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Myles Joseph Dunphy (1891–1985)

by Richard Gowers

This article was published:

Miles Dunphy, c.1980

Miles Dunphy, c.1980

Myles Joseph Dunphy (1891-1985), architect and conservationist, was born on 19 October 1891 in South Melbourne, eldest of seven children of Irish-born Myles Arthur Dunphy, draper, and his wife Margaret Mary, née Johnson, who was born in Tasmania. The family moved frequently through Victoria and New South Wales in search of new business opportunities. Myles’s education was disrupted but his formative schooling occurred at Kiama Superior Public School from 1903 to 1906. When the family moved to Annandale in 1907, he attended evening classes in architecture at Sydney Technical College, and worked by day as an office-boy and messenger with the Art, Painting & Decorating Co. The burden of work and school was made more difficult by the fact that his father left the family home. Dunphy continued at Sydney Technical College in 1912-13; his meritorious passes in 1912 earned him a scholarship in model-drawing. While maintaining his studies, he took jobs with W. C. Penfold & Co. and the architectural firm of E. Dakin, before working as a draughtsman (1912-22) for a civil engineer, Arthur Hart.

A temporary assistant teacher of trades drawing in 1915-16 and of constructional drawing from 1916, Dunphy was appointed a full-time teacher of architectural engineering at Sydney Technical College in 1922. He was registered formally as an architect in 1923, but never practised professionally, although he did design his own home forty years later. In 1916 he had been engaged to be married to Hazel Matheson but she died of tuberculosis in that year. He married 21-year-old Margaret Tinsley Peet, a clerk, on 19 December 1925 at Manly Methodist Church. They lived at Mortdale before settling at Oatley. His skill as a teacher marked his contribution to the field of architecture. He taught at the college until 1953, the New South Wales University of Technology from 1953 to 1958, and under its new name, at the University of New South Wales from 1959 until he retired in 1963, aged 71. Elected a fellow of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects in 1951, he became a life fellow in 1970.

While architecture framed Dunphy’s professional life, he found personal solace in the natural world. Walking in bushland around Sydney and Kiama as a child was a source of both relaxation and intellectual stimulus. In 1907 he formed the Orizaba Tourist and Cricket Club (named after Mexico’s highest peak, Pico de Orizaba) so that weekends could be devoted to exploring the area between North Annandale and Glebe Point. In 1914, after the Orizaba group was disbanded, Dunphy, with his friends Roy Rudder and Bert Gallop, formed the Mountain Trails Club. Membership was by invitation only and required a stiff initiation ritual of a twenty-mile (32 km) walk.

Resolved to achieve his aim of 'selfsufficiency in rough country’, he camped and lived on food rations during extended walks through the region surrounding the Kowmung River. Many of his expeditions were in the Blue Mountains, but in 1920 he and Rudder canoed the length of the Murray River from eastern Victoria to its mouth in South Australia. Dunphy’s exploits were in largely uncharted territory and the exertion often taxed his health. As a child he had contracted typhoid fever and while his convalescence at the Dame Edith Walker Hospital on the Parramatta River at Concord provided him with an idyllic setting for reading, fishing and exploring nature, his body was weakened by the illness. He was exempted from military service in World War I as a consequence and in his forties suffered heart problems, probably cardiomyopathy.

Dunphy’s association with formal walking clubs reflected his search for a recreational area free from the constraints of urbanisation. He later wrote that people needed a space to rid themselves 'of the shackles of ordered existence’, and this belief sustained his approach to conservation. Even when married with children, Dunphy would often go on long treks alone, but he and Margaret together managed a fifteen-day trek from Oberon to Mount Kanangra in the Blue Mountains by pushing their 20-month-old son, Milo, in a pram.

Through his association with the Mountain Trails Club, he drew a series of maps for newly developed trails within the greater Blue Mountains area. His maps were idiosyncratic; they not only provided topographical information but also named a series of peaks, valleys and rivers to reflect the difficulties of the walks. Map references in the Gangerang area to Paralyzer Steeps and Murdering Gully left little to the imagination for those who followed. His nomenclature revealed his appreciation for Aboriginal life, with names such as Mount Moorilla (meaning thunder). It was also influenced by his own life, with Dex Creek, for example, named after his dog Dextre. These maps established the Mountain Trails Club as an unofficial authority on trails in the greater Sydney region and the organisation gained added credibility from 1923 when the New South Wales Government Tourist Bureau directed travellers to it for information and guidance on walks in the Blue Mountains.

As the Mountain Trails Club did not admit women as members, in 1927 the Sydney Bush Walkers club was formed, with Dunphy as a foundation member. Through this club, he focused on protecting bushland from development. He helped to negotiate the purchase of the lease of the Blue Gum Forest on the Grose River in 1931-32 to save the area from being logged. Similarly, an area of the Garawarra coastline in Sydney’s south was reserved as parkland in 1934 after Dunphy directed a lobbying campaign aimed at the under-secretary for the Department of Lands.

In 1933 Dunphy had helped to form another group, the National Parks and Primitive Areas Council, which sought the reservation of scenic areas for recreation. He looked enviously on the development of national parks in the United States of America and hoped to encourage similarly protected environments in New South Wales for bushwalkers. As secretary of the NP&PAC, in 1934 Dunphy publicised a proposal for a Blue Mountains national park that had been submitted in 1932, but it was not until 1959 that lobbying resulted in a government gazettal of 155,676 acres (63,000 ha). This park was only a quarter of the size envisioned by Dunphy but with subsequent additions, such as the Wollemi National Park in 1979, the eventual Greater Blue Mountains Park fulfilled his original proposal. Other parklands, for example the Warrumbungle National Park in 1953, were created as a result of NP&PAC lobbying and his maps. In 1967, with the establishment of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the lobbying role of the NP&PAC diminished but Dunphy served on the Blue Mountains National Parks Trust and in his retirement successfully fought the Geographical Names Board of New South Wales, of which he was an honorary counsellor, to retain the names he had chosen in the Blue Mountains region.

Displaying a lifelong commitment to connecting urban residents with the natural world, Dunphy made a profound contribution to the conservation cause. 'Whether we like it or not’, he had commented in 1934, 'we hold our land in trust for our successors’. His skill as a cartographer and his role as a lobbyist ensured that land was preserved for his successors to enjoy. His trail (literally) can still be followed. He was appointed OBE in 1977 and was given the Fred M. Packard International Parks merit award by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources in 1982. Survived by his wife and their two sons, he died on 30 January 1985 at Peakhurst and was cremated. Some of his writings have been published in P. Thompson (ed), Myles Dunphy (1986).

Select Bibliography

  • D. Hutton and L. Connors, A History of the Australian Environment Movement (1999)
  • P. Meredith, Myles and Milo (1999)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2 Feb 1985, p 10
  • Dunphy papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Richard Gowers, 'Dunphy, Myles Joseph (1891–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 18 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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