Page 1: Biography
Murray, George Thomas
Civil engineer, surveyor
This biography, written by Peter Lowe, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996, and updated in April, 2000.
George Thomas Murray, the son of Agnes Currie and her husband, George Murray, a farmer, was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, on 4 November 1859. The family farmed at Green Island Bush. Murray attended Oamaru Grammar School and was dux in 1876. In 1877 he became a cadet with the Dunedin partnership of Barr and Oliver, civil engineers and surveyors. At the University of Otago he studied under the newly appointed professor of mineralogy and metallurgy, G. H. F. Ulrich, qualifying as a surveyor in 1880.
George Murray then took the unusual step of travelling to the University of Edinburgh for further study in late 1881. He attended the classes given by the flamboyant professor of engineering, Fleeming Jenkin, as well as studying geology under the highly respected brothers Archibald and James Geikie, and natural philosophy under Peter Guthrie Tait. While in Britain Murray was able to obtain some practical engineering experience on the preliminary works of the Forth rail-bridge project, and on railway construction in the south of England. In 1884 his employer sent him to Siam (Thailand) to investigate and report on proposed railway projects. While there he contracted severe malaria, and when the assignment was completed he returned to New Zealand in 1886.
Murray's first employment on return was with the Mines Department in some of the least accessible parts of Marlborough, Nelson and south Westland. This work involved surveys such as the route of the proposed roads from Collingwood to Karamea, and from Jacksons Bay to the Hollyford Valley. In 1889 he transferred to the Crown Lands Department and surveyed proposed roads in the Pahiatua and Palmerston North districts. By 1893 he was assisting J. T. Stewart at the Wanganui River Trust. About this time Murray made a return journey to Britain. On 28 April 1897 at Wanganui he married Maude Amelia Lewis; he was 37, she was 19.
In the late 1890s Murray was the district road engineer at Wanganui. He was assigned to Taranaki and the adjoining districts and quickly built up an intimate knowledge of the region, much of it acquired from arduous journeys on foot or horseback. This knowledge was put to good use in expanding the roading system, determining the route for the proposed Stratford–Taumarunui rail link, and for parts of the North Island main trunk rail line. In 1909 the Roads Department and the Public Works Department were merged, adding substantially to Murray's responsibilities. He was transferred to Wellington to the head office of the Public Works Department as staff engineer in 1915. In 1916 he was transferred again, to Auckland as district engineer. The biggest project then in the construction phase was the North Auckland section of the main trunk line, and many difficult problems tested the qualities of Murray and his staff. The Waiuku branch rail line construction was also begun during his tenure in this post.
Promotion to inspecting engineer came in 1920 and with it transfer back to Wellington. Murray was a member of the Rotorua–Taupo Railway Commission in 1922. In 1923, with the Main Highways Act in place, Murray was chosen to head its implementation. He was also appointed a member of the first Main Highways Board and served in both these capacities until he retired in 1925. For some years after his retirement he maintained a consulting practice in Auckland, where he was a member of the Auckland Town Planning Institute.
Murray was a foundation member of the New Zealand Institute of Surveyors in 1888, was elected a corporate (associate) member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, London, in 1895, and in its founding year (1914) was a member of the New Zealand Society of Civil Engineers (later the New Zealand Institution of Engineers). Most presidents of the society served during their working careers; Murray was elected president when in retirement, in 1930–31. At the annual conference of the society in 1931 he gave a presidential address on 'Highway development'. He died at Auckland on 25 July 1947 at the age of 87, and was survived by his wife and three sons.
In a lengthy career, George Murray made his mark in several facets of New Zealand's civil engineering. He was irrepressible and was deflected by few obstacles, human or geographical. He is commemorated in the G. T. Murray Memorial Fund and Award, offered for annual competition by the Auckland branch of the New Zealand Institution of Engineers.