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Sir Jack Keith Murray (1889–1979)

by Brian Jinks

This article was published:

Sir Jack Keith Murray (1889-1979), colonial administrator and teacher, was born on 8 February 1889 at Middle Brighton, Melbourne, son of Victorian-born parents John Murray, gentleman, and his wife Elinor Marie, née Grant. Jack's parents separated when he was 2. Elinor moved to Sydney, where she supported her son by working as a domestic servant. She was a liberal influence on Murray, who later wrote that he found it 'impossible to pay an adequate tribute to her'. They lived in several suburbs, and Murray attended eleven different schools while Elinor saved the money that enabled him to enter St Joseph's College, Hunters Hill, in 1904.

After an unsettled year at the University of Sydney in 1908 and two years as an agriculture cadet at Cowra, Murray resumed his studies at the university (B.Sc.Agr., 1914; B.A., 1915), served with the Sydney University Scouts (captain 1916) and was awarded a diploma of military science. On 31 May 1916 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. He sailed to Britain as adjutant in the transport, Kyarra, returned to Australia and was discharged from the A.I.F. on 3 January 1917. Re-enlisting on 26 November, he was based in France with the Australian Army Veterinary Corps from November 1918 to January 1919. The army gave him leave to attend an agricultural college in Scotland (he topped its diploma course in dairying) and to make vocational visits to North America on his way home. He was demobilized from the A.I.F. on 24 May 1920.

That year Murray was appointed lecturer in dairy bacteriology and technology at Hawkesbury Agricultural College, New South Wales. In 1923 he became principal of the Queensland Agricultural High School and College, Gatton. At Scots Church, Sydney, on 10 July 1924 he married with Presbyterian forms Evelyn Ernestine Pritchard Andrews. An attractive, intelligent woman, nine years his junior, she was—like her husband—a University of Sydney graduate in agriculture. Murray took up a concurrent appointment in 1927 as foundation professor of agriculture at the University of Queensland.

Gatton College, which was severely run down, was transformed into the centre of rural education in Queensland under Murray's direction. He fostered a network of senior officials, premiers and governors to help with the college's development. Murray was well regarded at the university, but the college was the centre of his influence. He lectured regularly on the need for peace, but, as the 1930s advanced, prepared for what he feared was inevitable war. Active in the Militia from 1935, he was promoted temporary lieutenant colonel in 1940 and given command of the 25th Battalion, Darling Downs Regiment. He spent the next three years administering army training establishments in Queensland (as temporary colonel from August 1941).

Murray looked the part. He was fit and wiry, and of middle height and upright bearing. His features were regular, though his nose was a little long. Rather heavy eyebrows accentuated his large, sensitive eyes. He wore a full moustache, clipped at the ends of thin, determined lips. His hair was thick and cut evenly, emphasizing his disciplined carriage. Murray was far more than an enthusiastic citizen-soldier. His sometimes difficult childhood, broad education and wartime experiences were reflected in a complex and even contradictory character.

Although no longer a Catholic, Murray remained deeply interested in Christian ethics. A scientist by profession, he showed a wide understanding of the humanities; he was a strong supporter of tradition, but he had liberal political views; while conscious of his status, he was Spartan in his personal tastes and habits. Murray was reserved in manner and sometimes called 'aloof', yet he was warm and considerate to those who were close to him. He spoke quietly and with authority, considering his words and rarely hesitating. A man of old-fashioned courtesy and impeccable manners, he listened closely and politely.

In 1943 Colonel Murray was sent to Melbourne where, in February 1944, he joined Alf Conlon's Directorate of Research (and Civil Affairs). After visiting Papua and New Guinea, he was appointed (December) acting chief instructor, Land Headquarters School of Civil Affairs, Canberra, where he trained personnel to administer Australia's territories. He transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 11 October 1945. As the Territory of Papua-New Guinea returned to civil administration, advisers of the minister for external territories, E. J. Ward, looked for an administrator who would pursue their reformist aims for the country. Murray was chosen from fifty-three candidates and sworn in on 16 October 1945.

Caught between the competing interests trying to shape postwar Papua-New Guinea—European settlers, missionaries, Canberra bureaucrats, colonial officials fearful of change, and the United Nations—Murray dealt with problems of reconstruction as they arose, paying special attention to the plight of the people in villages devastated by war. Each year he spent months visiting outlying districts, talking with village leaders and missionaries, encouraging his staff, and restoring confidence in the Australian administration. He obtained from Canberra neither policy directions nor decisions on his own proposals, which he set out in his Macrossan lecture at the University of Queensland in 1946, The Provisional Administration of the Territory of Papua-New Guinea (Brisbane, 1949). Action, he thought, could best be taken in Port Moresby, owing to the lack of interest in Australia. Few in Canberra agreed.

In pursuit of a 'new deal' for Papuans and New Guineans, Murray supervised the establishment of village courts and village councils, legislated for the creation of co-operative societies, developed extension courses in agriculture, set up aid-posts, instigated the training of indigenous medical officers and orderlies, and moved the workforce from an indenture system to one of free labour. The local White establishment found Murray's attitude to Papua New Guineans scandalous; when the Murrays invited Papuans to functions at Government House, some Whites boycotted them and Murray was dubbed 'Kanaka Jack'. He had a few able lieutenants, but the lack of support and understanding in Australia and Port Moresby gradually wore him down.

As a Labor appointee, Murray was held suspect by (Sir) Robert Menzies' government, and was offered lesser posts, which he declined. A major rift occurred in 1950 when Murray disagreed with an order from (Sir) Percy Spender, the new minister for external territories, that Papua New Guineans should not speak directly to a visiting mission from the United Nations. Spender was proved wrong, but the conclusion in Canberra was that Murray was overreaching himself. In 1951 (Sir) Paul Hasluck became minister and endorsed a programme of gradual development. His views on policy were similar to Murray's, but Hasluck was determined to take full control. In May 1952, without offering him the opportunity to retire or resign, he had Murray dismissed and replaced by (Sir) Donald Cleland.

Apart from an appointment (1956-57) as a Colombo Plan adviser in Ceylon, Murray lived in retirement at St Lucia, Brisbane. He was a member (1953-68) of the senate of the University of Queensland and, at Hasluck's request, became a mentor to young Papua New Guineans studying in Australia. In 1959 he was appointed O.B.E. The university awarded him an honorary doctorate of science (1967) and made him an emeritus professor (1975). On the recommendation of the recently independent (1975) Papua New Guinea government, he was knighted in 1978. He and Evelyn gave each other devoted support into old age, as throughout their marriage. Murray died on 10 December 1979 at Jindalee and was cremated with the forms of the Uniting Church. His wife (d.1984) survived him; they had no children.

Sir Keith Murray focused and epitomized reform in postwar Papua and New Guinea. So long as he was administrator, change remained the central issue. By the time he was removed from office, the pattern had been set, and the best policies of the following decades flowed from those he had supported and proposed.

Select Bibliography

  • L. P. Mair, Australia in New Guinea (Lond, 1948)
  • P. Hasluck, A Time for Building (Melb, 1976)
  • I. Downs, The Australian Trusteeship (Canb, 1980)
  • R. Cleland, Papua New Guinea (Perth, 1983)
  • Territory of Papua New Guinea, Annual Report, 1947-52
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 12 Dec 1979
  • Newcastle Morning Herald, 12 Dec 1979
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Dec 1979
  • B. E. Jinks, Policy, Planning and Administration in Papua New Guinea, 1942-1952 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Sydney, 1975)
  • J. K. Murray papers (University of Queensland Library)
  • External Territories files, A518, 1944-56 (National Archives of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Brian Jinks, 'Murray, Sir Jack Keith (1889–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 14 July 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


8 February, 1889
Brighton, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


10 December, 1979 (aged 90)
Jindalee, Queensland, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.