The 1886 embezzlement scandal, and the disappearance of Robert Alston Murray

The story below is peripheral to the main themes in ‘Fires, Farms and Forests’ and is not covered in the book. However, I want to share with you this remarkable incident that occurred in 1886.

James William Norton Smith features prominently in my book, particularly in Chapters 2-6. He was born in England in 1846, and after receiving an education in agriculture, he managed a sheep farm in New Zealand. The 23-year-old arrived in Tasmania in July 1869 to take up his position with the VDL Co. as their chief agent – a job he held until his retirement in 1903.

Norton Smith found the principal business of the VDL Co., leasing land, in a depressed state. The early 1870s, however, provided opportunities for wealth generation denied to the state in the previous two decades. It was the discovery of tin at Mt Bischoff in 1871, rather than gold, that opened the doors to the prosperous mining industry in the state. Norton Smith had only been the Chief Agent for two and a half years when its fortunes changed, and he capitalised on the various opportunities that presented to the company.

He immediately encouraged the erection of a proper breakwater at Emu Bay[1] as a means to transport farm produce and make the VDL Co. land at Emu Bay more attractive to farmers. Under his stewardship, the VDL Co. diversified its business interests by setting up sawmills, brickworks, and built and operated the Mount Bischoff Railway.

Some people thought he was the best chief agent the VDL Co. ever had – ‘strict in business but kindly and liberally disposed.’ His uncompromising business reputation stood out. By spending a lot of time away from the office on the company lands, he fully understood what was required to run the businesses he set up and managed. Some observers described his predecessors as:

‘…more like country gentlemen living on venison for dinner and pine apples[sic] for dessert, whose work was more mental than physical, and who seldom visited the Surrey or Hampshire Hills and then only on some special occasion’.[2]

Norton Smith’s relationship with the Court of Directors in London was not always on friendly terms. He detested the advisers the directors employed in London that invariably were at odds with Norton Smith’s pragmatic business approach he relied on to achieve results in the isolated and distant north-west part of Tasmania.

Norton Smith had a difficult job. He practically ran the company’s affairs in Tasmania single-handedly. He was required to manage the landholdings of the company ‘so great an area and so far distant’. He needed a suit of skills such as engineering knowledge to deal with railway and drainage works, mining experience, as well as a general understanding of running a business. He worked six days a week and even on Sundays sat at his desk to write correspondence on the company’s affairs to the directors on a weekly or fortnightly basis, depending on the level of activities. During his long tenure, he was assisted by an accountant to manage the financial affairs of the VDL Co. Because of his frequent long periods absent from the office, he had to put a lot of trust into that person to faithfully carry out those duties honestly.

That trust, however, was emphatically broken by Norton Smith’s loyal accountant, Robert Alston Murray, who suddenly disappeared after travelling to the mainland for a holiday in April 1886. Murray had been seriously ill with lung disease for most of the previous year. He was holidaying in Victoria to experience a ‘change in air’ for his ailment. 

Initially, it was believed Murray drowned in the Murray River near Echuca, following reports from an eyewitness.[2] His body, however, was never found. Following this news, Norton Smith had to continue company business, including financial reporting. He discovered that the whole railway conversion account books were missing.[4] Norton Smith arranged for an independent accountant to audit the accounts and found out the extent of Murray’s embezzlement. Murray cashed over £1,800 in cheques into his bank account. He had been able to disguise his fraud by preparing duplicate accounts – one sent to the directors and another different one he kept in the Tasmanian office.

Murray started work with the VDL Co. in November 1875, transferring from the Main Line Railway. Norton Smith was pleased with his work and wrote in October 1877:

I have now had two-year’s experience of Mr Murray, during which time I have always found him correct in his accounts, careful and neat in his book-keeping, we understand each other, any returns I require are always ready for me on a short notice, and I have perfect confidence in his honesty, for these reasons I should greatly prefer him to any stranger and have agreed with him for twelve months from 1st January 1878 at £300 per annum, less house rent £30’.[5]

Additional responsibilities were given to Murray when Norton Smith was away from the office. It allowed Murray to carry out his fraud without detection. The VDL Co. tried to claim the embezzled amount through their insurance but could only receive a reduced amount due to the additional responsibilities Murray gradually acquired over and above his original employment, and not covered as part of the insurance premium.

When the true extent of the fraud became apparent, a warrant was issued for Murray’s arrest. His disappearance was known as the ‘Echuca Mystery’ and newspapers reported rumours of his imminent arrest in Echuca and later in Melbourne.[6] There were also reports that he had travelled to Sydney via Wodonga. In August 1886, Murray (in absentia)) was declared bankrupt after a successful court hearing by a creditor.

Norton Smith was deeply ashamed and humiliated by this episode. He wrote to the directors and expected to lose his job. Murray had responsibility for the financial accounts without adequate regular audits. Norton Smith signed blank cheques that were used by Murray for his advantage between July 1884 and March 1886. Norton Smith reflected on why he did not detect any untoward behaviour from Murray:

‘…[I] can only account for it by the blind confidence I had in him, crested by the apparent interest he took in the Company’s correctness of his accounts while I was auditing them, and general demeanour, while there is no doubt his ill health (which I still believe to have been genuine) was very convenient to him at times’.[7]

Norton Smith had to withdraw his candidature for the seat of Wellington in the Tasmanian Parliament in April 1886.[8] In hindsight, Norton Smith realised that the burglary and fire at the Emu Bay office in October 1884, which prevented the independent yearly audit, were probably linked to Murray as a way of avoiding detection.

An extraordinary twist in the tale occurred In May 1888. A Canadian named Hamilton Wilson arrived unexpectantly at the VDL Co. offices at Emu Bay and made enquiries about Murray. Why he would do so is a mystery. He stated that Murray was in Canada employed as Traffic Manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Murray’s features matched the physical description provided by Wilson. Murray had been in Canada before Tasmania, and Norton Smith thought he might have sought employment from those who had previously known him. Norton Smith, who was away in Woolnorth when Wilson was at Emu Bay, tracked him down for an interview near Ulverstone. Wilson said Murray had told him about north west Tasmania and gave him a full description of Mount Bischoff. According to Wilson, Murray started work in Canada on about 12 June 1886. Norton Smith didn’t think Murray could have got to Canada in time to begin by that date.[9] Newspaper reports at the time considered Murray to be of ‘such exceptionally striking appearance that it would be impossible for him to lose his identity’. Norton Smith made enquiries to the Canadian Pacific Railway, but I don’t have a record in his despatches on what response he may have got.

I cannot find any records on what happened to Murray. His family continued to live in Australia. Murray married Frances Egerton Tarleton in 1876, the eldest daughter of William Tarleton, the respected Hobart police magistrate. They had five children. Newspaper reports state the Murray’s settled at Fern Tree, Hobart, even though Murray worked for ten years for the VDL Co. at Burnie from late 1875. William Tarleton went to Echuca and Melbourne to talk to local police after Murray was reported missing. It must have been highly embarrassing for Tarleton and his daughter when reports of Murray’s fraud became public. I believe Tarleton moved his daughter and her young family to Fern Tree after the disappearance of Murray. Frances was present with Tarleton when he ‘dropped dead’ on his way home from church in 1895.[10] According to my limited access on Ancestry.com, Frances died with her maiden name. However, the Tasmanian Family History Society lists Frances’ headstone in her married name.[11]

William Tarleton (1880)  

 

“Five Shillings or Seven Days in Default” [picture] / T.M. Libraries Tasmania online collection

Murray’s third child had a successful life. Margaret Egerton Murray was born in 1879 and passed the senior public examination from the University of Tasmania in 1901. She was principal of the New England Girls School from 1907 to 1913 and the second principal and owner of Abbotsleigh School for Girls in Sydney from 1913 to 1924. In that time the school had grown in size and prestige.  Margaret didn’t marry and retired in 1924 following the death of her mother. She suffered from a chronic arthritic condition and died in April 1936.[12]

Norton Smith continued to work for the Van Diemen’s Land Company, despite the embarrassment and guilt he felt over the incident. He retired from failing health.

I would like to find out what happened to Murray. I have conducted searches on the internet and Trove. If anyone has access to Ancestry.com or My Heritage records, perhaps they could do a search based on the details of Murray and his family I have provided. Does a death certificate for Murray exist, and how did he die and where? Did he drown in 1886 or abscond elsewhere and assume another identity? Does his wife’s death certificate refer to Murray, or was he erased from her life due to the scandal? Does any of his family’s records refer to Murray after his death? Was there a claim made on Murray’s life insurance, taken out in 1885 with the New Zealand Accident Insurance Company for £500. The latest premium was paid one month before his disappearance. If so, was the claim made by Murray’s family or someone acting on Murray’s behalf?

If the material could be sourced and you had the time, I am sure someone could write a great book on this remarkable incident.

[1] Later called Burnie

[2] ‘Telescope’ (1878) ‘Retrospective and prospective’ Devon Herald, Saturday 28 September, page 3

[3] ‘Supposed drowning in the Murray at Echuca’ The Mercury, Thursday 8 April 1886, page 3. An addendum to this newspaper article said that Murray had taken out life insurance the previous year. 

[4] A wooden horse-drawn tramway was built in the late 1870s. In November 1883, work began on converting the tramway to a railway.

[5] Norton Smith, J. (1877) Inward Despatch 109, 27 October

[6]’The disappearance of Mr Murray’ Hamilton Spectator, Tuesday 13 April 1886, page 3; ’Echuca mystery solved’ Bendigo Advertiser, Monday 12 April 1886, page 2

[7] Norton Smith, J. (1886) Inward Despatch 298, 20 July

[8] ‘Representation of Wellington’ Daily Telegraph, Saturday 10 April 1886, page 2

[9] Norton Smith, J. (1888) Inward Despatch 361, 15 May; Norton Smith, J. (1888) Inward Despatch 362, 22 May

[10] ’Obituary Mr William Tarleton’ Launceston Examiner, Monday 8 July 1895, page 5

[11] see https://eheritage.libraries.tas.gov.au/resources/detail4e9e-3.html?ID=HBFH_13678

[12] Fitzgerald, T. & May, J. (2016 ) ‘Portraying lives: headmistresses and women professors 1880s-1940s’. Information Age Publishing, Charlotte; ‘Miss Egerton Murray’s bequests’ The Argus, Friday 10 July 1936, page 10

Featured image – James William Norton Smith. Photo Beattie, J. W., Members of the Parliament of Tasmania [photographalbum] no 208, Hobart [19–], TAHO

5 thoughts on “The 1886 embezzlement scandal, and the disappearance of Robert Alston Murray”

  1. Well done, Robert, you found the galloping accountant. I hadn’t found the Hamilton Wilson part. What about the mysterious fire in the company office? Wasn’t that part of his cover-up? He made elaborate preparations for his departure, yet his staged suicide was so shoddy!

    1. Exactly Nic. Very mysterious particularly when the life insurance cover was exposed. Perhaps it was a good call for the family to take it out when his health was so poor but….

      When I first read about this during my research for the book, I thought I had more material, including information about his arrest. However, if that is true, I cannot find anything in my records nor online.

      The newspaper reports were very detailed when he first disappeared. Information about his luggage, and the two newspaper wrappings. But there is little information after that.

      Was he officially declared dead before bankruptcy or after?

      Why did Hamilton Wilson suddenly turn up in Emu Bay asking questions about Murray, allegedly working in Canada? Did Murray create suspicions in Canada?

      I would have thought William Tarleton would have wanted to know what happened to his son-in-law. Perhaps he thought it best to keep quiet and let the matter rest?

      So many questions.

  2. Robert, as an aside: I notice you refer in both this blog and the book to the surname: “Norton Smith”. Unhyphenated. Norton can be a christian name, so it has some ambiguity. But currently we have “Norton-Smith”s in the NW. In fact, when I started with AFH in 1985 we had a Graeme (Buster) Norton-Smith working in the planting crew. There was also an accountant, Mike Norton-Smith, in Burnie who ad set up all the Marterra### companies that we would often see as owners of the Preolennna, Parrawe, Upper Natone, Hampshire and Meuna private plantation blocks planted in the 1970s and 1980s. Norton-Smith had his office in Marine Terrace and hence ‘Marterra’. Are the current Norton-Smiths related to the VDL Co Norton Smith and the latter family adopted the hyphenated convention at some point in time, or are they unrelated families?

    1. rlo@bigpond.com

      Ian re you question at the end. I am not sure but most likely, although it could simply be a coincidence of a Norton marrying a Smith and setting up that hyphenated surname – Norton is certainly a big name in Burnie circles. All I know is that James William Norton Smith is in the VDL Co. records as unhyphenated, including him signing off his letters that way. Hence my use of the unhyphenated version in the blog and in the book.

      But it is an interesting topic and something you are more than capable of researching and writing a guest blog about!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.