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28 January 2009

Herbert Dyce Murphy (1879 – 1971) spy, explorer, whaler, sheep rancher.

Murphy was born to a privileged family in Melbourne and finished his education at Oxford University, England. Before university and during the vacations he acquired considerable experience on ships particularly on expeditions in the Arctic.

He played a female role in a Greek play while at Oxford, and on that basis was recruited by military intelligence. He already was an officer in the territorial army. His task was to live as a woman in Belgium and France. He was trained to be a woman by a family friend, Lady Broughton – he found entering and leaving hansom cabs to be the most difficult. As Edith Murphy, he closely studied the French and Belgian railways. He enjoyed the assignment which continued for five years. A French lieutenant proposed to Edith in Paris. It is also said that Edith ran into Herbert's mother in London. Mother, after recognizing Edith, smoothed things over by saying that she had always wanted a daughter.

He always maintained that the woman with a white parasol in the painting, ‘The Arbour’ by Phillip Fox, originally sketched at Bath in 1902, was himself, Fox accepting Edith as a young woman.

After a few years the assignment was becoming more difficult as he lost his youth. Returning to being a man, he worked in whaling and voyages to the polar regions. He was rejected for Ernest Shackleton’s 1908 Antarctic expedition for supposed effeminacy, but was accepted on Douglas Mawson’s 1911-4 expedition.
He joined the Australian Imperial force in 1916, but was dismissed for inferior vision.

He bought a country property where he ran sheep and turned it into a holiday centre for poor Melbourne children. A High-Anglican, he was for 35 years a member of synod, and was also a shire councillor for 10 years. He was in demand as a speaker and as a singer of shanties. For three months annually, he sailed to Antarctica with the Norwegian whaling fleet. He claimed that he continued doing this until the age of 85 by lying about his age.

Like Robert Baden-Powell, Murphy married late in in life, in 1934 at the age of 54. He and his wife had no children.

The character of the transgender Eudoxia/Eddie/Eadith Twyborn in Patrick White’s The Twyborn Affair, 1979, is at least partly based on Herbert Murphy as Edith, and especially on his encounter with his mother.
  • S. Murray-Smith, 'Murphy, Herbert Dyce (1879 - 1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, Melbourne University Press, 1986, pp 637-638.
  • Heather Rossiter. Lady Spy, Gentleman Explorer: The Life of Herbert Dyce Murphy. Jane Curry Publishing. 2005.

This is an odd story. In some ways there is either too little or too much cross-dressing. If he was so at home as a woman, how could he do it for five years, and then never again. Maybe the years as a 'Lady Spy' never happened. There are no official records of the medals he was supposedly awarded.

Murray-Smith says:
"Something of a Munchhausen perhaps—some of his claims appear to be fantasies. However, much of even his most outrageous stories 'check out', and in his embellishments he was striving for the symmetry of art."
Murray-Smith also quotes the naturalist, C.F. Laseron:
"He [Murphy] holds himself up to ridicule as well as his other characters. Yet he never loses his air of diffidence; his whole method is apologetic. His stories have a curious suggestion of truth; they are convincing and at the same time too impossible to be true."
So Murphy, a good story teller, span a yarn of his years in skirts, and White, Murray-Smith and Rossiter were all too happy to just accept it. Five years was a long time to live as female without hormones and shaving daily. Of male-born non-intersex persons of Murphy's generation, very few succeded in living full-time as female. Would the androgyny of youth make Murphy feminine enough?

A review of Rossiter's biography by Crusader Hills makes a point:
As a distant relative, Rossiter has done Murphy’s life a disservice by reducing it to one without any discernible psychosexual colour. Rossiter works on the basis that because Murphy married late in life he was undoubtedly and exclusively heterosexual. Maybe he was, but she wouldn’t know that. In describing his reasons for cross-dressing in public (two times of which were documented extensively, including in a photograph) she posits that he was testing whether or not he would get away with it. Any biographer with her salt would have at least entertained the notion that Murphy’s cross-dressing was probably not confined to once or twice in public, plus the several spying missions he did for the British government on the continent. Nor does she consider the significance of his pursuance of homosocial settings, such as the sailing and whaling ships, and exploring expeditions he joined. Ultimately though, the fault of this biography is not in its blindness to alternative readings of Murphy’s life or the bland lack of curiosity that Rossiter displays, it is simply a piece of vanity writing from the perspective of unexplored privilege.

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