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Hubert Leonard Murray (1886–1963)

by H. N. Nelson

This article was published:

Hubert Leonard Murray (1886-1963), public servant and colonial administrator, was born on 13 December 1886 at Watsons Bay, Sydney, second surviving child and eldest son of Australian-born parents James Aubrey Gibbes Murray, a draftsman in the surveyor-general's office, and his wife Marian Edith, née Lewis. Sir Terence Murray was his grandfather. Educated at Fort Street Model School, Leonard joined the Commonwealth Department of Trade and Customs as a clerk in 1905.

His father was (Sir) Hubert Murray's half-brother, and that relationship was critical in Leonard's career and people's expectations of him. In 1908 Hubert, the new lieutenant-governor of Papua, asked that Leonard, in whom he had 'implicit confidence', be appointed without advertisement as his assistant private secretary. Leonard arrived in Port Moresby in February 1909. He became private secretary in 1913 and official secretary in 1916. In his many travels (along the coast and on inland patrols) with Hubert, he gained a detailed knowledge of Papua. A champion swimmer (said to have narrowly missed Olympic selection), a member of the Bondi Life Saving Club and a keen sailor, Leonard served as navigator in the government ship, Elevala, and as master of the Merrie England and the 150-ton Laurabada. He wrote Territory of Papua: Sailing Directions (Port Moresby, 1923 and 1930). Dignified and 'naturally pleasant', he was good looking, but, at middle height, overshadowed by his uncle Hubert. On 24 February 1915 at St John's Anglican Church, Port Moresby, Leonard married Pauline Anna Schomburgk, daughter of the deputy chief judicial officer C. E. Herbert.

From 1925 Leonard was a member of both the Executive and Legislative councils in Port Moresby. He was appointed C.B.E. in 1936. Hubert, who had turned 70 in 1931, wrote about retiring—if he could be sure Leonard would succeed him. Believing that his benign Papuan policies were at risk, Hubert nominated Leonard as a member of the committee to report to Federal parliament in 1939 on whether the territories of Papua and New Guinea should unite. Leonard argued effectively against amalgamation.

Hubert died in office in February 1940. Leonard was appointed administrator in December, on a salary of £1500 per annum. Mission leaders applauded the choice, hoping he would maintain the 'Murray tradition'. Although some businessmen had wanted a 'complete change' and the promotion of economic development by Europeans, they praised Leonard's personal qualities. When he outlined his policy, he said that he would 'keep doing . . . what the old Governor would have done'; but, even as he took office, the Papua he knew was being transformed. By March 1941 Murray informed Canberra that bush shelters had been built inland where civilians might seek 'doubtful security' if Port Moresby were attacked. On 5 December the Papuan administration publicly advised all White women and children to consider leaving the Territory. After the cabinet decision of 12 December ordering compulsory evacuation, Murray reported that he and his officials were working night and day in 'vile weather' to get the six hundred women and children away.

On 23 December Murray complained to the Department of External Territories about the powers being assumed by Brigadier Basil Morris, commandant of Australian troops in Papua and New Guinea. Morris—thinking he was acting on a cabinet decision—called up all able-bodied civilians on 24 January 1942, effectively closing businesses and civil government. When the minister for external territories instructed Murray to continue civil affairs, Morris refused to release sufficient men. Through the weeks of the dispute between Murray and Morris, both men were 'formally harmonious and correct'. After Port Moresby was bombed for the second time on 5 February, soldiers looted stores and defied officers and military police who proved 'worthless'. Cabinet finally decided that civil administration would end. Murray was told that he was subject to Morris, and to show Morris this instruction. Finding the transfer of power 'extremely humiliating', Murray conformed, but pressed for clear instructions before surrendering his full responsibilities. With the formal declaration of military rule on 14 February, he and his senior officials left for Australia next day, 'like whipped dogs', according to the government secretary H. W. Champion.

In 1945 (Sir) John Barry was appointed commissioner to inquire into the suspension of civil government in Papua. His report criticized Murray for frequently referring matters to Canberra during an emergency and for being prepared to close out-stations, thereby leaving villagers without police, courts and welfare services. The charge of ignoring the needs of Papuans on the eve of the Japanese invasion was damning for a man whose reputation rested on the Murray record of promoting the interests of Papuans. Murray's defence was that he thought Morris would be totally committed to fighting the Japanese, and that an orderly withdrawal from the out-stations was preferable to abandoning them. The ill discipline and looting by troops (an army matter) had led to the investigation, but the inquiry which Murray had welcomed left the impression that the civil authorities had been guilty of dereliction of duty.

Settled in Sydney, Murray could not understand why he was ignored by the Federal government, given his knowledge of Papua. He vainly attempted to argue his case, which he was convinced was 'righteous and strong'. Following an approach to General Douglas MacArthur, he was employed by the Allied Geographical Section, General Headquarters. He put his name forward in 1945 to become administrator of the Territory of Papua-New Guinea: in spite of support from the Public Service Association of Papua and others, he was passed over in favour of (Sir) Keith Murray. Leonard Murray wrote courteous complaints to the minister about the denigration of his reputation, the failure to pay him for his full five-year commission as administrator of Papua, and his fixed level of superannuation. He received no satisfaction. Predeceased by his wife (d.1958) and son, he died on 9 December 1963 at his Manly home and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Clune, Prowling Through Papua (Syd, 1943)
  • F. West, Hubert Murray (Melb, 1968)
  • F. West, (ed), Selected Letters of Hubert Murray (Melb, 1970)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1937-40, 3, p 711
  • Pacific Islands Monthly, no 11, Jan 1941, no 15, June 1945, no 35, Jan 1964
  • Papuan Courier, 13, 20, 27 Dec 1940
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Dec 1940
  • CP389/1, items 1, 24 and 25, AA series A1, item 1909/2763, A56/1, A452 1959/6182, A518 16/2/1, M2104/12 and 14, G69 (mfm) (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

H. N. Nelson, 'Murray, Hubert Leonard (1886–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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