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Stuart Murray (1837–1919)

by Valerie Yule

This article was published:

Stuart Murray (1837-1919), by unknown photographer

Stuart Murray (1837-1919), by unknown photographer

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, rwls/u306

Stuart Murray (1837-1919), civil engineer and administrator, was born on 8 October 1837 in Dundee, Scotland, second son of James Murray, store-keeper, and his wife Jessie, née Simmers. Educated at Dundee High School, he studied engineering for two years at Madras College, St Andrews. Attracted by gold he went to Victoria in 1855 and continued his studies privately, qualifying with distinction as a land and mining surveyor, architect and civil engineer. After settling in Kyneton he practised these professions. For six years he was government mining surveyor in Daylesford, and in the early 1880s shared in a contract to construct the St Arnaud-Donald railway but lost financially. He also surveyed mining leases, settlements in northern Victoria under the Land Acts and for the Water Conservancy Board under George Gordon and Alexander. Black. He thus acquired valuable knowledge of the colony and a dedication to water conservation, sparked off by the sight of a settler's child crying for water in a dry summer.

The report by Gordon and Black was the basis of the 1881 Water Conservancy Act which established rural waterworks trusts for stock and domestic purposes. The largest project was the United Echuca and Waranga Waterworks Trust in 1882 with Murray as its engineer.

In 1884 Alfred Deakin appointed Murray secretary of the royal commission on water supply. It led to the epoch-making Irrigation Act of 1886 which restricted riparian rights of landowners by vesting in the Crown the sole right to the use and control of practically all surface waters, and provided for certain national works and for loans to trusts for promoting irrigation undertakings and for reorganization of the Water Supply Department, then attached to the Department of Mines. In reviewing reports of proposed irrigation schemes Murray recommended as essential to all planning of water resources a comprehensive system of river gaugings. Appointed engineer-in-chief of the new department in 1886, he introduced the system and put Victoria years ahead of European countries in this field and was later made Chevalier du Mérite agricole by the French government.

Under the new legislation ninety trusts were soon operating extensively but they ran into difficulties through the farmers' reluctance to pay for water. By 1899 a Relief Act had written off three-quarters of the trusts' liabilities, and in 1904 under the direction of George Swinburne, minister of water supply, new legislation was drafted and embodied in the 1905 Water Act. Control of irrigation development by local trusts was removed except for Mildura and centralized under a new instrumentality, the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission, set up under the Act which also, as urged by Murray, vested in the Crown the beds and banks of all streams despite opposition from landed interests. Although over retiring age he was appointed chairman of the new commission in 1906-08.

In 1886-1908 Murray had planned and supervised such major water conservancy works as the Goulburn-Waranga National Channel (Stuart Murray Canal), the upper Coliban reservoir supplying Bendigo, Laanecoorie Weir on the Loddon, the Little Coliban reservoir supplying Kyneton, the storage basin on the Kow swamp, intake works from the Murray River and an outlet aqueduct known as the Macorna Channel; he also had charge of Geelong's water supply and was supervising engineer of the works subject to government control. His greatest work was the Goulburn Weir, of which he was co-designer, with the Waranga storage and its channels.

In 1902 as Victoria's delegate to the interstate royal commission on the River Murray he was mainly responsible for the monumental report outlining development of irrigation and navigation on the river system, thus providing a basis for the interstate agreement reached in 1915. In 1909 he advised the South Australian government on river improvement works and was consulted by the New South Wales government on Sydney's water supply and Burrinjuck reservoir.

Murray was said to have advised or been active in all his professions of mining surveying, land surveying, municipal and water supply engineering. He was a member of all four boards, the founding 'father' of the Victorian Institute of Surveyors in 1874, a member of the University of Melbourne's faculty of engineering and of the Institution of Civil Engineers, London. After retirement he was busy with public affairs in Kyneton and translated French works on engineering and viticulture. In 1859 he had married Elspeth Stott from Aberdeen; they had ten children. A lifelong Congregationalist, he died at his home, Mornington, Kyneton, on 12 April 1919 and was buried privately, survived by three daughters and by three sons, two of whom were surveyors in the Water Supply Department.

Murray had a keen analytic mind, an exceptional memory and capacity for work that allowed great attention to detail, with a sense of perspective which enabled him to see each problem as part of the whole. He knew that his stern, imperious ways did not inspire affection or popularity but his main concern was to achieve the practical goals set by his sense of public duty.

Select Bibliography

  • A. S. Kenyon, ‘Stuart Murray and irrigation in Victoria’, Victorian Historical Magazine, 10 (1925)
  • Australian Surveyor, 1 Dec 1942
  • J. N. Churchyard, ‘Pioneers of irrigation in Australia … Stuart Murray’, Aqua, 8 (1956)
  • Weekly Times (Melbourne), 12 June 1897
  • Australasian, 4 Dec 1897
  • Age (Melbourne), 14 Apr 1919
  • private information.

Citation details

Valerie Yule, 'Murray, Stuart (1837–1919)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Stuart Murray (1837-1919), by unknown photographer

Stuart Murray (1837-1919), by unknown photographer

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, rwls/u306

Life Summary [details]


8 October, 1837
Dundee, Forfarshire, Scotland


12 April, 1919 (aged 81)
Kyneton, Victoria, Australia

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