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Murray, Sir John Hubert Plunkett (1861–1940)

by H. N. Nelson

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

This is a shared entry with George Gilbert Aime Murray

Sir John Hubert Plunkett Murray (1861-1940), colonial administrator, and George Gilbert Aime Murray (1866-1957), scholar, were born on 29 December 1861 and 2 January 1866 in Sydney, children of (Sir) Terence Aubrey Murray, pastoralist and politician, and his second wife Agnes Ann, née Edwards. Born into a family that had position and property in New South Wales, the boys grew up without advantages of wealth. Having lost his Yarralumla and Winderradeen stations, Terence Murray lived from 1865 on his salary as president of the Legislative Council. The boys absorbed family pioneering stories, but only Hubert had even slight experience of bush life.

Although Sir Terence bequeathed no capital on his death in 1873, he influenced the value that his sons placed on physical and moral courage, public service, learning and tolerance. The boys were imbued with an Irish suspicion of those who presumed privilege and righteousness. The Murrays, Gilbert recalled, were Home Rulers, members of the Aborigines' Protection Society and 'keen on the protection of animals, children, foreigners, heretics, unpopular minorities and the like'. Agnes Murray was an Anglican while Sir Terence respected, and 'but very partially accepted', the Catholicism of his youth. Hubert, named after his father's friend J. H. Plunkett, was baptized as an Anglican, and in 1869 both boys were baptized Catholics. From a family which was 'greatly interested but sceptical', Gilbert became strongly opposed to organized religion. His stance was a central part of his English liberalism. Hubert's later adoption of Catholicism and his interest in his Irish forebears confirmed his view of himself as an outsider among the Australian ascendancy.

For a time a pupil at a non-denominational school, Hubert shifted with the family south of Sydney Harbour through homes of decreasing size to a leased house at Darlinghurst. Aged 9 he sailed to Melbourne to attend a preparatory school. In 1872 he returned to Sydney to go to Sydney Grammar School. By his final year in 1877 he was school-captain and his scholarly and sporting prowess was recognized by numerous prizes.

When Sir Terence died, Lady Murray purchased Springfield, a girls' school close to her Darlinghurst home. Gilbert, after local education, went to Southey's school at Moss Vale and later at Mittagong. Lady Murray and Gilbert sailed in 1877 for England which to Gilbert was 'home'. Hubert followed a year later to attend Brighton College, from which he was expelled for punching a master who called him a 'wild Irishman'. Mature, aloof, accustomed to taking alcohol and confident of his abilities, Hubert seemed to taunt his teachers. He spent part of 1880-81 learning German at a Rhineland academy.

At Oxford Hubert excelled in sport and graduated (B.A., 1886) with first-class honours in Greats. Gilbert, who went from Merchant Taylors' School to be a year behind Hubert at Oxford, recalled his brother sitting 'silent and perhaps bored' among sporting companions who were not his intellectual equal. Hubert went down to London to read for the Bar at Inner Temple and again demonstrated his capacity for mental and physical contest. Without any intellectual or reformist passion for law, Murray passed his examinations, played Rugby for the Harlequins, and won the English amateur heavyweight boxing title. He was called to the Bar in May 1886. When he sailed for Australia that year he was 14 stone (89 kg), 6ft 3ins (191 cm) in height, broad shouldered and agile. Few men had arrived in Sydney with such physical and mental endowment.

At St John's College, Oxford, Gilbert (B.A., 1888) won a succession of scholarships and prizes to establish a reputation as a brilliant classical scholar. Without Hubert's commanding physique he was handsome, and where Hubert was reserved and critical, he was generous and charming. In 1888 Gilbert was offered a fellowship at New College, Oxford, and aged 23 was appointed professor of Greek at the University of Glasgow. It was an exceptional elevation for an inexperienced teacher. On 30 November 1889 he married Lady Mary Henrietta Howard at Castle Howard, Yorkshire.

In Sydney Hubert was given few briefs at his shared Phillip Street chambers and he drank more heavily. His mother, in Sydney to attend his wedding to Sybil Maud Jenkins on 17 July 1889, wrote to Gilbert that it was his 'saunter that annoys the Attorneys'. The apparent arrogance that may have masked some vulnerability, the refusal to engage in small talk and the despondency which sometimes descended on him, all kept clients away. To increase his earnings, Murray went on circuit as a judge's associate and acted for absent crown prosecutors. In 1892 he took a position as a New South Wales parliamentary draftsman, finding some escape from that 'living death in Macquarie St' by continuing to act as a prosecutor. In 1896 he was himself appointed a crown prosecutor, and 'although he had not entirely lived down the infamy of having been at Oxford' he picked up private briefs in country towns.

At first 'bitterly opposed' to the war in South Africa, Hubert sailed for Cape Town as a special service officer in command of a troop-ship in January 1900. He explained that his commitment to military training as officer commanding the volunteer New South Wales Irish Rifles overcame his political and moral doubts. Gilbert maintained his opposition. At first posted to rear areas Hubert eventually fulfilled his ambition for battle near Pretoria in June with the 1st Mounted Infantry Brigade, and later he pursued mobile Boers. Supervising the burning of Boer farms, Murray hated 'the whole business'. He left South Africa after ten months. Commended as an administrator and in action, Murray held the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the Australian forces and of major in the Imperial service.

Returning to a 'tedious way of earning a living' in the courts of western New South Wales, Murray was now sober and a practising Catholic. His abstemiousness and Catholicism gave him stability but further distanced him from his fellows.

In 1904 he was appointed chief judicial officer of British New Guinea. He had been acting as a district court judge and his application was strongly supported by legal and political leaders, including Sir Edmund Barton. Murray was 42, physically fit, father of three young children, his marriage under strain, and conscious that he had under-used his intellectual talents. British New Guinea was an escape and an opportunity.

Accompanied by his wife, Murray arrived in Port Moresby in September 1904. Sybil returned to Sydney after a week, and over the next thirty-five years Murray was rarely to have both wife and children in his official residence.

The only trained lawyer in British New Guinea, normally sitting without defence, prosecution or jury, Murray heard all cases coming before the Central Court. He drafted legislation, tendered legal advice to the administration, and was a member of the legislative and executive councils. Within a fortnight he had heard his first cases and he was soon travelling on the government boat to take cases in outer administrative divisions, constantly resisting the special pleading of white settlers. Although aware that in some British colonies attempts were being made to rule through customary laws and to use influential villagers on local courts, Murray maintained the English-Australian legal system. His court procedure was simple, in English and therefore often dependent on interpreters, and at sentencing he took customs into account. From the late 1920s a few Papuans were invited to assist at minor trials, but in 1938 Murray still thought that it would be a long time before even 'trivial offences' could be handed to Papuan magistrates.

Murray had arrived in Port Moresby at a critical time. The colony's population of just over 500 whites generated little income and the few government officers in 'disreputable old tin shanties' were feuding among themselves as they waited for the transformation of the area from British New Guinea to the Australian Territory of Papua. Immediately after the proclamation of the Papua Act in 1906 a Commonwealth royal commission arrived in Port Moresby. In evidence given over two days Murray accused the administrator F. R. Barton, of having a 'nervous dread of Australia and Australian ideas', and of being weak and spiteful; he gave details of the treasurer's drunkenness; and he charged two senior officers with shooting Papuans. The commissioners' report opened the way for the Australian government to remove many of the senior officials and to appoint Murray as acting administrator, then as lieutenant-governor in 1908. At what point Murray saw that his evidence would result in his own advancement is unclear, but he was obliged to say in public what he had already written privately in a letter to Prime Minister Alfred Deakin. Some of those whose careers were damaged by the royal commission stayed in Papua as settlers; their hatred of Murray was intense.

He came to power in an administration committed to providing cheap land for white settlers. After a brief boom the white population stabilized at just over 1000. Murray's protective policies were not tested by strong settler demands for Papuan lands and elected representation. Faced with declining prospects some settlers in 1920 launched a virulent attack on Murray's administration for its 'hostility to progress' and 'its contempt of the white race'. Murray countered with well-argued letters to the minister and in published writings.

Claiming that Papuans would have no reason to be grateful to Australians if they were just 'hewers of wood and drawers of water for European settlers', Murray introduced the Native Taxation and Native Plantations Ordinances. By the time the trees which villagers were required to plant had matured, the 1929 Depression had reduced prices, and the Papuans had to be compelled to keep the plantations in production. The tax money paid a subsidy to mission schools and placed reading books and some sports equipment in a few villages.

Murray travelled frequently by boat and foot, and insisted that his outside officers patrol regularly. His strongly worded instructions of 1909, telling officers that they were never justified in 'firing on natives by way of punishment' and warning them that self-defence would not always protect them from charges of manslaughter, were issued when punitive expeditions were common in German New Guinea and still took place in north Australia. Partly as a result of the poverty of his administration and partly conforming to his ideals, most exploring expeditions were small and dependent on bushmanship, endurance and a calm confidence to advance peacefully. By the late 1930s Murray was justly proud of the way his 'outside men' had opened vast areas to government influence.

Murray read current anthropology and created the post of government anthropologist. He was influenced by the functionalists' view of culture and depopulation, but he took issue with those who wanted to stand in the way of all change. Most of Murray's opinions derived from wider humane studies and his own shrewd observations. The rejection of 'the unity of mankind' was, he thought, the basis for the worst outrages on black people and he denounced those who argued that the native was a child. Murray believed that some Papuans could be trained to be lawyers and doctors, but that the average Papuan was less intelligent than the average European. His views were more liberal than those of nearly all white residents in Papua. He published two books, Papua or British New Guinea (1914) and Papua of Today (1925), and his annual reports were widely read.

In 1919 Murray served as chairman of the royal commission into late German New Guinea. Angry at the flogging and shooting that continued under Australian rule, Murray wanted to combine the two territories and head the new administration. The government accepted the report of his fellow commissioners Atlee Hunt and Walter Lucas to keep the territories separate and impose harsh expropriation penalties on the Germans. Murray admitted that he had 'great difficulty in not killing' Hunt and Lucas. By the late 1930s Murray opposed amalgamation, fearing that the combined territories would then pass to less humane control. Papua, he argued, was ultimately to be an Australian State, and New Guinea, under the terms of the mandate, was to be independent.

Murray was reluctant to impose the death penalty. Only two Papuans were hanged in the last twenty years of his rule while some sixty-five men were hanged in the Mandated Territory of New Guinea. But he administered similar petty discriminatory laws about dress and behaviour, and he legislated for savage penalties for attacks on white women.

Sybil Murray died in 1929. Companionship escaped Murray a second time. He married an Irish widow, Mildred Vernon, née Trench, at St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, on 20 February 1930. In the 'affair Mildred' Murray suffered 'a torrent of abuse' and financial loss before a separation was arranged. In spite of long absences, he maintained affectionate relationships with his three children. Leonard Murray, his nephew, served as official secretary in Papua for twenty-five years and succeeded Hubert in office.

By the 1930s Murray's worst enemies had died, his writings had gained him a reputation beyond Papua, and many white residents had come to take pride in what they believed was an advanced and benign 'native policy'. Murray was appointed C.M.G. in 1914 and K.C.M.G. in 1925. Throughout his long career he often complained of boredom, feared that anti-Catholics or conservatives would have him replaced, and privately greeted all honours with self-mocking cynicism. He had the friendship and respect of many Papuans who confidently approached him for aid and advice.

After his death from lymphatic leukemia in office at Samarai on 27 February 1940, Murray was mourned by all peoples in Papua. On his modest grave in the old Port Moresby cemetery the epitaph in Latin proclaims: 'If you seek a monument look about you'. It is inappropriate. Murray's administration never had the funds to build and Murray sought no physical monuments. His achievements lay in his probity, his capacity to instil loyalty and pride in a poorly paid staff, and his determination to reduce the blatant injustices of colonialism. Without Murray more Papuans would have been shot, bashed and become landless labourers. Ahead of much educated opinion at his appointment, Murray in his last decade in office could have done more to educate Papuans and give them greater responsibility in government. But after three decades in Government House he was probably still better informed about recent developments in colonial administration and more enlightened in practice than any likely replacement.

Gilbert and Hubert rarely met in later life, but their correspondence was frank and they took pride in each other's achievements. Appointed Regius professor of Greek at Oxford in 1908, Gilbert was a brilliant lecturer and a distinguished and productive scholar. His many translations opened classical Greek literature to a generation of English readers, and his historical and critical writings influenced the perception of Greek culture. Active in the English theatre, he had a wide interest in contemporary literary and intellectual movements.

Near the end of his life Gilbert said that not a day had passed when he had not thought about working 'for peace and for Hellenism'. From the start of World War I he began campaigning for an international movement to ensure a sustained peace. He was foundation chairman of the League of Nations Union in 1923-38 and president of its successor, the United Nations Association. After he retired from his Oxford chair in 1936 he remained active as a writer and as a speaker and organizer for liberal causes. In 1941 he was awarded the Order of Merit.

Married into the English aristocracy and a lifelong Liberal, Gilbert was more interested in bringing benefits to the under-privileged than in encouraging them to act for their own advantage. By the 1950s he was out of sympathy with the aspirations of the new nations outside western Europe. Survived by two of his five children, he died on 20 May 1957 at his Berkshire home; his ashes were buried in Westminster Abbey. His Unfinished Autobiography was published in 1960.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Lett, Sir Hubert Murray of Papua (Syd, 1949)
  • F. West, Hubert Murray (Melb, 1968)
  • F. West, Selected Letters of Hubert Murray (Melb, 1970)
  • F. West, Gilbert Murray, a Life (Lond, 1984)
  • Murray family papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Murray papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Dept of Territories files (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

H. N. Nelson, 'Murray, Sir John Hubert Plunkett (1861–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/murray-sir-john-hubert-plunkett-7711/text13505, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 23 July 2014.

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

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