Page 1: Biography
Clerk, police magistrate, sub-sheriff
This biography, written by Sherwood Young, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.
Michael Murphy is said to have been born in Ireland probably in 1806 or 1807. Neither his parents' identities nor his birthplace are known. After travelling to Australia, he became a clerk in the Sydney Ordnance Office, then, between 1838 and 1840, clerk to the Parramatta Bench of magistrates, where he updated the handbook The Australian magistrate. In Sydney on 30 March 1840 Murphy was appointed justice of the peace by Governor George Gipps and later sworn in as a police magistrate for New Zealand. He arrived at the Bay of Islands aboard the Chelydra.
Lieutenant Governor William Hobson appointed Murphy police magistrate at Russell on 30 June 1840, but on 17 July he was appointed chief police magistrate at Port Nicholson (Wellington). Together with his deputy, police magistrate C. B. Robinson, he sailed from the Bay of Islands in the Britomart on 23 July to demonstrate to C. F. Lavaud and French settlers at Akaroa that the territory had been claimed by the British. As proof of sovereignty, they conducted court there on 11 August, even though there were no cases to be tried. Having accomplished his mission at Akaroa, and leaving Robinson behind, Murphy and his small detachment of New South Wales mounted police arrived at Port Nicholson on 3 September. As well as exercising executive authority while chief police magistrate, Murphy became sub-sheriff of the colony's largest settlement. Although the settlers were incensed at Hobson's decision not to make Port Nicholson the capital, they found Murphy a more likeable personality than Willoughby Shortland who, as colonial secretary in 1841, spent three months in Wellington attempting to establish an administrative system.
Murphy was soon on good terms with Colonel William Wakefield. He became a member of the first committee of the Pickwick Club, vice president of the Horticultural and Botanical Society and was elected to the exclusive Wakefield Club's controlling body.
Murphy was faced with many problems of social and racial control within his area of jurisdiction. Chosen for his skill as a negotiator and knowledge of the law, he was a considerable success in his role as chief police magistrate. But the behaviour of some of his constables created friction for him and Murphy stood by his men. This, and his defence of Maori rights, led to a campaign against him by settler leaders, whose own behaviour, including duelling, was the subject of police action.
Murphy's career was short-lived. He was expelled from the Wellington Club after being accused of cheating while gambling at cards at the Wakefield Club. Further scandal followed. Murphy was discovered in bed with the wife of one of his constables. Wellington justices of the peace refused to hear cases with him, and he was forced to resign on 20 January 1843 by Shortland, who had become administrator of the colony.
Shortland attempted to make Murphy clerk of the Nelson County Court, but the settlers resisted. Instead, he gained employment as a temporary government clerk in Auckland until his 'disgrace' forced him to resign yet again. Murphy died at Whampoa Anchorage, Canton, China, on 14 August 1852, while ship's purser on board the Canton.
Michael Murphy deserves to be remembered for being the government's representative in Wellington for almost all of the first three years of colonial settlement. Murphy Street in Thorndon is named after him. Bishop J. B. F. Pompallier read Mass in Michael Murphy's house at Port Nicholson on Christmas Day 1840.