Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

John Smith Murdoch (1862–1945)

by D. I. McDonald

This article was published:

John Smith Murdoch (1862-1945), by unknown photographer

John Smith Murdoch (1862-1945), by unknown photographer

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L61725

John Smith Murdoch (1862-1945), architect and public servant, was born on 29 September 1862 at Cassieford, Elgin County, Scotland, son of John Murdoch, farmer, and his wife Bathia, née Smith. Educated at Rafford School and Forres Academy he trained as an architect in Edinburgh and worked at Inverness, Glasgow, and with the Scottish railways before migrating to Victoria about 1884. He was a draughtsman in Queensland's Department of Mines and Works in 1885-87 then worked privately. Rejoining the public service, in March 1894 he became a draughtsman in the Department of Public Works, rising to district architect in 1902.

In July 1904 he transferred to the Commonwealth as senior clerk, public works branch, Department of Home Affairs. Senior assistant to the director-general Percy T. Owen from 1909, Murdoch was a member of the reviewing board for the national capital design competition, won by Walter Burley Griffin in May 1912. While overseas that year in connexion with plans for Australia House, London, he negotiated with the Royal Institute of British Architects on a proposed international competition for a parliament house and in Chicago, United States of America, called on Griffin. The two later fell out, partly over Griffin's belief that Murdoch was one of the departmental officers who was hostile to his capital design and partly over differences about conditions for the parliament house competition, which in any case was finally abandoned.

Promoted architect in 1914, and chief architect, Department of Works and Railways, in 1919-29, Murdoch was responsible for the design and construction of many early Canberra buildings, such as the provisional parliament house, the power-house and the Hotel Canberra. With (Sir) John Sulman and K. A. Henderson he assessed residential-area plans for Canberra in 1923. In 1926 he was an adjudicator of competitions for design of the Australian war memorials in Canberra and Villers-Bretonneux, France. As Commonwealth architect he was responsible for the design of the General Post Office, Perth (1923), Spencer Street Post Office and the High Court of Australia (1925, now Federal Court), Melbourne. He laid out Forrest Place, Perth, and Anzac Square, Brisbane.

Director-general of works from 1927, Murdoch transferred with the department to Canberra in 1929. He retired in September and was appointed to the Federal Capital Commission, serving until its abolition in April 1930. C. S. Daley, a close colleague greatly influenced by Murdoch, remembered him as a man of 'wide cultural and human studies', generous in his 'quiet and constant benefactions to charity, and assistance to public servants in misfortune'. He had been interested in Scouting and the Canberra Relief Society. A fellow (1914) and councillor (1925-30) of the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects, he was a fellow (1926) of the Royal Institute of British Architects and foundation member of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects. In 1927 he was appointed C.M.G.

Murdoch, a bachelor, died on 21 May 1945 at Brighton, Melbourne, and was cremated. A dour Scot, Murdoch had been mindful of the need to conserve public funds. Although in 1916 he had 'no particular enthusiasm' for the Canberra project, describing it as 'a sort of mythical thing' on which expenditure could not at the time be justified, during the period of inter-war development he made a positive contribution to its architecture and was responsible for significant Commonwealth buildings throughout Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • D. I. McDonald, ‘Architect J. S. Murdoch and the provisional parliament house’, Canberra Historical Journal, Mar 1985, p 18, and for bibliography.

Related Thematic Essay

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

D. I. McDonald, 'Murdoch, John Smith (1862–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 16 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Smith Murdoch (1862-1945), by unknown photographer

John Smith Murdoch (1862-1945), by unknown photographer

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L61725

Life Summary [details]


29 September, 1862
Cassieford, Elginshire, Scotland


21 May, 1945 (aged 82)
Brighton, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.