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William Emmett Murphy (1841–1921)

by J. Hagan

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

William Emmett Murphy (1841-1921), cabinet maker and trades hall official, was born on 12 May 1841 in Dublin, son of William Murphy, publican. Educated at the Christian Brothers' College, he was apprenticed at Liverpool to his uncle, a cabinet maker. In 1865 he migrated to Melbourne and became active in the Cabinet Makers' Association as one of its office-bearers. By 1877 he was secretary of the Trades Hall Committee which was then refusing to dabble in 'politics'. In 1882 the question of giving evidence to the factories and shops commission compelled the committee to reconsider its powers, and in June Murphy moved that the committee be reconstructed as the Trades Hall Council. He became its first secretary at a salary of £20. His main income seems to have been his pay as a sergeant of engineers.

As a Trades Hall official Murphy was energetic and successful. In 1882 he helped to organize and win the tailoresses' strike, becoming first secretary of their union. He also had a large part in the success of the bootmakers' strike in 1885. He often arranged private arbitration on disputes between the Employers' Union and trade unions. This method won him greatest success in 1886 after the Melbourne wharf labourers had been on strike for three weeks claiming an eight-hour day. As their advocate he won the case before a Board of Arbitration with Professor Kernot as president.

This triumph was not enough to protect Murphy from his enemies. In September 1886 he was removed from office as secretary and at a later council meeting some minor defalcations were alleged against him. His defence seems to have been successful and the matter was dropped. A more serious charge against him appears to have been his interference in the West Melbourne election to the detriment of the Liberal candidate. Long interested in parliamentary politics, he had become the secretary of the Anti-Chinese League in 1877 and a councillor in Graham Berry's National Reform and Protection League in 1878. As a delegate and secretary to the Trades Union Intercolonial Conference of 1884 he moved for a committee 'to watch over the legislative proceedings in all questions recommended by this Congress', and became one of its members. Next year in the Trades Hall Council he moved for the direct parliamentary representation of labour but withdrew after a three-night debate. In March 1886 he contested North Melbourne, losing by less than 200 votes. He tried again in 1889 but failed by only 60 votes.

By then Murphy had rejoined the Trades Hall Council, representing the Geelong Eight Hours' League; the council had agreed that his membership of the Chamber of Manufactures did not debar him. In 1886 he had become an auctioneer and estate agent, thus extending his functions as the secretary of the Operatives' Permanent Building Society, a post he had held while secretary of the Trades Hall Council. He still found time for its affairs and helped to organize the Tramways Union and its disastrous strike in 1888. In 1890 the council appointed him secretary of its Finance and Control Committee, which became responsible for managing the maritime strike in Melbourne and for schemes to deter potential strike-breakers and to employ strikers, but without success.

With the onset of depression Melbourne Trades Hall offered less scope for Murphy's energies, some of which he diverted to writing. Always interested in working men's education, he was a leading organizer of the fund required to match Francis Ormond's bequest in 1889 for a working men's college and was actively associated with it for twenty years. In 1888 he had largely contributed to The History of Capital and Labour in All Lands, and in 1896 published in Melbourne the first volume of his History of the Eight Hours' Movement; the second followed in 1900. Although his private papers contain drafts for several articles and pamphlets he does not seem to have published them, and after 1890 his only office in the Trades Hall was that of trustee. In 1869 in Melbourne he had married Louisa Walsh. Survived by his wife, two sons and two of his three daughters, he died at Daylesford on 26 February 1921 and was buried in the Melbourne general cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Argus (Melbourne), 1 Mar 1921
  • W. E. Murphy papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

J. Hagan, 'Murphy, William Emmett (1841–1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 May 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


12 May, 1841
Dublin, Dublin, Ireland


26 February, 1921 (aged 79)
Daylesford, Victoria, Australia

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