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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Dame Elisabeth Joy Murdoch (1909–2012)

by Jennifer King

Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, whose philanthropy and charity work saw her become a widely respected and much-loved public figure, has died peacefully at her home near Melbourne aged 103.

Dame Elisabeth was married to pioneering Australian journalist Sir Keith Murdoch in 1928 and they had four children – Helen, media baron Rupert, Anne and Janet.

Her community work saw the Queen make her a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1963.

Among her many other accolades, Dame Elisabeth was also awarded a Companion of the Order of Australia, and in 2005 she was named Victorian of the Year.

Dame Elisabeth felt the advantage of her wealth was the opportunity to do good for causes she felt passionately about, saying: "Wealth can be misused but generally speaking, it's a tremendous tool in helping the community."

She gave her name, influence and money to more than 100 Australian charities and organisations, and contributed millions of dollars to sick children, the arts, academia, medical research, the environment, and social welfare.

Her interest in genetic disorders also led her to establish The Murdoch Children's Institute.

Dame Elisabeth was also politically active. She supported the carbon tax introduced by the Gillard Government, signing an open letter that supported the policy in 2011.

This morning Rupert Murdoch said his mother would be missed by thousands of Australians whose lives she had touched.

"Many thanks for condolences about my Mum," Mr Murdoch tweeted. "A great lady, wife, mother and citizen."

"We have lost the most wonderful mother but we are all grateful to have had her love and wisdom for so many years," he added in a statement released by News Limited.

"Throughout her life, our mother demonstrated the very best qualities of true public service. Her energy and personal commitment made our country a more hopeful place and she will be missed by many."

This morning Prime Minister Julia Gillard issued a statement extending her condolences to the Murdoch family.

"Dame Elisabeth Murdoch lived a great Australian life.

"Her example of kindness, humility and grace was constant. She was not only generous, she led others to generosity. Australia's children and Australia's artists have lost one of their greatest benefactors."

The youngest of three daughters, Elisabeth Joy Greene was born in 1909 and grew up on her family's Melbourne homestead, Pemberley, which was surrounded by an acre of gardens on Toorak Road.

She once said: "My world was my parents' garden."

Dame Elisabeth was spoilt by her father, Rupert, who encouraged his youngest daughter's ambition to join the circus.

Her father had a mischievous spirit, and even allowed her to puff on his pipe and chew tobacco.

But Dame Elisabeth's father struggled with gambling issues, which caused difficulties for her mother Marie as she struggled to keep the family fed and housed.

It was her mother's caring nature and concern for others that set an example Dame Elisabeth would carry throughout her life.

The Dame's compassionate nature was evident from an early age.

She was awarded a tour of the children's hospital after breaking its singlet-knitting record at the age of 16. Seeing howling babies emerging from operating theatre upset her so much that she vowed to do all she could to help children.

At the age of 19, Elisabeth Greene first stepped out with the 42-year-old Keith Murdoch.

Melbourne's most eligible bachelor had spied Dame Elisabeth's photograph in a society magazine and insisted on meeting the young beauty.

Despite concerns from family and friends about their 23-year age difference, the pair were married in 1928, with the bride electing to wear her sister's hand-me-down wedding dress.

Mr Murdoch's wedding gift to his young wife was Cruden Farm, on the outskirts of Melbourne, in Langwarrin.

The property has been Dame Elisabeth's home for over 80 years and it was there she and her husband raised their four children.

Cruden Farm's grounds are open to the public several times a year.

As a mother, Dame Elisabeth was the disciplinarian in the family, with her husband being prone to indulging their children.

She believed in "loving discipline" and recalled using the slipper to reprimand a young Rupert.

Dame Elisabeth gave Rupert the opportunity in later years to publicly tease his mother about "the beatings" she gave him.

She believed fervently in the importance of tolerance, understanding and caring – qualities she wanted to instil in her children's upbringing.

In a 2009 interview for ABC TV's The 7.30 Report, Dame Elisabeth said she and Rupert did not always see eye-to-eye but respected each other's opinions.

"I think (we disagree about) the kind of journalism and the tremendous invasion of people's privacy. I don't approve of that," she said.

Following Sir Keith's death of cancer in 1952 at the age of 67, Dame Elisabeth focused on building the new Melbourne Children's Hospital.

Her passion for the project, together with her influence, resulted in the necessary government funding and she had remained a benefactor of the hospital thereafter.

Until recently, Dame Elisabeth was "hands on" in the gardens of her much-loved Cruden Farm.

When a hip replacement put an end to the digging and planting, she turned to a motorised buggy to get around, saying driving was her last outdoor sport.

"Although I am so old, really very old, people's assumptions are quite wrong. They don't realise that I still have the capacity to enjoy life," she told Andrew Denton in 2009.

Dame Elisabeth's number plates, "12", had been Sir Keith's when he had been courting her.

She found herself constantly discouraging young men who wanted to buy them, telling them: "I went to my wedding with these plates and I am going to my funeral with them."

During a 2008 interview when asked what her husband would have said of her life, Dame Elisabeth replied: "I think Keith would have been proud. I haven't wasted a minute of my life. I've made use of all the time, I think."

Dame Elisabeth is survived by three of her children – Rupert Murdoch, Anne Kantor and Janet Calvert-Jones – and by over 70 descendants.

Her eldest daughter, Helen Handbury, died in 2004.

The family will soon announce details of a private memorial service for Dame Elisabeth.

Original publication

Additional Resources

  • Trove search
  • interview, Advertiser (Adelaide), 6 January 1930, p 17
  • photo, Argus (Melbourne), 28 January 1942, p 8
  • interview, Australian Women's Weekly, 18 February 1981, p 6

Citation details

Jennifer King, 'Murdoch, Dame Elisabeth Joy (1909–2012)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 April 2024.

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