Where do you want to fly?
Editor’s note: This is a submitted piece from Peter MacIver, a high school English literature teacher in Australia. Involved with researching decorated cricket player Billy Murdoch for a book, MacIver became fascinated with the unknown story of Billy’s father, Gilbert Murdock, who is buried in Burns Hill Cemetery in Waynesboro. Through extensive research, which included the help of Jim Fritzinger of Grove-Bowersox Funeral Home and Doug Stine of the Waynesboro Historical Society, MacIver has documented the life of Gilbert Murdock. This article explains Gilbert’s sprawling story, linking a famed cricket family in Australia to a cemetery in Waynesboro. Gilbert’s son, Billy, was recently inducted into the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame and the book documenting Billy’s life, written by cricket historians Richard Cashman and Ric Sissions, has officially been launched. Note the spelling of Murdoch and Murdock varied from country to country, and the article appears as submitted by MacIver, free of edits.
A great Australia cricketer, a great Australian captain
On Monday 20 February 1911 The Argus (a Melbourne newspaper) reported upon the collapse and death of W. L. (Billy) Murdoch, a man described as ‘a great Australian cricketer and a great Australian captain’. He collapsed during a cricket match between Australia and South Africa at the Melbourne Cricket Ground and died shortly after. Billy Murdoch was one of the most famous cricketers of the Victorian era and his colourful life was widely reported in the press of the time. Well known Australian cricket writers Richard Cashman and Ric Sissons have used this wealth of material to write about Murdoch’s life in “Billy Murdoch – Cricketing Colossus.” I was privileged to assist with the research for this book.
Whilst Billy Murdoch’s life was, for the most part, quite easy for us to research, one feature of his family life seemed to be something of a mystery and that was information about his father. All the sources pointed to the fact that his father was dead prior to Billy’s marriage in 1884, yet it was impossible to find any information about his death or burial. This was inconceivable given that by 1884, Billy Murdoch was one of the most famous Australians alive. Careful research by Ric Sissons as well as a spot of good luck provided the answer, Billy’s father was not dead in 1884. He was very much alive and living in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania.
This article aims to tell the story of Billy Murdoch’s father and why his Australian wife and children hid the truth about him.
Waynesboro, Pennsylvania – 1885
On 28 May 1885, The Village Record (a Waynesboro newspaper) reported the death of Gilbert Murdock of the firm Murdock and Pence. He was described as ‘an active and enterprising businessman’ and ‘comparatively speaking a new comer in our midst.’ The paper went on to say that he had been buried in Burns Hill Cemetery.
This brief little story in a provincial newspaper praising the deceased is not in the least unusual and similar obituaries must have been replicated millions of times over the years and all around the world when a local worthy passed away. What is interesting about Gilbert Murdock’s passing is not that his death was noted in the local paper, but that there was not even the slightest hint of the extraordinary life he led. Gilbert’s life had taken him from Annapolis, Maryland to Bendigo, Australia and connected together events as disparate as the Mexican American War and the English summer game of cricket’s most famous rivalry, the Ashes, which is played between Australia and England. Of course, it was highly unlikely that The Village Record would have known much about Gilbert’s past other than that he came from a respected business family in Maryland and what Gilbert had told the Annapolis Examiner about his time away from that city. The reasons for this will become clear as his story is told.
At this stage, it is worth noting that the names Murdock and Murdoch are interchangeable throughout this story. There are two likely reasons for this. The first being that in longhand writing the “h” was often mistaken for a “k”. It has also been suggested that the Scottish pronunciation of Murdoch has a hard ‘ock’ sound and in cases such as Gilbert’s grandfather who was illiterate and came from Scotland, this may explain the name becoming Murdock. In America, Gilbert Murdock’s surname was always spelt as Murdock, whilst in Australia, it almost always appeared as Murdoch. I have followed the spelling of his name as it appeared in the documents and newspaper stories used to tell the story of his life.
Company F of the Hughes’ Maryland and District of Columbia Volunteers
Gilbert Murdock was born at Anne Arundel in the state of Maryland in 1826, the son of William Murdock. His grandfather Gilbert Murdock (Murdoch) came to America from near Elgin in Scotland in 1770 and married Elizabeth Lusby, daughter of an old Maryland family who first came to Maryland in 1662 from England.
A lengthy series of court cases (recorded in Reports of Cases Decided in the High Court of Chancery of Maryland, 1811 – 1832, Volume 2) involving the Murdock family give an idea of the character of Gilbert’s grandfather. Elizabeth Murdock described her husband Gilbert as an “illiterate and, unhappily, an intemperate man” later clarifying that by intemperate she meant, “that the expression might be construed to import the excessive use of spirituous liquor, which was not her meaning; but that what she said was meant to be expressive of his violent character and intemperate passions.” Whilst Gilbert never seemed to be a violent man, he may well have inherited his grandfather’s ‘intemperate passions.’
Gilbert’s father, William Murdock, was born in 1797 and was a tavern keeper by trade. He married Juliet Sheppard on 16 October 1819. The couple had ten children, Basil, Gilbert, Elizabeth, Juliet, George, Rebecca, Martha, Permilia, Eliza and Margret. Philip Beal and his daughter Dyan Speaks, descendants of Martha Murdock, kindly contacted me in response to letters requesting information about the Murdock family which had been placed in the Annapolis Capital Gazette and the Waynesboro Record Herald in September 2016. Philip has since passed away.
On July 7 1847, Gilbert volunteered for service in the Mexican-American War of 1847/48. He enlisted as a private with Company F of the Hughes’ Maryland and District of Columbia Volunteers. Gilbert’s commanding officer was George Wurtz Hughes, who, prior to the war, was a captain in the Topographical Engineers. Gilbert also served under William Emory, who, from 1848, Emory directed the work that set the new boundary between Mexico and the United States.
A surprise victory
Following his discharge as a “third” corporal on July 18 1848, Gilbert travelled to California where he settled in the town of Monterey which had now come under American control. In The Alta California of 14 April 1851, Monterey is described by the paper’s correspondent Veras as having a population of “about 1600” and being “about two-thirds Californian and old foreigners, inter-married with their families; the rest Americans and newcomers of the last two years.” In an interesting observation on law and order in Monterey at this time, Veras, noted on the subject of cattle thieving that, “The people in our county are now getting thoroughly aroused by these scoundrels, and the next one caught won’t be taken to the judge.”
One of those responsible for law and order in Monterey at this time was another Mexican War veteran William Roach, County Sheriff between 1850 and 1853, who was described as “the political czar of Monterey” in the September 1966 edition of Noticias del Puerto de Monterey. He was a veteran of a New York regiment and had arrived in Monterey at much the same time as Gilbert Murdock. After a short time gold prospecting Roach returned to Monterey where he became County Sheriff and also the most influential member of the Democratic Party in Monterey. He was a lead protagonist in the infamous Roach- Belcher feud and has also been accused of taking bribes, extra-judicial killings and stacking juries. Roach was clearly an influential and unpleasant aspect of life in Monterey in the early 1850s.
In the American Census of 1849/1850, Gilbert Murdock is recorded as living in a hotel in Monterey along with William Curtis with whom he ran a store and auctioneering business. Curtis was a well-known businessman and entrepreneur in Monterey and also an early owner of Mission Ranch which now belongs to the famous actor Clint Eastwood. During this period Gilbert was also appointed as Harbour Master (he would later claim that he also worked at the Custom House). It would seem to have been common for residents of Monterey (in the early days) to have more than one job.
Gilbert Murdock was also a member of the Democratic Party and in a surprise 1851 election victory in January of 1851, he became the second ever Mayor of American Monterey replacing Philip Roach who had been the first to occupy that position. Whilst newspapers of the time may have regarded the Democrat victory as a surprise, hindsight suggests that given the number of war veterans who had settled in the town and then organised themselves politically, they were very likely to have political success. It can only be assumed that Gilbert Murdoch had aligned himself with his fellow veterans and that he most likely had to have William Roach’s approval to stand for the position of Mayor given Roach’s political influence. His election as Mayor also suggests that Gilbert was mixing with some pretty unsavoury characters. Associating with persons of dubious morality or indeed, his own moral standards are something that would eventually see Gilbert undone.
Gilbert was elected for a term of one year and seems to have been a competent administrator during his time in office. The Noticias del Puerto de Monterey of September 1961 indicates that he was paid $100 per month during his time as Mayor. This handsome wage also suggests that the city fathers were overspending, as this edition of the Noticias also noted that “they lost the town’s public property, Colton Hall, and the jail property at Pearl, Tyler and Munras” due to debt. On 24 September 1851, an Andrew Randal filed a complaint against the city of Monterey for unpaid debts. One of these unpaid debts was for “An order for the City Treasurer to pay to Gilbert Murdock for one month’s services as Mayor of Monterey the sum of $100.” Whilst the claim for Murdock’s payment was eventually struck out in court, the city did lose the town’s public property, Colton Hall and the jail.
The daughter of two English convicts
In the latter half of 1850 or the first six months of 1851, Gilbert made the acquaintance of Susanna (sometimes spelt Susannah) Flegg of Tasmania. Susanna was the daughter of two English convicts, Charles Robert Flegg (he called himself Robert after finishing his sentence), who had arrived in Tasmania on 30 April 1822 and Mary Farley who had arrived in Tasmania on 8 February 1824. Following their marriage (they were still convicts when they married) and subsequent release, Robert Flegg set up a cobbler’s shop on Liverpool Street in Hobart.
The business prospered and by 1850, the Fleggs were in a position to take advantage of the gold rush in California. A shipment of goods under the name of Robert’s son Charles was sent on the former whaling ship Elizabeth Starbuck with the intention of selling these goods at the inflated prices of the Californian gold rush market. As recorded in The Courier (a Tasmanian newspaper) on 9 February 1850, Flegg’s goods were, ‘2 casks butter, 1 cask nails, 1 case jams, 1 doz boots, 1 case pickles, 1 box soap, 1000 palings and 2 wooden houses.’
Charles Flegg had gone to California in 1849 for the gold rush and possibly to sell goods shipped to him by his father. Accompanying the goods (presumably to keep an eye on them and to visit Charles) were Mary (his mother) and her 14-year-old daughter Susanna as well as Mary’s brother-in-law, William Fairclough Lloyd.
The trip to California aboard Elizabeth Starbuck was a nightmare. The captain was both unlicensed and incompetent and the ship barely seaworthy. The voyage was a catalogue of disasters, including a mutiny by the crew and passengers near the Leeward Islands. Whilst the original destination of the ship was San Francisco, the Elizabeth Starbuck barely made it to Monterey, docking on 20 June 1850. The ship was soon declared unseaworthy and later sank in the harbour to become part of the wharf.
On or soon after 20 June Gilbert must have met and started courting Susanna. Whilst it can never be established, the two most logical explanations for how they met would be, that in his capacity as Harbour Master, he met the family when the Elizabeth Starbuck docked in Monterey, or that the goods on board the ship were taken to be auctioned at the auction house and store which he ran with William Curtis and the couple met there. However they met, Gilbert and Susanna were married at some time in late 1850 or early 1851. The date for the marriage cannot be definitely identified as the marriage records for this period have been lost.
Gilbert’s term as Mayor should have finished in January 1852, but he left office on 12 May 1851 after serving for only four months. The most likely reason for this is that he had married Susanna, she was pregnant, and with gold being found in Australia, Gilbert decided to leave for Australia with the Fleggs. Susanna was 15 years old and Gilbert was 25 when they boarded the French barque Courier bound for Honolulu in the Sandwich Islands and travelling from there to Sydney on the barque Lima. Also travelling were Susanna’s mother Mary and her brother Charles. From Sydney, Mary and her heavily pregnant daughter travelled on to Hobart. Gilbert and Charles stayed in Sydney setting off for Hobart aboard the brig Triton on October 27.
‘The thundering voice of Murdoch’
Gilbert arrived in Hobart on November 9, just in time for the birth of his first son on 10 November 1851. The boy was named Gilbert Curtis Murdoch and it is not unreasonable to assume that the name Curtis was in honour of his former business partner in Monterey.
Gilbert did not stay long in Hobart to celebrate the arrival of his son. He left for Melbourne aboard the schooner Creole on December 12. He was bound for the Victoria goldfields. Travelling with him were his brother-in-law Charles Flegg and John Armstrong a saddler from Hobart. Once in Victoria, they met up with Frederick William Lewis, from the City of Norwich public-house on Argyle Street in Hobart.
February 7 1852, saw an article with the heading Melancholy Accident appear in the Hobarton Guardian. It reported:
‘We regret to find by a letter from Mr. Flegg, son of Mr. Flegg of Liverpool-street, that a melancholy and fatal accident has occurred at the diggings. Messrs. F Lewis, J. Armstrong and Gilbert Murdoch, were excavating in a hole when the earth fell in, killed Mr. Lewis, crushed Mr. Armstrong’s breast in, and broke his back, covering Mr. Gilbert up to his neck, fortunately without injury. All the persons were well known here, and one of the unhappy sufferers respectably connected. Mr. Flegg, who was absent at the time, states that they refused £200 for the hole and would not take £500.’
Other versions of this story noted that Gilbert was the former Mayor of Monterey and spelt his surname Murdock.
After the accident, Gilbert appears to have returned to Hobart and there is evidence to suggest that he travelled back to Melbourne aboard the schooner Creole along with a Mr and Mrs Flegg (possibly his brother-in-law Charles and wife) on 8 May 1852. It must be assumed that Susanna and young Gilbert Curtis had remained in Hobart.
By mid-1853 Gilbert had settled in Sandhurst (now Bendigo) where he became a partner in the auctioneering business of L. Macpherson and Co. At this stage, it should be pointed out that the town Gilbert settled in was named Sandhurst by the colonial administrators, although it was always called Bendigo by the locals. The name was officially changed to Bendigo in 1891. The names Sandhurst and Bendigo have been used as they appeared in articles of the time.
The fact that Gilbert settled in Sandhurst would suggest that the accident at Fryer’s Creek had made him realise it was easier to make money from selling to the miners than by actual mining. Lewis Macpherson had arrived in Sandhurst in 1852 and went on to be regarded as a leading citizen of the town prior to his early death in 1867. Macpherson was also a prominent supporter of miner’s rights and the first man to establish a cricket club in Sandhurst. His obituary noted that Macpherson and Co had for many ‘held pre-eminence’ in the auctioneering business in Sandhurst. Clearly, in 1853, Gilbert had found himself in a business partnership which promised success.
Gilbert was also one of 5000 signatories of the Bendigo Goldfields Petition which was put together in mid-1853. His partner Lewis Macpherson was an activist for the rights of miners on the Victorian goldfields and Gilbert signed as ‘G. Murdoch auctioneer.’ His signature can be found on image 5 of the State Library of Victoria’s digital record of the petition which outlined the diggers’ grievances against the colonial government and called for a reduced licence fee, improved law and order, the right to vote and the right to buy land. The petition was signed by diggers at Sandhurst (Bendigo), Ballarat, Castlemaine, McIvor (Heathcote), Mount Alexander (Harcourt) and other diggings, and was presented to Governor Charles La Trobe on 1 August 1853. Most of the requests on the petition were rejected leading to continued dissatisfaction on the goldfields and eventually to the Eureka uprising at Ballarat on 3 December 1854; an important event in Australian political history.
The goldfields in Victoria had the reputation of being rather lawless places and Gilbert would have found this to be the case upon his arrival at Sandhurst in 1852/53. In 1853 the appointment of a rather eccentric Police Magistrate, Lachlan McLachlan changed this and brought law and order to the town. The Bendigo Advertiser of 7 August 1885 described the effect he had.
‘Although his severity was greatly complained of, and there can be no doubt he committed many errors in his time in his anxiety to discharge his responsible functions with effect, he rendered the community incalculable service in ridding it of bad characters, to whom his name became a terror. The whole fraternity of thieves and good-for-nothings stood in awe of “Bendigo Mac,” as they called him, and were forever anxious to place themselves out of reach of his jurisdiction. Thus, whilst on neighbouring goldfields robberies and outrages of a most audacious character were constantly being committed, Sandhurst enjoyed a comparative immunity from such evil-doings, for which its inhabitants had certainly to thank Mr. McLachlan.’
Once settled in Sandhurst, Gilbert involved himself in various community activities with newspaper stories from the period showing him as one of the organisers of a meeting for the purpose of electing officials for the town’s first ever race-meeting, one of several citizens involved in the Bendigo Freehold Land Society which was set up to ensure that land allotments were sold at a reasonable price in the rapidly developing town and also serving on a committee to ensure the integrity of an art-union fundraiser.
An amusing piece about Sandhurst in the Sydney Morning Herald of 13 November 1854 mentioned Gilbert in his role as auctioneer, ‘Busy business-like men rushed about it (Sandhurst) as usual with all the frantic fervidness of men engaged in speculation, until they really knew not whether they stood upon their heads or their heels. The thundering voice of Murdoch loudly proclaiming at auction the meats of the animal of which he was disposing, and of which he knows nothing, was heard as loud as ever.’
By the end of 1854, Gilbert seemed to be in a very good position. He was a partner in a successful auctioneering business and settled in a thriving and prosperous gold mining town. On 18 October the year can only have got better with the birth of his second son, William Lloyd (Billy) Murdoch at the family residence, Bloomfield Cottage in Sandhurst. Billy’s forenames were presumably to honour Gilbert’s brother-in-law William Fairclough Lloyd with whom Gilbert was on good terms. Billy Murdoch would go on to become one of the most famous cricketers of the Victorian period and also captain of the Australian team that created the legend of The Ashes in 1882.
‘A mere question of credibility’
In November 1855 a notice in the Bendigo Advertiser announced the dissolution of Gilbert’s partnership with Lewis Macpherson. There was no indication as to why this happened, although, on December 13, the following short report appeared indicating that Gilbert had decided to take up his father’s trade of running a tavern. The same newspaper also reported in early December that his auctioneering license was renewed. This renewal may well have been a precaution in case the hotel deal failed.
‘The Royal Hotel.—This hotel has changed hands within the last few days, and we understand that Mr. Gilbert Murdock, so long of the firm of L. Macpherson and Co., auctioneers is the new proprietor. As Mr. Murdock is an old resident on Bendigo, well known and generally respected, there is every reason to believe that he will continue to secure the patronage so liberally accorded to the Royal Hotel.’
It is worth noting that the report says that Gilbert was ‘generally respected’ as this implies that there were those in town who had a reason not to respect him. Given what was to happen later, it may well be that Gilbert’s ‘dubious ethics’ were apparent to some in Sandhurst.
Things started to go wrong for Gilbert late in December 1855, when he appeared in court in Hobart. The case involved a Mr. De La Hunt who, (when in Monterey) had left goods with Gilbert to sell. Despite receiving an account for sale of the goods sent by Murdoch from San Francisco, De La Hunt had not been paid for the goods. Subsequently, he met Gilbert in Hobart and had been repeatedly promised payment, but this had not happened. In his defence, Gilbert claimed that ‘in his letters (he) had never in any way recognised the account sales, but stated that he presumed before his letters reached Mr. De la Hunt, that he had received his money from Mr. Curtis of the house at Monterey.’ Charles Flegg, Gilbert’s brother-in-law, appeared for Gilbert and claimed that he had been in the store where he sometimes helped out with the books and that the goods were not sold when they left Monterey. In summing up, Mr. Justice Horne remarked that ‘it was a mere case of credibility.’ The jury found for De La Hunt and Gilbert was ordered to pay him damages of £36 11s. 11d.
This loss of the court case may well have financially undermined Gilbert’s efforts to complete the deal for the Royal Hotel as the Bendigo Advertiser of 1 January 1856, reported that ‘In a recent issue we stated that this hotel had changed hands and that Mr. G. Murdoch had become the proprietor. This is not the case. The preliminary arrangements had been made for the disposal of the property by Mr. Hemingway, but the actual transfer did not take place, and we understand that Mr. Hemingway has decided upon continuing in the house and business himself.’
Things got worse for Gilbert when a court case relating to his failed attempt to purchase the hotel was reported in the Bendigo Advertiser on 10 January 1856. Gilbert, believing he was about to take possession of the hotel, ordered ‘some ale and brandy, to the value of £58 8s, giving a cheque on the Bank of Victoria, which was dishonoured.’ The case, which was not actually against Gilbert, ended with the judge suggesting the claimant sue Gilbert as a way of recouping his money. There is no evidence to suggest that Gilbert was sued.
Given the court case in Hobart and the dishonoured cheque, Gilbert’s reputation was very likely to have been ruined in Sandhurst and as a result, he appears to have left the town for New South Wales. For some of the time over the next years, Gilbert’s movements are possible to follow as there are newspaper reports which establish his whereabouts, but it is almost impossible to establish where Susanna, Gilbert Curtis and Billy Murdoch were staying. Circumstantial evidence seems to suggest that they spent time in Hobart and Sydney.
It later became clear that Gilbert abandoned his wife and children, but at this point in time, the family still seemed to be together. This was supported by the fact that in June 1856 he spent four to five weeks with his in-laws, the Lloyds, in Sydney and that William Lloyd was willing to subsidise Gilbert’s search for gold.
From Sydney, Gilbert headed for the Bathurst goldfields where he soon found himself in trouble. A report in the Bathurst Free Press and Mining Journal of 13 August 1856 reported that Gilbert had been charged with obtaining money under false pretences. The details of the case stated that he had purchased goods and received cash using money orders in the name of Hanks and Lloyd (his brother-in-law’s company) at a saddler’s shop in Bathurst. When the money orders were subsequently presented to Hanks and Lloyd in Sydney, the firm had refused to honour them. Mr Ashworth of the saddler’s shop procured an order for the arrest of Gilbert and he was arrested by an Inspector Finnerty at the Stoney Creek Diggings on 27 July 1856 and taken to Bathurst. John Aubert Jones (the newspaper misspelt his middle name, it was actually Hubert) who had travelled to the diggings with Gilbert was arrested the following day by Finnerty as an accessory to the crime.
After a preliminary hearing on 1 August, Jones and Murdoch (Murdoch was recorded as Mundoch in the Bathurst prison entry record) were remanded, but then offered bail. Jones was able to raise the required money, whilst Murdoch, who could not, had to stay in jail. The two returned to court the following Saturday (9 August) when evidence was given by William Lloyd. Lloyd confirmed that he had given Murdoch permission to draw upon him for ‘anything that either of them might want in Bathurst to take with them to the diggings, but he (Murdoch) was to advise me of having done so.’ Murdoch’s failure to do so and the fact that Lloyd claimed he was not familiar with his handwriting, had been the cause of him refusing to honour the money orders. As a result of Lloyd’s testimony both Murdoch and Jones were discharged, ‘the Police Magistrate stating that they left court without the slightest imputation on their characters.’
In a sign that Gilbert (as in Monterey) was once again associating with those of doubtful morality, it is worth noting that the following year in March 1857, John Hubert Jones was sentenced to three years hard labour during the Bathurst Quarter Sessions for obtaining goods under false pretences.
After his problems at Bathurst, Gilbert disappeared for a number of years. Whilst any search for the name Murdock of Murdoch on the goldfields in the Australian press of the time will turn up hits, it has proven impossible to establish if they are our Gilbert Murdoch. It does seem likely that he continued to seek his fortune upon the gold fields.
In March 1861 Gilbert finally ran into serious trouble at Morse’s Creek (now the Victorian town of Bright) when he was arrested for obtaining money and goods under false pretences. He pleaded not guilty. The Ovens Constitution of 3 April reported the trial. Justice Pohlman was presiding and a Mr Aspinall was the prosecutor.
Thomas McCarrick, a publican residing at Morse’s Creek told the court, “The prisoner came to my house on the 3rd or 4th February. He said he came to speculate in mining with another man. He stopped at my house. I and my barman had a sixth share in a reef, and the prisoner bought it for £60. He bought a twelfth share from another man.” McCarrick also told the court that Gilbert had signed other cheques in the bar and received refreshments and cash to the value of £25. When the cheques were presented to the Oriental Bank in Beechworth they were declined. The fact that the signature on the cheques matches the signature on the birth certificate for his eldest son, Gilbert Curtis Murdoch, leaves no doubt that this was the same Gilbert Murdoch who, only six years before, seemed to have a bright future in Sandhurst.
Gilbert had also given McCarrick, ‘a letter to Mr Woodside which I understood to be an order for some money. I presented the cheque to Mr. Woodside and it contained no such order.’ James Woodside was a squatter and farmed at Happy Valley in the Beechworth District. The trial records recorded his statement. ‘I know the prisoner at the bar. He worked for me for a few weeks. He had no balance coming to him when he left my employ. I paid him in full. The prisoner had no authority whatever from me to state that I would settle any “difference” for him,’ Woodside continued, saying that he was not acquainted with Gilbert’s handwriting and that Gilbert had conducted himself well when he worked for him.
Constable David MacKay then told the court that, ‘I am a police constable stationed at Morse’s Creek. From information received I arrested the prisoner on the 9th February. He said he had £400 in the Oriental Bank in Beechworth. He was sober then but had evidently been drinking. William Hyndman of the Oriental Bank in Beechworth was then called and gave evidence that Gilbert had no money in the bank and had never had an account with them.
When asked to speak in his defence Gilbert claimed. ‘. . . he was drunk, and as proof of it he submitted that no man would give two cheques for shares in a reef which he had never seen.‘ He then went on to say that, ‘Mr Thomas Moore would speak to his previous character if he was in court.’
The Thomas Moore who Gilbert mentioned was a successful businessman as part of the firm Moore and Dunn which had stores in Melbourne, Ballarat, Creswick, Indigo and Beechworth. It is unclear how Gilbert knew him, but it may possibly have been through his brother-in-law William Lloyd. Sadly, for Gilbert, Moore failed to appear.
The Ovens Constitution noted that the jury only took fifteen minutes to consider the case. The note on the case documents simply says, ‘Verdict guilty. Sentence – Nine months imprisonment with hard labour.’
Gilbert would have served his sentence at Beechworth Gaol but the prison records have been lost, so there is no evidence to show how he coped with his imprisonment or when he was actually released. Hard labour would have meant breaking granite rocks in the prison yard. It is worth noting that Beechworth Gaol was not completed until 1864 and some prisoners were actually chained to trees overnight to prevent them from escaping. It is entirely possible that this happened to Gilbert. Some of the lumps of granite were turned into the blocks which the prison was built from, so Gilbert may well have contributed to the walls of the prison building. Assuming he served his full sentence, Gilbert would have been released in early January 1862.
From the time of his imprisonment, it is impossible to track Gilbert until July 1868. Murdoch or Murdock is not an uncommon name and whilst there are mentions of a Gilbert Murdoch in the Western district of Victoria and of a G. Murdoch in court at Castlemaine in Victoria, there is no way of ascertaining if they were our Gilbert.
The next definite sighting of Gilbert is aboard the Princess Alexandra which left Melbourne for the port of Callao in Peru on July 7, 1868. On the passenger list, Gilbert described himself as single. To this date, no evidence of a divorce from Susanna has been found. Given the cost of divorce at that time, it was not uncommon among ordinary couples to use the seven-year rule as a means of ending a marriage when a relationship broke down. This consisted of a couple being apart for seven years and at the end of that period, they were considered divorced, although the seven-year rule had no legal standing.
‘Mr. Murdock confesses that home is the best place he has seen.’
In December 1868 The Annapolis Examiner ran a story about Gilbert’s return to Maryland. This story appeared in several newspapers, including The Masonic Trowel, in America and at least one in the United Kingdom. The story gave a largely fictitious account of Gilbert’s twenty-one years away from Annapolis, but with enough truth to make it believable. It read as follows,
‘In 1846 he left Annapolis under Major Emory, United States army, to assist in establishing the United States boundary line between California and Mexico. Soon after their arrival, the appropriation became exhausted, and Mr. Murdock received an appointment in the custom-house at Monterey. Retiring from this position after a year’s service, he spent one year as Mayor of the city, and four years as a public auctioneer. Marrying a Miss Flegg, he shipped as a passenger to the Sandwich Islands, and soon after spent five years in auctioneering in Melbourne, Australia, as a member of the firm of McPherson & Co.
Purchasing the brig Marion Helen, he started, in company with his wife and child, on a trading voyage, but was wrecked on a reef not laid down on the charts of navigation. His wife and child were drowned before his eyes on this reef, coasting one of the Java Islands.
He was taken prisoner by the savages, but after eight weeks, in company with another prisoner, escaped, put to sea in a canoe, was picked up by a friendly vessel and taken to Australia. Impoverished by misfortune, he undertook the labours of a miner. After spending considerable time in this dangerous and undesirable avocation, he rejoiced in receiving from the American Consul letters forwarded to him from Secretary Seward, from his mother and surviving friends in this city, inclosing drafts enabling him to return. He immediately shipped via Callao, Panama and Aspinwall for New York, and after a voyage of eighty-five days was welcomed by friends in this city on the evening of the 14th ult.
Mr. Murdock confesses that home is the best place he has seen.’
What is interesting about this story is, not so much the fabrications, but why Gilbert felt the need to make them. Of course, there are elements of truth in the story. Gilbert was Mayor of Monterey, he did marry a Miss Flegg and he worked for McPherson & Co (although, not in Melbourne). On the other hand, the story of the trading venture and the death of his wife and child have no basis in truth at all. There is no record of such a ship in the 1850s or 1860s and certainly no report of the disaster recorded in the press of the time although interestingly similar events were reported which may have given Gilbert the idea for his story. Of course, Susanna, Gilbert Curtis and Billy were alive and well and, by 1868, living in Sydney.
Ultimately, we will never know what prompted Gilbert to come up with such a story, but logic would suggest the following reasons. The Murdocks were a respectable family in Annapolis and to have an ex-convict son who abandoned his wife and children return to the family bosom would not be acceptable within the society of that time, thus, the story was concocted to protect the family honour. Another possible reason is that as only one child is mentioned in the story and the article implies that there was not much communication between Gilbert and his family during his time in Australia, it is possible (if unlikely) that Gilbert made up the story to deceive his own family who did not know of his second son or of his imprisonment and thus the lie was as much for them as the Annapolis community.
Whatever the reason for Gilbert’s fabrications, he settled back into life in Annapolis with The Annapolis Gazette of 30 September 1869 reporting that he had “established an auction and Commission Store on Main Street.”
Gilbert also attended the National Association of Veterans of the Mexican War Conventions held in Washington (February 1877) and in Baltimore (February 1878). He was recorded attending as a registered member and volunteer of the Maryland and District of Columbia 1st Battalion. There were only 177 surviving members of this battalion in 1877. They and other veterans were campaigning for a war pension.
On 8 May 1879 in the city of Baltimore, Gilbert married for the second time. His bride was Eleanor Pence (sometimes spelt Pentz), a 23-year-old who lived with her parents and suffered from epilepsy. Gilbert was 53 years old. Of course, as far as Gilbert and Eleanor’s families were concerned, he was a widower and perfectly entitled to marry again, but as he had never divorced Susanna, Gilbert’s second marriage made him a bigamist. Whilst we cannot know Gilbert’s thinking, it is possible that he was applying the seven-year rule and that even though he knew his wife and children were likely to be alive, he considered himself divorced and therefore entitled to remarry. Whether he believed this or not, Gilbert’s second marriage was bigamous. It can only be assumed that he thought he would not be exposed and indeed, that is what transpired.
The couple settled in Annapolis and the 1880 census shows them living there along with a servant. What the Census did not record was the birth of their son Harry P. Murdock on 8 August 1880. It seems unlikely that Harry’s two half-brothers in Australia ever knew of his existence or he of theirs.
In 1884 Gilbert, Eleanor and Harry moved to Waynesboro, Pennsylvania. The following article appeared in The Village Record, a Waynesboro newspaper in November of that year.
‘Mr. Gilbert Murdock, of Annapolis, Md., has taken up his residence in our town, and we understand will engage in the grocery and provision business— The Evening Capital, published in that city, of Nov 15, says “Mr. Gilbert Murdock, an old resident of Annapolis, and for the past six years or more engaged in the greengrocery and provision business, corner of Maryland Ave. and State House Circle, left here to-day with his family, for Waynesboro, Pa., where, we learn, he purposes to go into business. We regret to lose Mr. Murdock from our business community as Annapolis needs just such go-ahead business men, and can illy afford to lose them. Mr. Murdock will carry to his new place of residence the best wishes of a large circle of friends and acquaintances, as well as the regrets of his departure from our midst. We wish him an abundance of success in his new field of labor.’
In Waynesboro, Gilbert and Eleanor opened a grocery and butcher’s shop under the name of Murdock and Pence. An advert from February 1855 describes the store as being at Market Place Nos. 8 & 9, on the hill above ‘Daniel Shockley’s saw and lumber mill.’
Gilbert did not have long to enjoy life in his new town, dying of kidney disease on 28 May 1885, less than a year after he, Eleanor and Harry had arrived from Annapolis. The Village Record noted that in Annapolis, ‘he was held in high esteem’ and went on to note that Waynesboro had been deprived of the benefit of a useful citizen in the prime of his life. Gilbert was 59 years old.
Of course, it is true that obituaries often hold back on some of the more unpleasant truths about a person’s life and certainly neither The Village Record nor newspapers in Annapolis knew the truth about Gilbert. It is also true that throughout his life Gilbert certainly had an entrepreneurial spark about him and in both Monterey and Sandhurst, was in a position to capitalise on his work and good fortune. It is also true to say that he was well thought of in Annapolis and that following his return from Australia he seems to have led a blameless and successful life prior to moving to Waynesboro. All in all, his obituary in The Village Record was fair. On the other hand, a full picture of Gilbert’s life would have shown that whilst he had success towards the end of his life, he was also a man who seemed unable to settle, at times kept bad company, had dubious ethics, served time in jail, abandoned his wife and children and was not above telling the most outrageous lies.
Whilst Gilbert’s life ended in May 1885, his influence on the world did not end with him and one of his children would go on to become one of the most famous cricket players of the Victorian era and indeed, to play a small role in the Federation of Australia through that sport.
Gilbert’s family in America
Doug Stine, a local Waynesboro historian very kindly provided a lot of material from newspapers of the period regarding Gilbert’s wife Eleanor and Harry P. Murdock, his son by her. Following Gilbert’s death, Eleanor continued to live in Waynesboro and records from the US National Archives show that she received a pension (due to her epilepsy) as the widow of a Mexican War Veteran. Eleanor died on 6 August 1916 of heart disease aged 60. She outlived Gilbert by thirty-one years and her son Harry by two. She was buried with Gilbert and alongside Harry in the Burns Hill Cemetery.
Harry P. Murdock spent time as a house painter, conductor on the Hagerstown Street Railway and as a small business owner in Hagerstown and Waynesboro. On 30 June 1901, he married Mary Greenwalt. Harry was also an early car owner in Waynesboro, the Waynesboro Record reporting on 25 May 1910 that he was one of two owners in the town receiving new cars. The car was an E. M. F. (Flanders) model 30, five-passenger touring car. The following week’s paper noted that he had run it into a pole, with the car being badly damaged. Four months later, Harry ran his car into a horse and buggy driven by a Mr. B. F. Funk, with the horse having to be destroyed, the car damaged and his wife hurt. Each driver blamed the other for the accident. Given the sporting ability of Harry’s half-brother Billy Murdoch (dealt with later) it is very interesting to note that Harry played first base for, and managed, a baseball team in Waynesboro.
Harry died at the young age of 33 on 23 May 1914, the cause of death reported in the local press as Bright’s disease. He was survived by both his mother and his wife Mary and was buried in Burns Hill Cemetery alongside his father’s grave. Mary is also recorded on the headstone but was buried elsewhere, with her second husband.
Gilbert’s family in Australia
When I first started researching Gilbert’s son (W. L. (Billy) Murdoch) for a piece I wrote for the Bendigo Advertiser, I had the greatest difficulty in establishing exactly who his father was and where he came from. I ended up going with a secondary source which stated that his father was Scottish. This was not unreasonable as Murdoch was a Scottish name and was spelt the Scottish way. Annoyingly, I had actually found Gilbert through the accident at Mt. Alexander and had even connected him with the Fleggs in Tasmania. Not researching carefully enough and wanting to get my newspaper story finished I decided that the Murdoch in Sandhurst and the Murdoch in Tasmania were two different people. Only a couple of years later, the cricket writers Richard Cashman and Ric Sissons did their homework correctly and established that the two Murdochs were the same person. Ric had discovered Billy Murdoch’s birth certificate which stated Gilbert’s nationality as American and thus the Murdoch who was at Mt. Alexander. I set out to establish if this was correct and by doing some random searches using Murdock and Mayor of Monterey, I discovered the Masonic Trowel piece about Gilbert’s return to America. This established that he was alive, had returned to America and enabled details about the rest of his life to be found. Thankfully, despite my initial error Richard and Ric did allow me to assist with the research for their book about Billy Murdoch and together we discovered the full story of his father.
The discovery that Gilbert was alive and living in America also raises the question of why it had been so difficult to track down the father of one of the most famous people in Australia. Why would Gilbert’s Australian family claim that he was dead? The most likely explanation for this is that due to Billy’s fame and the fact that he was mixing with some pretty upper-crust company it was imperative for the family to hide the convict roots on his mother’s side as well as the fact that his father had abandoned the family and had been imprisoned. Given the conservative values of Victorian times, this sort of background would not have been socially acceptable for anyone who wished to be considered a ‘gentleman.’ The slightly different versions of family history which appeared in the press over the years would tend to support the thesis that the family did try to ensure that details of Gilbert and Susanna’s histories would not easily be discovered.
From the time of Gilbert leaving Sandhurst until 1869 it had not been possible to keep definite track of Susanna and the two boys, but by 1869 the family were settled in the Sydney suburb of Balmain and from that time it is possible to follow them for the rest of their lives. Susanna had started using the name Edith and was subsequently recorded by this name in newspaper reports. One may assume that the change of name was a way of distancing herself from her absent husband. She never remarried and died of breast cancer at her son Billy’s house in London on 15 August 1899. An obituary which appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 20 September 1899 noted that she had arrived in the colony of New South Wales in 1867 from Victoria, ‘having lost her husband in the colony.’ At the time of her death, Edith Susanna Murdoch was 66. She was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery in London.
Following school, Gilbert Curtis Murdoch became an articled clerk at the law firm of his uncle William Deane, qualifying as an ‘attorney, solicitor and proctor of the Supreme Court,’ in New South Wales. Gilbert had a successful career as a solicitor and barrister, he also served as a local councillor in Balmain for twelve years and as Mayor for one. His obituary noted that he was fully involved in community life in Balmain and had been a sportsman of some note, particularly cricket during his younger days. Gilbert seemed to have been conservative by nature, looked after his family and business. He died on 6 February 1906 aged 54.
Gilbert Murdoch’s youngest son, Billy, grew up to become one of Australia’s most famous cricket players. To a large degree he is forgotten now, apart from ‘cricket tragics’ such as myself, but in his time he was as famous in Australia, England and the British Empire as it was possible to be for a sportsman. Following in the footsteps of his elder brother, Billy took up law, becoming an articled clerk with the firm of Charles Davis of Pitt Street in Sydney and qualifying as a solicitor in 1877. As a young man, he rose quickly through the cricketing ranks, first playing for the colony of New South Wales against Victoria in 1875 and in 1877 for Australia in the second ever test against England. This led, in 1878, to him touring England with the first ever national Australian team. In 1880 he became the Australian captain and in 1882 he led the first Australian team to defeat a full strength English Eleven in England. This led to a famous advert in an English newspaper which claimed English cricket had died and that, ‘the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.’ This led to cricket’s most famous and lasting sporting rivalry, ‘The Ashes.’ Upon the team’s return to Australia, they were greeted by huge crowds and acclaimed as heroes.
Whilst the team’s status as heroes did pass, they left a lasting legacy. This legacy was in showing the Australian public what could be achieved when the separate and sometimes squabbling Australian colonies united. Many newspapers and politicians noted the positive effect that the ‘federated’ Australian cricket team had in creating a sense of national identity amongst the Australian people and the evidence from the time certainly supports this. It is not hyperbole to claim that Billy Murdoch and his fellow Australian cricketers certainly played a role in creating the atmosphere that led to the eventual federation of Australia.
Billy continued as captain of the Australian team until 1884 when two events saw him leave cricket until 1890. The first was a dispute over money between the team and the promoters of games the eleven were playing in upon their return to Australia following the 1884 tour of England. The second was his marriage, in December 1884, to Jemima, the daughter of Sandhurst gold mining millionaire John Boyd Watson. Watson had opposed the marriage and would not give the couple permission to wed. Jemima would not accept her father’s opposition, stole away from Sandhurst and took a train to Melbourne where she and Billy were married in the suburb of Collingwood by a very colourful character, the Reverend Nathanial Kinsman, whose day job was as a second-hand furniture salesman.
John Boyd Watson would almost certainly have known of Billy’s father, Gilbert Murdoch, as the two were in Sandhurst at the same time, but it is unlikely that they would have known each other personally. It is possible that knowledge of Gilbert and what happened to him was a cause for him to oppose the wedding. But, the most likely reason for his opposition is the fact that Billy had been engaged to Watson’s favourite niece Margaret Jane (Cissy) Fletcher. The reasons for the end of this engagement are unknown, but it is unlikely the fact that Billy had been engaged to his niece, not married her and then wanted to marry one of his daughters would have led to Watson believing he would make a suitable husband for Jemima. Billy was also known to enjoy the good life, and this was another characteristic about him that the puritanical Watson must surely have frowned upon.
After the wedding, Billy set up as a solicitor in Cootamundra, New South Wales. However, there must have been a rapprochement between J. B. Watson and the young couple as from March 1886 Billy was working for Watson as a solicitor in Melbourne, Victoria. John Boyd Watson’s death in 1889 gave Billy the opportunity to return to cricket, with Jemima receiving an annual stipend of £600 in the will which was more than enough for a comfortable life in 1889. There was also money, separate from the annual stipend, for the education of Billy and Jemima’s growing family (they eventually had five children). Despite what was a very reasonable income, the Murdochs always seemed to find themselves in financial trouble as letters sent to the executors of the Watson estate over the next twenty years indicate. There are a couple of possible explanations for this, firstly, there is evidence to suggest that Billy had a problem with gambling and secondly, the Murdochs lived beyond their means when they settled in England.
Billy Murdoch led the 1890 Australian team to England and remained there following the tour. During the 1890s he played for and captained Sussex, also touring South Africa with an English Eleven in 1891 – 92. This makes him one of the few Australians to play cricket for Australia and England. In the early 1900s, he played for London County alongside his friend W. G. Grace (the greatest cricketer of the time and one of the best-known figures in the British Empire) before finally retiring from cricket in 1904 due to ill-health.
In September 1909 Billy and Jemima returned to Melbourne for the final settlement of her father’s will, hoping to return to England the following March. Newspaper reports from the period record the joy with which Billy was received by his old comrades. On 18 February 1911, Billy was attending a test between Australia and a touring South African Eleven. It was reported that during the lunch break he was talking with an old friend (Major Morkham) when he complained of a pain in his head and then collapsed unconscious. Billy Murdoch had suffered a stroke and died later that day at the age of 56. Jemima had his body embalmed and shipped back to England where he was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery close to his mother’s grave.
Descendants of Billy and Jemima still reside in England and Australia.
A final comment
Unwittingly perhaps, the comment ‘having lost her husband in that colony,’ (written of Gilbert in Susanna’s obituary) accurately sums up his time in Australia. He was ‘lost in that colony’ of Victoria or at least he lost the moral compass that should have kept him out of jail and with Susanna and his two boys. Perhaps Gilbert, like many others throughout history, had his morality eroded by the lure of gold and easy riches. Ultimately his misdeeds caused no great harm to his Australian or American families and (the legality of his second marriage aside) Gilbert could be said to have (mostly) found his morality once more after returning to Annapolis in 1868.
Gilbert Murdock has been lying peacefully in Burns Hill Cemetery for over 130 years now and I don’t suppose people passing his resting place would give it more than a glance or indeed, have any inkling of the life led by the man buried there. Gilbert may well have been an ordinary man, but he was present at some important events in history and the ripples caused by his journey through life are still felt in Australia every time the Ashes tests between Australia and England take place.
One final thought about Gilbert has always intrigued me. In both 1878 and 1882, the Australian cricket team played games in North America on their way home to Australia. These games were reported upon by several American newspapers of the time. I have often wondered if Gilbert may have read a report and realised that one of the Australian team and indeed in 1882, the captain of the team and one of the most famous sportsmen in the world, was his son Billy Murdoch.
This article was researched using the Australian National Library’s Trove digitised newspaper site, the Internet Archive, the Gale News Vault, the United States National Archives, the Pennsylvania and Maryland digital archives and the Bendigo Library. I wish to recognise the great help I received in writing about Gilbert from Professor Richard Cashman, Ric Sissons, Doug Stine, Carol Smetana, Dennis Copeland and especially Jim Fritzinger of the Grove Funeral Home in Waynesboro who brought to light the existence of Gilbert’s American son.