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Murray, John Stewart (1922–1989)

by Gary Murray

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

John Stewart Murray (1922-1989), Indigenous rights activist, was born on 26 October 1922 at Lake Boga, Victoria, son of Baraparapa/Yorta Yorta/Wiradjuri man Sydney John Murray, labourer, and his Wamba Wamba/Dhudhuroa wife Hilda Zenobia, née Stewart, both born in New South Wales. Stewart—as he was known—had the tribal name of Werremander (whistling spear), handed down by his mother’s people; his cultural totem was Burapac (the catfish); his tribal totem was Wiran (black cockatoo with red feathers).

Educated at Lake Boga State School, Murray travelled surrounding districts as a teenager, rabbiting and fishing with his grandfathers, William Murray at Speewa and Barradapgournditch Rob Roy Stewart at Lake Boga. While living on The Island, a settlement on the Murrumbidgee River near Balranald, New South Wales, he visited his father’s relatives at Cummeragunja Aboriginal Station, rode his racing bicycle along the roads of the Riverina and hitched rides on goods trains. Moving to Melbourne in 1939, he worked in a bicycle factory at Brunswick.

Giving his occupation as stockman and motor mechanic, Murray enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 17 December 1941 in Melbourne. He served with the 2/12th Battalion in Papua (December 1942-March 1943 and August-December 1943), New Guinea (December 1943-May 1944) and Borneo (July-November 1945), suffering several bouts of malaria. In November 1945 he was promoted to lance corporal. Returning to Australia, he was discharged from the AIF in March 1946.

Back at Lake Boga, Murray worked as a painter. On 30 May 1947 at the Church of Christ manse, Northcote, he married Nora Nicholls, a niece of Pastor (Sir) Douglas Nicholls. Harsh conditions and the need for work led the couple to move to Melbourne in the mid-1950s, first to Camp Pell, a former military base in Royal Park, and then to a housing commission estate at Glenroy, where they were the only Aboriginal family. Murray lived the rest of his life in Glenroy and ownership of the house remained with his family when he died.

With Nicholls as his mentor, Murray became active in promoting Indigenous rights. He was a founding member of the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League in 1957 and was appointed its liaison officer in 1970 and director in 1972. Elected in 1969 to the new Aboriginal Affairs Advisory Council, he promptly resigned in protest at the State government’s impositions on its composition and proceedings. An early supporter of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, in 1970 he became convenor of the State Tribal Council and Victorian representative on the National Tribal Council. With others he founded the (Aboriginal) Legal Service in Fitzroy in 1972 and in 1974-75 worked as a senior liaison officer with the Victorian Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs.

A vigorous campaigner for land rights, Murray was appointed to the first Victorian Aboriginal Land Council in 1975. While administrator (1979-85) of Dandenong and District Aboriginal Cooperative Ltd he led claims for former Aboriginal reserve land in Collingwood and, more successfully, fought to retain the Lake Tyers and Framlingham reserves. He also worked for Aboriginal Hostels Ltd in Victoria. In 1982 he became Victoria’s second Aboriginal justice of the peace, and in 1984 was awarded the OAM. In that year he established the Victorian Aboriginal Funeral Service, reflecting his belief that to respect the dead was to respect the living. Driving the hearse himself, he ensured that Indigenous people who died in Victoria were returned home and given a decent burial.

Although sometimes uncomfortable with ‘pseudo-academic’ radicalism in the Aboriginal movement, Murray was often in the news. In 1985 he took on the Victorian Returned Servicemen’s League over the right of Indigenous soldiers to march together on ANZAC Day, rather than in their respective battalions. He and others organised their own public remembrance march at Fitzroy and Northcote. In 1988 he joined in petitioning the premier, John Cain, for just compensation and a treaty settlement; and in 1989 he was actively involved in a major dispute with Murray Downs Golf and Country Club, Swan Hill, over the desecration of Wamba Wamba burial sites.

Of medium height, John Stewart Murray kept fit and feisty. He was a keen sportsman and in 1974 became secretary of the newly formed Victorian All Stars Aboriginal Football Team. In 1987 he was named the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee’s Victorian of the Year. Always a prolific letter-writer and community activist, he spoke as ‘straight as a spear’ and never stopped being a soldier and warrior for his country and people. Survived by his wife and their three daughters and five sons, he died of myocardial infarction on 1 June 1989 at his Glenroy home and was buried at Lake Boga cemetery in his beloved Wamba Wamba country.

Select Bibliography

  • Sun-News Pictorial (Melbourne), 15 Aug 1984, p 11
  • Age (Melbourne), 3 June 1989, p 18
  • Koorier 3, 3 Sept 1989, p 3
  • B883, item VX68550 (National Archives of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Gary Murray, 'Murray, John Stewart (1922–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/murray-john-stewart-15824/text27023, accessed 18 November 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012