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Murdock, George Henry (1920–1987)

by Andrew Walker and Jonathan Richards

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

George Murdock, n.d.

George Murdock, n.d.

George Henry Murdock (1920-1987), stockman and actor, was born on 12 September 1920 at Barambah (later Cherbourg) Aboriginal Settlement, Murgon, Queensland, eldest of three children of Arthur Murdock, stockman, and his wife Daisy, née Collins. Daisy was exempted from the provisions of the Aboriginals Preservation and Protection Act in 1941, at which time Henry was also exempted. Exemptions gave Aboriginal people a measure of control over their own lives, however exemptions could be revoked. In 1942 Henry came to the attention of Cornelius O’Leary, the deputy-director of native affairs, for refusing to stay in employment and was removed to Palm Island, known as a ‘punishment place’. From that time until 1960 he was under the Act, which meant that restrictions were placed on where he could live and work and how he spent his money.

Best known for his parts in the films The Overlanders (1946), Bitter Springs (1950), Kangaroo (1952), The Shiralee (1957) and Dust in the Sun (1958), Murdock (often spelt Murdoch) also appeared in Eureka Stockade (1949) and The Phantom Stockman (1953). His part-time movie career echoed his full-time working life in the pastoral industry. He played the part of a stockman in The Overlanders, a drama about a wartime cattle drive from northern Australia, starring Chips Rafferty (John Goffage). Later Murdock was cast as a mediator between European settlers and Aboriginal landowners in Bitter Springs. The British makers of the film, Ealing Studios, wanted to pay him the same wage as European actors but were prevented from doing so by the Department of Native Affairs, provoking allegations of slave-like conditions for Aborigines in Australia.

In between roles Murdock returned to central Queensland, where he worked as a stockman. On 18 September 1948 at Woorabinda Aboriginal Settlement he married with Anglican rites Connie Jack, a domestic servant. In 1950 he declined an invitation to act in a London play and another film offer, stating that he ‘had recently been given the opportunity of settling down’ and was reluctant to go away. He later accepted the film offer, which was for Kangaroo, but the ‘grossly inadequate wage’ he and other Aboriginal actors received provoked another round of controversy: the Actors’ and Announcers’ Equity Association of Australia threatened to prevent its members from acting in Australian films until Aboriginal actors were paid the same wages as non-Aboriginal actors.

Rafferty, who appeared alongside Murdock in several films, held him in high regard. Speaking at a rally in support of Aboriginal rights in 1947, Rafferty described the pioneering Aboriginal actor as ‘thoroughly well educated’. Murdock carried a volume of Shakespeare with him ‘because he liked that author’, Rafferty claimed. In 1959 Rafferty wrote to the Queensland authorities, stating: ‘I would like to go on record with your office as saying that Henry has been a tower of strength to the company. He more than did his job with us and was cordially liked by everybody he met’.

Described as ‘tall and good looking’, Murdock spoke with a cultured voice, the result, he said, of speech training. Although he played only minor roles, he had a quiet, confident presence that suggested he was ‘a natural’ in front of the camera. Survived by his wife and four of their five daughters, Murdock died of coronary artery disease on 24 April 1987 at Rockhampton and was buried in Woorabinda cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Pike and R. Cooper (eds), Australian Film, 1900-1977 (1980)
  • Canberra Times, 13 Jan 1947, p 3
  • Mail (Adelaide), 21 May 1949, p 11
  • Argus (Melbourne), 15 Apr 1950, p 6
  • Centralian Advocate (Alice Springs), 4 July 1952, p 1
  • Department of Communities, personal file, SRS 4429/1/Box 365, 8H/60 (Queensland State Archives).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Andrew Walker and Jonathan Richards, 'Murdock, George Henry (1920–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/murdock-george-henry-15822/text27021, accessed 24 September 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012