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Murray, Sir George John Robert (1863–1942)

by Alex C. Castles

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

George John Robert Murray (1863-1942), by Hammer & Co, 1915

George John Robert Murray (1863-1942), by Hammer & Co, 1915

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 16418

Sir George John Robert Murray (1863-1942), judge, was born on 27 September 1863 at Murray Park, Magill, Adelaide, second surviving son of Alexander Borthwick Murray, a Scots pastoralist and politician, and his second wife Margaret, née Tinline. He largely took charge of the family's business concerns on his father's death. His family was wealthy by colonial standards and in 1874-75 he attended the High School, Edinburgh, after early tuition at J. L. Young's Adelaide Educational Institution. On his return from Scotland, at the Collegiate School of St Peter he demonstrated outstanding academic attainments and prowess in sport. He matriculated to the University of Adelaide in 1880, winning an entrance scholarship and taking an arts degree in 1883, after annually obtaining first-class honours. That year he was awarded the South Australian scholarship, which enabled him to read law at Trinity College, Cambridge, with financial support from the colonial government.

At Cambridge Murray represented his college in cricket and rowing, and was equal first in the law tripos examinations for the bachelor of laws degree in 1887. His ability was noted by F. W. Maitland, the most distinguished English legal historian of the period, who suggested that he consider taking up the study of legal history as a vocation. However, with financial assistance from his family and an Inns of Court scholarship, Murray completed the requirements for admission to the Bar and was called to the Inner Temple in 1888. Returning to Adelaide next year, while recovering from an accident which permanently curtailed his sporting activities, he was admitted to legal practice in South Australia at a bedside ceremony conducted by Chief Justice (Sir) Samuel Way.

By 1900 Murray had established a firm position for himself in legal and academic life. He began his long-standing professional relationship with Way when he served as his associate on the Supreme Court in 1889-91. Later, in private practice, he specialized in civil matters. The amalgamated nature of the legal profession enabled him to build up an extensive clientele as a solicitor in the commercial area. In appearances in court as a barrister he was not a forceful advocate, but developed a solid reputation for logic and clarity of argument. He was appointed K.C. in 1906 and in mid-career surprised some contemporaries when he visited England and completed the requirements for the Cambridge master of laws degree in 1909. By then he was also involved deeply in the affairs of the University of Adelaide. He had undertaken a heavy lecturing commitment in the law school during the absence of F. W. Pennefather in 1891. He was elected to the university council that year, beginning a direct, active association which was to continue for fifty years. His correspondence reveals his deep interest in the quality of legal education, the attributes of appointees at professorial level and the nature of the curriculum.

Murray was reticent about taking up a judicial appointment and refused an acting judgeship of the Supreme Court in 1911. Next year, however, pressed strongly by Way who suggested that it was his patriotic duty to join the court, he accepted appointment as a puisne judge. Murray was concerned at the small judicial salary, as he viewed it; but as much as anything he was reluctant 'to change my present mode of life'. After Way's death, the senior puisne judge Sir John Gordon was offered the chief justiceship, but declined because of ill health; Murray was then promoted to be Way's successor. His appointment by the Vaughan Labor government was acknowledged as marking a non-political approach to appointments to the court, in contrast to what had often been the situation. Murray's preference had been for the conservative side of politics and, meticulously, he had resigned from membership of the Liberal Union before his initial appointment to the bench. He had, however, steadfastly refused over the years to accept nomination as a parliamentary candidate.

A 'long lean man', who often seemed reserved, even austere, Murray was a dominant influence on the Supreme Court for the remainder of his life. He held strongly to a traditional view of the role of law in society. This was marked early in his chief justiceship when he successfully helped to resist efforts to have the president of the State Industrial Court, Dr Jethro Brown, appointed also to the Supreme Court. As under Way, the court had little influence through its decisions outside South Australia, particularly as Murray as much as any of his colleagues tended in appellate and other decisions to eschew detailed reasoning in his judgments. Nevertheless, there was a strongly held tradition in the local legal profession, often justifiably, that Murray had an admirable capacity to reflect accurately the condition of the law and apply it dispassionately to the cases in hand. In this mould, the Supreme Court showed little innovatory zeal, but served in its own way to preserve the character of community values as Murray conceived them.

Appointed K.C.M.G. in 1917, Murray on elevation to the chief justiceship also became lieutenant-governor. This proved to be no sinecure: he administered the State on 103 occasions in 1916-42, for a period totalling over six years. As a frequent resident of Government House during vacancies in the office of governor, or absences of a governor, he undertook ceremonial and other vice-regal duties. The university also claimed his continuing attention; six times elected chancellor from 1916 to 1942, he presided regularly over council meetings, concerning himself quite strongly at times in the conduct of the university's affairs. His close knowledge of the university, dating back to his student days, his membership of many of its committees down the years and his standing as one of its most noted graduates, made him a powerful force in regulating its activities.

Murray had followed his mentor Way as chief justice, chancellor of the university and lieutenant-governor. After Way's death in 1916, Murray often seemed to remain in the shadow of his formidable predecessor. But this was not entirely so. The similarities between them were based on shared beliefs in conservative values relating to the law and the conduct of public affairs. At least in Way's final years, Murray had been almost certainly often dominant in their relationship, with the aged chief justice deferring more and more to the younger man's views. Like Way, Murray mostly sought and obtained his personal fulfilment within his home State and through his contributions to its way of life. Endowed with a keen intellect, he had the capacity to make significant contributions to the law and other fields. However, he increasingly preferred to be seen as an embodiment of traditional, conservative and often localized values and as a focal point for helping to preserve those from untoward influences, as he viewed them. Even Way had 'never known a judge who was such a partisan'.

Murray was not an aggressive nationalist but he had a deep pride in his success as a South Australian, pointing out not long before his death that he was the first person of colonial birth to serve on the State's Supreme Court and the first native-born chief justice and chancellor. His views and outlook were Australian, tempered but never displaced by his contacts with Britain down the years, in the manner of the era in which he lived.

Murray did not marry and lived at Murray Park with his unmarried sister Margaret; he remained, personally, something of an enigma. He was a trustee of the Adelaide Club. An avid stamp collector from his youth, he had a fine collection of the stamps of the Australian colonies which, with his Australian paintings, he bequeathed to the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery of South Australia. He endowed the Tinline scholarship in history to commemorate his mother's family from 1907, and he gave generously to the university: £10,000 for a union building in 1936, surrender of a life interest in £53,000 in 1937, and other gifts.

In accord with his wishes, eschewing the pomp and circumstance which he had shunned during his lifetime, on his death on 18 February 1942 Murray was buried privately beside his sister in St George's Church of England cemetery, Magill. The university council minuted that he had been revered 'for the austerity of his life as for his manifest uprightness'. His estate was sworn for probate in Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia at £225,700. The residue of above £83,000 was bequeathed to the university. His extensive library was shared between it and the Law Society of South Australia, which named its library in his memory.

Select Bibliography

  • Public Service Review (South Australia), May 1915
  • Honorary Magistrate, 15 Apr 1942
  • South Australian Homes and Gardens, 1 Apr 1948
  • Royal Institute of Public Administration, Bulletin, Nov 1978
  • Observer (Adelaide), 28 July 1906, 4 Oct 1924
  • Mail (Adelaide), 17 Aug 1912
  • Chronicle (Adelaide), 29 Sept 1932
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 19 Feb, 14 May 1942
  • Murray papers, PRG 259 and GRG 36/ 49/, 1889-1892 (State Records of South Australia)
  • S. J. Way letter books, 1912, p 221, May-Dec 1903 (State Records of South Australia)
  • Minute books, Council of University of Adelaide (University of Adelaide Archives).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Alex C. Castles, 'Murray, Sir George John Robert (1863–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/murray-sir-george-john-robert-7708/text13497, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 24 June 2017.

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

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