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Smith, Robert Murray (1831–1921)

by Geoffrey Serle

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

Robert Murray Smith (1831-1921), by unknown engraver, 1882

Robert Murray Smith (1831-1921), by unknown engraver, 1882

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN22/02/82/2

Robert Murray Smith (1831-1921), politician and businessman, was born on 29 October 1831 at Liverpool, England, son of Alexander Smith and his wife Sophia Sherbourne, daughter of Admiral Robert Murray. His father and uncles controlled a family shipping firm with Australian connexions. Educated at Repton and a scholar of Oriel College, Oxford, he intended to read for the Bar but had to abandon his course in 1851 when his father died. He decided to migrate to Victoria where an uncle and cousin would give him a start, and arrived in the South Carolina in January 1854.

Murray Smith joined with John Strachan as a merchant and commission agent and by 1863 was able to spend two years in Europe combining business and travel. On his return he joined with R. Turnbull, M.L.C., but Turnbull, Smith & Co. was wound up in 1872, and he became general manager in Victoria of the New Zealand Loan and Mercantile Agency Co. Ltd until 1880. He was also a director of the National Bank in 1872-82, and of the Moama-Deniliquin private railway company.

Murray Smith was a 'free trader by conviction ever since I could think or reason', worshipped Bright and Cobden and was perhaps the most eloquent Victorian defender of laissez-faire. After an unsuccessful contest for the assembly seat of Williamstown in 1865 in opposition to the McCulloch government, he became well known as an orator and political organizer and wrote frequently for the Spectator and other journals. He was mayor of Prahran in 1870-72 after joining the town council in 1867. In 1873 he was elected to the Legislative Assembly for St Kilda, gave general support to the Kerferd and McCulloch ministries, was defeated by one vote in the Berry landslide of 1877, but was re-elected for Boroondara late in the year. He became one of the most prominent opponents of the Berry government, but refused offers of a ministry or the Speakership from Service in 1880. When Service temporarily retired from politics, Murray Smith became virtual leader of the Constitutionalists. In order to form a ministry with Francis, he plotted to support O'Loghlen to bring down Berry in 1881 and then to refuse to take office with him, but O'Loghlen gathered colleagues and the Constitutionalists had to tolerate him in office. In Deakin's opinion Murray Smith was 'steeped in commercialism' and 'defended the selfishnesses of the average businessman'. He was more effective as a parliamentarian than C. H. Pearson; but in spite of their antagonism they 'combined to elevate the tone of the Assembly'.

Murray Smith's outstanding political success was as agent-general in London in 1882-86. His term coincided with the Service government's campaign for the right of consultation on Australian interests in the Pacific and to forestall annexation of New Guinea by Germany and of the New Hebrides by France. The government was augmenting the ambassadorial function of the agent-general at the expense of Governor Sir Henry Loch. Murray Smith lobbied the Colonial Office, mobilized the other agents-general, rallied English sympathizers like Rosebery and Childers, and supplied Service with information. He set a precedent in 1884 by interviewing the French ambassador and the British ambassador to France. He maintained good relations with the Colonial Office, despite the unpopularity of Victorian policies. He refused a knighthood but accepted a C.M.G. in 1884; the University of Oxford bestowed an honorary M.A. on him. He was unhappy when recalled, but was banquetted by several hundred friends both on his departure and on his return home.

Murray Smith became a director of the Bank of Victoria, the Trustees, Executors, and Agency Co., the Australian Deposit and Mortgage Bank Ltd, the Australian Freehold Banking Corporation (Standard Bank of Australia Ltd) till 1890, L. Stevenson and Sons Ltd and the local board of the Northern Assurance Co. He was trustee for several private estates and 'perpetual' chairman of the Edward Wilson Trust from its foundation in 1878. Late in 1889 he made astute warnings about government financial policy. In the early 1890s he led the free-trade political revival and was prominent in the National Association and the Free Trade Democratic Association. In 1894-1900 he held the seat of Hawthorn but was so conservative as to be almost anachronistic, fighting tooth and nail against the minimum wage movement on the grounds that 'every man knows his own business a good deal better than any Government can teach it to him'. He was a member of royal commissions on charitable institutions (1890) and state banking (1895), and of the board of inquiry into unemployment (1900). He campaigned for Federation, stood for election to the 1897 Convention, and although not even included on the Argus ticket ran fourteenth out of twenty-nine candidates. In old age he was gloomily pessimistic about the future of Australia and the empire.

Murray Smith was president of the Melbourne Club in 1875, a member of the Council of the University of Melbourne in 1887-1900, a trustee of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery in 1897-1921, and treasurer of the Tucker Village Settlement Association from 1892. He was a Low Churchman, but a close friend of Charles Strong who officiated at his funeral. A highly cultivated man who knew his Shakespeare and Walter Scott almost verbatim, read Latin and French and a wide variety of authors including 'moderns' like Arnold Bennett, he wrote on political subjects, and lectured to literary, political and self-improvement societies. 'Rolf Boldrewood' dedicated Robbery Under Arms to him. Rosebery thought him possibly the most interesting man in Australia; Sir Samuel Way found him 'the best talker in Melbourne' with 'a pleasant sub-acid humour'. He was a handsome man, very gallant to ladies, but a vehement opponent of female rights or exposure of women to ugly realities. Though never wealthy, he was generous to good and bad causes alike. His chivalry was outstanding: though he strongly disapproved of Gladstone's imperial policy, he led the counter-cheering at a public meeting in 1885. It was unfortunate that his early political principles became so rigid that they limited a contribution to public life which, through his ability, energy and humanity, might have been outstanding.

Murray Smith had married Jane Carmichael Strachan at Geelong in 1858; they had three daughters and one son, who died of diphtheria while a student at Oxford in 1886. Predeceased by his wife, he died at his home in Toorak on 31 August 1921 and was buried in St Kilda cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at £16,713. A portrait by J. C. Waite is in the Melbourne Club.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Deakin, The Crisis in Victorian Politics, 1879-1881, J. A. La Nauze and R. M. Crawford eds (Melb, 1957)
  • G. Serle, The Rush to be Rich (Melb, 1971)
  • Royal Colonial Institute, Proceedings, 1883-86
  • Argus (Melbourne), 15 June 1886, 1 Sept 1921
  • Crisp letters (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'Smith, Robert Murray (1831–1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/smith-robert-murray-4614/text7595, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 17 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

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