Dame Elisabeth Murdoch turns 100 on Sunday and Crikey thinks it’s apt to celebrate with a timeline of her life to give our dear readers a taste of what it means in the context of Australian history to be a philanthropist, garden lover and mum to the man who owns the media.
February 8 1909 — Elisabeth Joy Green is born in Armadale, Victoria. Australia in 2009 is quite a different country from the one the Dame entered – The year of her birth saw George Augustine Taylor achieve the first flight of a heavier-than-air machine in Australia, at Narrabeen (that’s like a glider… not an airbus); the birth of aviation legend Sir Reginald Ansett and Hollywood star Errol Flynn; the death of would-be-saint Mary MacKillop; Alfred Deakin’s re-election less than a year after women in Victoria were granted the vote; the decision to introduce an Australian pound — our currency until 1966 (Dame Elisabeth was 57 years old when dollars were introduced). In 1909, there were 4,323,960 people in the whole country (one fifth of the current population of 21,574,543) and the White Australia policy would guide immigration for another 64 years.
The Dame’s formative years were big ones in our national history. She was five when World War One broke out, six when the Anzac myth was cemented at Gallipoli, ten when the Treaty of Versailles was signed, 12 when Australians elected our first female parliamentarian, Edith Cowan, 14 when Kraft first started producing Vegemite, 17 when Speedo swimsuits were launched and 18 when parliament first moved to Canberra.
6 June 1928 — Elisabeth Green marries Keith Murdoch. The 19-year-old debutante had been sought out by the 42-year-old Herald editor and power broker, who saw her picture in a society magazine – Dame Elisabeth always tells the media she fell in love with his eyes first, at a ball he only went to because she was invited. Two days after their wedding, pioneer Australian aviator Charles Kingsford Smith successfully completed the first trans-Pacific flight from Oakland, California, to Brisbane. That year The Jazz Singer – the first film with sound — screened in Australia, bringing our nation American accents and the word “okay”.
In 1929 when the stock market crashed, sending Australia along with the rest of the Western world into the Great Depression, Dame Elisabeth was 20 and about to give birth to her first child, Helen – one of 129, 480 babies born in Australia in 1929, less than half the 285, 200 born in 2007.
11 March 1931 — Rupert Murdoch is born. That year, Sir Douglas Mawson returned from a ground-breaking Antarctic expedition where he charted thousands of kilometres of coastline and formally claimed the 42% of Antarctica that is still Australian territory. The Sydney Harbour Bridge was joined in the middle by September and opened the following year, while the UK’s Statute of Westminster formally ended most constitutional links between Australia and the motherland and Keith Murdoch successfully monopolised Adelaide’s newspapers.
As our tiny nation continued to evolve between the wars, the Murdoch family empire grew and its fortune improved. Dame Elisabeth was 24 when Sir Keith was knighted and she became a Lady, 25 when Ford invented the ute, 26 when her husband officially established the first national media network – by 1935 Murdoch and the Herald had interests in 11 of the 65 commercial radio stations — and 27 when her daughter Anne was born — the same year the last Tasmanian Tiger died at Hobart Zoo.
1 January 1939 — Janet Murdoch was born as the Black Friday Bushfires raged and the Second World War broke out, the year before Australian scientist Howard Florey invented penicillin. The 1940s were not financially favourable for the Murdochs following Sir Keith’s disastrous – yet short – reign as Menzie’s director-general of information in 1940 and elevation to the chairman of the Herald in 1942, largely thanks to poor property investments.
4-5 October 1952 — Sir Keith dies (the same year as his friend, former prime minister Billy Hughes). That year, the Herald’s rival paper the Melbourne Argus is the first daily newspaper in the world to publish colour photographs. Elisabeth Murdoch passes the Adelaide News on to her son Rupert, who uses it as a base for developing what became his News Corp empire.
1963 — Lady Elisabeth Murdoch is appointed “Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire” (ie. her title is upgraded from Lady to Dame). That year the Nine Network was founded as the “National Television Network” and Indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory, Queensland and Western Australia vote for the first time in a federal election.
1968 — Dame Elisabeth Murdoch becomes the first woman on the Council of Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria and is awarded an honorary doctorate of laws by the University of Melbourne for her contribution to research, arts and philanthropy. The year that Rupert expanded into Britain and Australia called off the search for our missing prime minister (Crikey believes Australia may be the only country on earth that could simply lose its leader) is known globally for anti-war protests over Vietnam — it was no different in the land down under. In June, journalist Simon Townsend was granted exemption from military service after his fifth appeal against his imprisonment and court martial; in July, 50 students were arrested for protesting in Sydney’s Martin Place, as were 45 on St Kilda Road in Melbourne, and in October, Minister for the Army Phillip Lynch admitted that Australian troops may have breached the Geneva Convention by using water torture during the interrogation of a female Vietcong suspect. From 1968 Australia and the United States began a withdrawal of troops from Vietnam.
2005 – Dame Elisabeth is named Victorian of the Year, 12 months after the death of her eldest daughter Helen. For Australia, 2005 was the year of drug dealers, dissent and Indonesia with the Bali nine arrested, Schapelle Corby convicted and Van Tuong Nguyen hanged in Singapore. There was the second Bali bombing, the Cronulla riots, Bob Carr resigned, John Brogden attempted suicide and the three major commercial television stations banded together for the first time to raise aid for those affected by the Boxing Day Tsunami.
Dame Elisabeth Murdoch donates to 110 charities annually and is famed for her generosity, her son and her garden. She has halls, scholarships, a toilet and a school named in her honour and has lived through 100 rather eventful years in our nation’s history. Let’s hope she sticks around for jetpacks, robot maids and regular space travel.