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Stephen Murray-Smith (1922–1988)

by K. S. Inglis

This article was published:

Stephen Murray-Smith, by Alec Bolton, 1986

Stephen Murray-Smith, by Alec Bolton, 1986

National Library of Australia, 14474924

Stephen Murray-Smith (1922-1988), editor, writer, educator and man of letters, was born on 9 September 1922 at Toorak, Melbourne, son of Scottish-born William David Murray-Smith, indentor, and his Victorian-born wife Alice Maud, née Margrett. Stephen’s father joined his in-laws in a family business supplying Australian horses—’walers’—to the Indian army. His parents could comfortably send Stephen to board at Geelong Church of England Grammar School from the age of 12; but in 1938 the business ended abruptly when the Indian army mechanised. Stephen stayed at the school until 1940 thanks to a generous grandfather and an indulgent headmaster, (Sir) James Darling. Though admiring Darling’s liberalism, Stephen would recall being unhappy at school, ‘poor at games and finding escape in books’. But he was a cadet lieutenant and a house prefect, and played Henry V in his own production of the play. A contemporary remembers a burly figure striding around the school like a Roman emperor who had mislaid his toga. A housemaster, Stephen recalled, discerned in him ‘an overdeveloped sense of injustice, especially as it applied to myself’.

In 1941 Murray-Smith spent ‘a lacklustre and lonely year’ at the University of Melbourne and on 14 December enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. In July 1942 he embarked for New Guinea, where he served in a commando unit, the 2/5th Independent Company. His kit included a whistle carried by his father as an officer in World War I. ‘I shot at Japanese without compunction’, he wrote later. A diary recording vividly his service in New Guinea remains unpublished, though many extracts appear in a comrade’s history of the unit. Discharged as a sergeant on 15 February 1945, Murray-Smith returned to the university to complete an honours degree in history. In 1945 he joined, in turn, three political parties. His father nominated him for the Liberal Party of Australia. A friend, Geoff Serle, persuaded him to join the Australian Labor Party. They had met in a tent near Port Moresby in 1943, both, as Serle has written, ‘starving for like minds’. A new friend, Jeanette Noye, proposed him for the Communist Party of Australia, which became his spiritual home.

Murray-Smith was president (1946) of the Labour Club, at that time a united front of the left. He and another ex-serviceman, Ian Turner, would be remembered as the two great men of Melbourne student politics after the war. Turner combined activism with academic distinction. Murray-Smith graduated (BA, 1947) with lower second-class honours, though in extracurricular Politics I, II and III, as he put it wryly, he did quite well. In 1947 he remained on campus while studying education (Dip.Ed., 1948). He could be a stern, combative presence at meetings in the Public Lecture Theatre. There were comrades who felt him, as he knew, ‘overbearing, even a mild bully, with backsliders’. Some people found him pompous. Not so the admiring young Phillip Adams. Ponderous, yes, but saved from pomposity, Adams believed, by his sense of humour and his wife.

In 1948 Murray-Smith and Turner both married communist fellow-students who were also daughters of Jews from Poland. On 6 February in a civil ceremony in Melbourne Murray-Smith married Nita Bluthal. Nita’s family had arrived in Australia in 1938. Neither her parents nor Stephen’s approved of the match. The newlyweds sailed for Europe to escape family, to explore a wider world and above all, to see the ‘new democracies’ of eastern Europe. Both taught in tough London schools before joining, in June 1949, a number of Australian communists and fellow-travellers in Prague. He worked for the communist international news agency Telepress; she taught in a British Council school at the embassy of the United States of America. Murray-Smith continued to write for Telepress after they returned to Melbourne in April 1951.

After teaching briefly at Essendon High School, in 1952-58 Murray-Smith worked as organising secretary of the Australian Peace Council, which was under communist control. Now reconciled with both sets of parents, the Murray-Smiths lived at first with hers at North Carlton. On the head which had once worn a pale blue cap now sat a yarmulke. In 1952 they moved to a war service home at Mount Eliza, on land that was a gift from his parents. Here they raised a family and kept open house for comrades and friends. The train from Frankston to the city became a mobile study in which, among other activities, Murray-Smith worked on Overland, the quarterly magazine that was to become his greatest public achievement.

The first issue, in August 1954, was subtitled  ‘Incorporating The Realist Writer’, a slim bulletin launched under communist auspices in 1952, edited by Murray-Smith and having among its contributors Eric Lambert, David Martin and Frank Hardy. Each issue of Overland carried a message deriving from Joseph Furphy. ‘Temper democratic, bias offensively Australian’, Furphy had said of his novel Such Is Life. Shorn of the adverb (‘we had passed the point where we needed to be offensive to the British or anyone else’), the motto proclaimed the editor’s postwar discovery of Australian literature. Instead of an editorial, which would have had to accommodate board members whom Murray-Smith later described as ‘Soviet ideologues’, as well as those of more ecumenical bent, the editor wrote a column, personal and ruminative, headed ‘Swag’. He edited Overland for thirty-four years.

In 1957 Murray-Smith represented the Peace Council on a journey to Berlin, Prague, Moscow and Peking (Beijing). Troubled already by Khruschev’s denunciation of Stalin and the suppression of revolution in Hungary, he returned newly aware of ‘repression, dishonesty and sadism’ in the communist world. When Turner was expelled from the party for ‘revisionism’ in July 1958, Murray-Smith immediately resigned. The two friends won a struggle to keep Overland after capturing and hiding the list of subscribers.

Out of the party and out of a job, Murray-Smith found work in the Victorian Teachers’ Union from 1958 to 1961, then returned to the University of Melbourne (‘in the low-status area of education it is true’), first as a research fellow, studying the history of technical education in Australia, and from 1966 as lecturer, rising to reader by the time he was retired (he insisted on the passive) in 1987. The research project yielded in 1966 a Ph.D. and in 1987 a book with Tony Dare, The Tech: A Centenary History of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. In 1973-82 he edited the annual Melbourne Studies in Education. Nita taught English and history at Toorak College, a girls’ school at Mount Eliza, to be remembered gratefully by generations of pupils.

Meanwhile Stephen became an ‘emperor’, and Nita an ‘empress’, so described by family and friends who joined their annual exodus, beginning in 1962, to Erith, a tiny island in Bass Strait with no human inhabitants except when the Murray-Smith party was there for the summer. Late in life he listed his outside interests as books, booze and Bass Strait. Reflection on his own little empire prompted a comparative study of other remote islands—Cape Barren, Pitcairn, St Kilda, Tristan da Cunha—in hope that ‘the history of these communities, looked at together, could suggest many questions and answers about human social behaviour which might be applicable on a wider scale’.

Overland became, in its editor’s view, ‘a general outlet for creative and critical writing about Australia’, by no means all of it in realist mode. Peter Carey’s first story, about a young man who turned into a motor bike, had been rejected by a number of editors before it appeared in Overland; and Frank Moorhouse would cherish Murray-Smith’s enthusiasm for early pieces of short fiction. His imagined typical reader was a matron at a hospital somewhere near Port Hedland in Western Australia.

Disenchantment with communism did not induce despair. Murray-Smith retained a sanguine belief in ‘a humanist Australian social democracy’ while eloquently indignant about its shortcomings. In and out of Overland he championed a long and idiosyncratic list of causes, among them opposition to book censorship, to capital punishment, to the metrication of measurements and to the automation of lighthouses. He was founding president (1980-83) of the Australian Lighthouse Association. After reproaching the Australian Antarctic Division for being incompetent and unscientific, he was sent to Antarctica in the summer of 1985-86 as ‘a ministerial observer’ by the Commonwealth minister for science, Barry Jones, a friend from days when they had appeared together in Australian Broadcasting Commission radio quiz programs. His mission, described in the book Sitting on Penguins (1988), helped to transform the character of Australia’s presence in the region.

In 1981 Murray-Smith was appointed AM and his literary biography Indirections was published. He contributed twelve entries over twenty years to the Australian Dictionary of Biography. As an editor of books he was especially pleased to have restored Marcus Clarke’s His Natural Life to its original version for Penguin English Classics. ‘Old age will bring new summonses’, he wrote in 1987. In that year he published Right Words, a magisterial ‘Guide to English Usage in Australia’, and a corrected edition of The Dictionary of Australian Quotations, first published in 1984. Both books displayed a voracious curiosity, a sturdy common sense and a playful wit; he observed that ‘hyphens are used for many purposes, apart from the very useful one of making people’s names sound grander’.

Survived by his wife and their son and two daughters, Murray-Smith died of acute myocardial infarction on 31 July 1988 in his home at Mount Eliza and was cremated. The family buried his ashes under a cairn at Erith. He was large in body and spirit. ‘A Johnsonian figure’, said Barry Jones, ‘an encyclopedist who enriched our lives’. The poet Vincent Buckley spoke of his ‘generous decency’. Overland ‘has been getting better and better’, remarked one of the eight speakers at a memorial gathering in the old Public Lecture Theatre. On that occasion, reflected Jim Davidson, Clem Christesen’s successor at Meanjin, ‘Murray-Smith’s significance as an Australian literary figure seemed to be fully revealed for the first time’. A vast collection of his papers is held in the La Trobe Collection, State Library of Victoria. Friends of the Library administer an annual lecture in his honour. Geoff Serle gave the first, in 1992, entitled ‘Some Stirrers and Shakers of the 1950s and 1960s’, words which fit both the lecturer and the subject.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Dow (ed), Memories of Melbourne University (1983)
  • A. Curthoys et al (eds), Australians from 1939 (1987)
  • A. Pirie, Commando-Double Black (1994)
  • J. McLaren, Free Radicals (2003)
  • Overland, no 112, 1988, p 7
  • Corian, Dec 1990-Aug 1991, p 145
  • Australian, 17-18 Sept 1988, ‘Weekend’, p 2
  • H. de Berg, interview with S. Murray-Smith (ts, 1969, National Library of Australia)
  • B883, item VX69849 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

K. S. Inglis, 'Murray-Smith, Stephen (1922–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Stephen Murray-Smith, by Alec Bolton, 1986

Stephen Murray-Smith, by Alec Bolton, 1986

National Library of Australia, 14474924

Life Summary [details]


9 September, 1922
Toorak, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


31 July, 1988 (aged 65)
Mount Eliza, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

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