George Cannon McMurtry was born on 14 November 1867 at Camberwell, Surrey, England, the son of Randal McMurtry, an oil refiner, merchant and spectacle maker, and his second wife, Mary Elizabeth Cannon. George was the only surviving child of the marriage; his father died when he was five years old. His uncle and mentor, Charles Cayzer, fostered his interest in music and art and George later had a painting hung at the Royal Academy of Arts. He also had an aptitude for science. From 1885 to 1889 he attended the Normal School of Science and Royal School of Mines and graduated in chemistry and metallurgy. He was awarded a Chemical Society fellowship.
On 18 July 1889 at Kennington, Surrey, George McMurtry married Annie Harriett Petrie. In September the couple emigrated to Adelaide, Australia, where George was appointed instructor in assaying and metallurgy at the South Australian School of Mines and Industries. In 1890 he commenced research into new methods of sintering ores, and delivered a number of papers and lectures outlining these. He was soon in demand as a mine consultant and smelter designer and won international recognition for work in these fields. He published a book, Notes on the collection of precious metals as speiss in the smelting of antimonial concentrates, and a volume of 76 illustrations of cross-sections of metals supplemented the work.
McMurtry became assistant manager of the Wallaroo Smelting Works, South Australia, then designed and erected the Electrolytic Copper Refinery for the Great Cobar Copper Syndicate at Lithgow, New South Wales. From 1900 to 1907 he was manager of the Wallaroo works. In May 1907 the Maoriland Copper Company at Aniseed Valley, Nelson, offered him a position as general manager.
George McMurtry moved there in June 1907 and Annie and their three youngest children followed in August. The family settled at Mount Street, Nelson, from where George commuted to the mines, acquiring a reputation for the speed with which he drove his gig downhill. He supervised the construction of a smelter which was completed in July 1908. In assessing the potential of the valley mines he was disturbed to discover that prudent development had become secondary to share trading. Furthermore, company policy directed that rata logs be used to fuel the furnace, an inefficient method which exasperated him. At McMurtry's insistence coal was purchased instead, and the resulting blister copper excited shareholders. However, during consequent rapid trading by some company directors McMurtry became aware of fraudulent dealing. He forthrightly condemned the directorate and resigned.
Probably in late 1908 he was appointed manager of the 65-stamper Progress goldmine at Reefton and formed Copper Developments Limited. With ore from Aniseed Valley, he tried a new method of using copper to extract gold, but this proved unsuccessful and the attempt was abandoned. Meanwhile, Annie McMurtry purchased 15 acres at Richmond and had a house built. George bought 15 adjoining acres and planted 24 acres in orchard. The couple named their property Templemore. George left his job at Reefton around 1912 to develop his orchard, designing a hand-powered fruit grader and seeking ways to improve returns. That year he became manager of a new fruit cannery at Stoke and sent for his eldest son, Lawrence, to come from Australia to manage his profitable orchard.
Of stocky build, George was a Presbyterian and Freemason. Annie, taller, was Anglican, and a graceful hostess. In their attractive home, furnished in part with items from Randal McMurtry's London residence, they entertained a large circle of friends. George enthusiastically supported the decision of one of these, Thomas Cawthron, to endow a scientific institute, and his gift of scientific volumes was the first book bequest received by the Cawthron Institute. George Cannon McMurtry died at Templemore on 29 September 1918 survived by his wife, Annie, three sons and a daughter.