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Tyrrell, Sir Murray Louis (1913–1994)

by David I. Smith

This article was published online in 2019

Sir Murray Tyrrell, Australian News and Information Bureau, 1970

Sir Murray Tyrrell, Australian News and Information Bureau, 1970

National Archives of Australia, L89475

Sir Murray Louis Tyrrell (1913–1994), public servant, was born on 1 December 1913 at Kilmore, Victoria, third of five children of Thomas Michael Tyrrell (d. 1928), postmaster, and his wife Florence Evelyn, née Kepert, both Victorian born. Murray was educated at schools at Orbost and, after his father transferred to Cheltenham, at Mordialloc and Melbourne Boys’ high schools. He joined the Commonwealth Public Service in 1929. Initially appointed as a telegraph messenger, he served in several sections of the Postmaster-General’s (PMG) Department over the next ten years. On 6 May 1939 he married Ellen St Clair Greig, a clerk, at St John’s Church, East Malvern.

During World War II Tyrrell held a series of posts in ministerial offices. In mid-1939 he reluctantly relocated to Canberra to serve as assistant private secretary to the minister for air and civil aviation, J. V. Fairbairn. In August 1940 a last-minute rearrangement of passengers on a flight from Melbourne to Canberra saw him catch a train instead. The plane crashed on approach to the airport killing all on board, including Fairbairn and several other senior officials. Tyrrell informed Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies of the loss, and helped to identify the bodies of those who perished. At the inquest he strongly denied the suggestion that Fairbairn was at the controls instead of the assigned pilot.

In the aftermath, Tyrrell was appointed private secretary to the new minister for air and then, back in Melbourne, to the minister for munitions and for supply and development (from October 1940). He later served as personal assistant to the secretary of the Department of Munitions (1942). In 1943 he returned to Canberra having been selected as private secretary to J. B. Chifley, then Commonwealth treasurer and minister for post–war reconstruction. He continued in this role when Chifley became prime minister and treasurer in 1945. Two years later he was appointed official secretary to the governor-general Sir William McKell, a position that he would hold under six vice-regal representatives. Until mid-1953 he was also comptroller of Government House with responsibility for supervising household staff and security.

Tyrrell claimed that he had long aspired to the job of official secretary after noticing the position on a chart of the Australian government at the PMG department. His duties included overseeing the budget of Government House; liaising with government departments, Buckingham Palace, and the press; coordinating the public appearances of the governor-general; and dealing with correspondence. He also assisted during royal tours by Queen Elizabeth II (1954, 1963, 1970) and the Queen Mother (1958, 1966), as well as several visits by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. From May to August 1962 he was attached to the royal household at Buckingham Palace. During this period he assisted Prince Philip’s efforts to encourage the establishment of an Australian branch of the World Wildlife Fund. To this end, Tyrrell communicated with the zoologist and conservationist Francis Ratcliffe, who would be instrumental in the formation of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Despite standing ‘6ft 3in [190.5 cm] in his socks,’ Tyrrell remained ‘in the governor-general’s shadow’ (Spratt 1962, 70) at official functions. He endeavoured to maintain good working relationships with all the incumbents. Increasingly burdened by anxiety, he was on leave for much of 1973 and retired on medical grounds in February the next year. He had been appointed CVO in 1954 and KCVO in 1968; both awards were in the Queen’s personal gift. He was also appointed CBE in 1959.

Settling in Queanbeyan, Sir Murray was an alderman of the city council from 1974 to 1980. He was a coordinator during the 1976 flood, collapsing with exhaustion after working solidly for thirty-six hours. For many years he was also active in the Australian Capital Territory division of the National Heart Foundation of Australia and was elected its president in 1977. That year he was named Australian of the Year, and in 1980 he was made a commander of the Order of St John of Jerusalem. Predeceased by his wife and survived by a son and two daughters, he died on 13 July 1994 in Canberra, and was buried in the Queanbeyan lawn cemetery.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Coulthard-Clark, C. D., ed. Gables, Ghosts, and Governors-General: The Historic House at Yarralumla, Canberra. Sydney: Allen & Unwin with the Canberra & District Historical Society, 1988
  • Coulthard-Clark, Chris. ‘Right-Hand Man to Six Heads of State.’ Australian, 21 July 1994, 15
  • Davidson, Gay. ‘Bicycle Boy’s Dream Ends.’ Canberra Times, 17 July 1973, 3–4
  • Fetherston, Jerry. ‘The Colourful Memories of Sir Murray Tyrrell.’ Woman’s Day, 22 April 1985, 18–19
  • National Archives of Australia. A1209, 1968/9010
  • National Archives of Australia. A9841, Tyrrell, M
  • National Archives of Australia. M1767, 7
  • Spratt, Elwyn. ‘Fifteen Years in the Governor-General’s Shadow: The Man in the Dark Striped Pants.’ Sun-Herald, 6 May 1962, 70
  • Tyrrell, Murray. Interview by Mel Pratt, 27 May–26 June 1974. Transcript. Mel Pratt collection. National Library of Australia

Additional Resources

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Citation details

David I. Smith, 'Tyrrell, Sir Murray Louis (1913–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/tyrrell-sir-murray-louis-27594/text34982, published online 2019, accessed online 17 October 2019.

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