C. Lowe, History of Tasmanian Operative Lodge no 1 (Hob, 1935)
  • R. W. Giblin, The Early History of Tasmania, vol 2 (Melb, 1939)
  • M. H. Ellis, Lachlan Macquarie (Syd, 1947)
  • E. M. Miller, Pressmen and Governors (Syd, 1952)
  • Shrewsbury Chronicle, 15 Nov 1850
  • family papers (privately held).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

C. R. Murray, 'Murray, Robert William (1777–1850)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/murray-robert-william-2497/text3367, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 24 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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