Lady Spy Gentleman Explorer, The Double Life of Herbert Dyce Murphy

29 Oct

I have just read this fascinating book about Herbert Dyce Murphy by Heather Rossiter. I read the edition published by Jane Curry Publishing, Paddington NSW in 2005. However, I have some reservations about the work that I mention below.

Murphy went to Antarctica on the Australian Antarctic Expedition of 1911-1914, led by Douglas Mawson.  It was originally planned that Murphy would be in charge of a base along the Antarctic coastline from the main base. When this proved impossible he became one of Mawson’s men on the Main Base. The book graphically illustrates the privations, difficulties and deaths of that awful expedition. Mawson himself wrote, when searching for a place to land, that the conditions were ‘like the Ice Age, a picture of Northern Europe during the Great Ice Age 50.000 years previously’.

Murphy, an Australian, was educated in England at Tonbridge School and afterwards at Oxford University. His fascination with the Poles (the North originally) began early and between school and university he experienced the harsh training of  ‘below-deck’ seamen, eventually becoming Second Mate on a barque on the London – Adelaide wool cargo run.

Small and delicate looking, when he was at university he was trained as a British spy in World War1. He contributed to the intelligence knowledge of railway systems in Northern Europe, hugely important information. The fascinating thing about this is that, with courage and daring, he went to Europe dressed as a woman. There is an attractive painting of ‘Edith’ Dyce Murphy in this guise.

What is surprising about the book is the subjective and biased comments about Robert Falcon Scott: P.147 Foolish and stubborn man…..Scott took four others with him to avoidable death…..To get to the superficially ordinary place, Scott and twelve (sic) companions, the final four not yet selected for death….. Marching and man hauling death laden sledges towards his fate.    P.145 Ignoring advice from polar heroes such as Nansen and Borchgrevink, he took an inappropriately equipped and selected team south in 1901.With Wilson and Shackleton he trudged 600 km inland but never got off the Ross Ice Shelf, never saw the plateau. (No mention that this was the first expedition ever to get into the Antarctic interior and the three other nations exploring Antarctica at that time did not get onto the Antarctic mainland). P. 236 Foolish Scott

Perhaps Huntford has been swallowed whole. This is a pity because it gives readers, unfamiliar with the Scott story, a completely erroneous impression of Scott’s achievements and does him a great disservice. Readers may believe these comments as the complete, true picture and thus not seek other accounts. If they do, this they will miss excellent objective accounts of Scott’s legacies.

2 Responses to “Lady Spy Gentleman Explorer, The Double Life of Herbert Dyce Murphy”

  1. Karen May November 17, 2012 at 6:16 pm #

    The South Pole, a “superficially ordinary place”? Words fail me. The author must know of the deaths of Ninnis and Mertz – did that not enlighten her that Antarctica is a place where it is ridiculously easy to die?

    • isobelpwilliams November 20, 2012 at 4:56 pm #

      I agree. Apart from these examples, the deaths of Scott’s Polar Party under horrific conditions makes the point also. In addition,Scott lost one man in Antarctica on the Discovery Expedition and Shackleton lost his last pony, Sox, when he disappeared without warning down a crevasse in the Beardmere Glacier, thus losing a valuable source of nutrition. Shackleton’s experience is thought to be one of the reasons that Scott did not take animals on the Glacier

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