Story: Murray, William Robert

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Murray, William Robert

1896–1990

Labourer, policeman, unionist

This biography was written by Graeme Dunstall and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

William Robert Murray was born at Kirkby Stephen, Westmorland, England, on 25 April 1896, the son of Elizabeth Carne and her husband, John Murray, a postman. The youngest of six children, Bill attended the local board school and completed a year of private secondary tuition. In 1912 he began work as a telegraphist and clerk at the post office in Bolton, Lancashire. After serving with the 55th (1st West Lancashire) Division in Belgium and France during the First World War, he decided to emigrate, narrowly choosing New Zealand ahead of British Columbia.

Murray arrived at Wellington in January 1920 with little money, and found work in a sawmill at Ruru, near Lake Brunner. After a brief spell in Auckland he became a farmhand at Elstow, near Te Aroha, for £3 a week. Restless and impatient, he returned to Auckland in April 1921. British Columbia still beckoned, but in the meantime, joining the New Zealand Police Force seemed the best chance to accumulate savings.

While his application was being considered, Murray worked bagging coal at the Mount Eden railyards and then as a Bycroft biscuit salesman. In December 1921 he commenced three months' training at the police depot in Wellington. The regime consisted of drill, first aid, and rote-learning of law and police regulations. Sharp, adroit with words, and with an excellent memory, Murray topped his class, and was appointed a constable in March 1922. Merit did not, however, place him at top of the class seniority list, which was determined alphabetically.

Posted to Wellington's Taranaki Street station, Bill Murray, like other young unmarried constables, lived in barracks, did 'uninspiring' beat duty on shifts, and experienced the pin-pricks of discipline – including being threatened with dismissal by the notorious Inspector W. B. McIlveney for smoking a pipe on duty. As a promising new recruit, whose height and manner did not mark him out as a policeman, Murray was given an occasional undercover job to catch illegal fortune-tellers and sly-groggers. Success and capability as a court witness brought his transfer to the Wellington detective office in November 1922 after eight months on the beat. He was reluctant to leave his colleagues in uniform and quickly found the long hours of detective work arduous. However, he abandoned his original intention to leave the force after 12 months. By this time he had met and begun courting Mary Josephine Rafferty, a policeman's daughter, whom he married at St Joseph's Church, Wellington, on 5 January 1927.

As was typical at the time, Murray received no formal training in detective work. Generally working alone, he learnt the craft of investigation, interviewing, and preparation of prosecution files while dealing with a wide range of offences. Appointed detective in November 1924, he was given increasingly complex cases, especially those involving false pretences and fraud. Between June 1922 and September 1937 he prepared 360 cases for prosecution, 93 per cent of which resulted in convictions. His skill and clarity in presentation brought compliments from Crown solicitors and judges. From commissioners of police he received commendations for exceptional work, most notably in securing the conviction of George Coats for the murder of Phillis Symons in 1931.

Yet Murray's enthusiasm for detective work waned. Commissioners appeared uninterested in improvements he recommended – such as a modus operandi system he had observed at Scotland Yard during a visit to England in 1924 to see his dying mother. With a young family and indifferent health, and recognising that seniority rather than zeal determined promotion, he looked for less exacting work. In December 1932 he applied for uniformed duty at a country station. However, his superiors deemed him too valuable to lose.

Throughout his career Bill Murray's diplomatic manner and dialectical skills marked him out amongst colleagues who esteemed his integrity, loyalty and competence. In 1936, when the new minister in charge of police, Peter Fraser, signalled support for the establishment of a police union, he played a key role in forming the second New Zealand Police Association, and became its first president in October that year. Under Murray's leadership the association provided a new impetus for change within the force, promoting better working conditions and a stronger sense of occupational community among its membership. Although Commissioner Denis Cummings was sensitive to any challenge to his authority, and rank-and-file expectations exceeded the concessions Fraser and Cummings were prepared to make, Murray was an astute and eloquent advocate, maintaining the confidence of both sides – most notably in securing a six-day, 48-hour working week in 1937.

Promoted to detective sergeant in September 1937, Murray stood down as president of the Police Association a year later, despite pleas from delegates to remain. He was transferred to take charge of the Hamilton detective office in December 1941, and was promoted to senior detective in July 1945. He became a sub-inspector in October 1950, and the following month took control of the criminal investigation branch at Christchurch. Promoted to inspector in August 1952, Murray took charge of the Gisborne police district in February 1953, and became a member of the police examination board.

Soon after the secretary of justice, Samuel Barnett, became controller general of the Police Force in May 1955, he appointed Murray to a three-member committee to investigate police training. Its report provided the blueprint for major changes, in particular the establishment of the New Zealand Police Training School at Trentham, which opened in February 1956. Also in 1955, Murray represented the department at a commission of inquiry into police conduct concerning the arrest of two young Maori; his 'skilful and balanced' address helped to deflect criticism of the police. In his reform of the police department, Barnett valued Murray's sturdy support; he once wrote that he wished he could speak as 'fluently and upsettingly' as the mild man from Cumbria. Murray was promoted to superintendent in March 1956, and transferred the following January to control the Auckland criminal investigation branch; he became chief superintendent in charge of the Auckland district in September 1958.

With the introduction in 1959 of an earlier retiring age of 60 (which he had advocated 22 years earlier), Bill Murray, then 63, began a long and active retirement at Orewa. He later moved to Gisborne, where he died, aged 93, on 31 March 1990; he was survived by his wife, Mary, three daughters and a son.