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Dictionary of Miramichi Biography

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MURRAY, WILLIAM CRANSTON (1789-1873)

MURRAY, WILLIAM CRANSTON, carpenter, building contractor, and architect; b. 21 Mar 1788; bap. Stobo, Peeblesshire, Scotland, 13 Apr 1788, s/o James Muray, shepherd, and h/w Elizabeth Cranston; m. Alexanderina Hyslop, also of Scotland; d. Newcastle, 15 Jun 1873.

William Murray and his wife came to the Miramichi by way of Dumfriesshire, Scotland, in 1819. It is stated in the K. Williston Papers, in the Provincial Archives, that Mrs. Murray was from Dundee, but she too was born, at least, in Peeblesshire. They arrived on the Miramichi with their son James Murray, and possibly other children, and settled next to the customs house at Bushville. After their home burned in 1828, they relocated in Newcastle.

Murray was the most talented builder and craftsman in wood to work on the Miramichi during the first half of the 19th century. Although he was "a crotchety little Scotch teetotaler" who was easy to dislike, he had, in Louise Manny's words, a "genius for design and ornament [that] made exquisite the cottages and churches and public buildings in Miramichi a hundred years ago....He could design a vaulted ceiling or a door or cupboard or chest that somehow achieved perfection. He could make a stairway to swing in a faultless curve, gracious and assured, with ornaments and balusters precisely in proportion..."

Murray's buildings, Manny states, "are of the utmost simplicity in design, always with a roof very low in pitch, and have a kind of understatement that gives them a subtle and appealing charm." The fact is, however, that few Murray buildings have been positively identified, and little documentation has been found of Murray's specific role in the designing, erecting, or decorating of even the most important of the 19th-century heritage structures with which his name is associated. The historian of St Paul's (erected 1823) states that the church "was built by William Murray" but gives no particulars. The historian of the church of St James (erected 1829) says that Murray submitted the lowest tender for its rebuilding, three years after the original structure burned in the Miramichi Fire. "William Murray seems to have been given the full credit for the beauty of St James," he states, "which would be deserved only if he had a hand in the designing, as well as the building." Although he cites no evidence of such involvement, he feels "it is fairly safe to assume that he indeed had responsibility for the architectural design."

There are also questions regarding Murray's role in the design and construction of the 'Old Courthouse' at Newcastle (1829). While is has been argued that the interior ornamentation of the building bears the indelible stamp of Murray's genius, the contractors for the building were Frost & Rainnie of Chatham, who erected a courthouse of almost identical design at Richibucto in 1829. The contractors may have hired Murray to finish the interior of the Newcastle courthouse, but there would appear to be little or no extrinsic evidence of this.

Another structure often attributed to Murray is the Rankin House (1837) at Douglastown, and one of his granddaughters stated many years after his death that he "at least worked on it." He had the contract for St Andrew's Church in Blackville (1840), but it is not known if he designed it. It has been contended that he also built Sts Peter and Paul Church at Bartibog, which was blessed in 1853, or that he had a hand, at least, in its finishing. In all cases the argument is that the quality of the interior woodwork and ornamentation of these buildings proves the presence of Murray's hand.

Uncertainty surrounds claims made in respect to private residences built by Murray as well, but one house which can be attributed to him without fear of contradiction is his own Newcastle home. This was erected around 1828 and was restored in 1992 as part of the Ritchie Wharf development. An architect who inspected it in 1937 described it as "a simple dwelling with ornament in scale with the size of the structure." Among the features on which he commented were "the leaf carved under the modilions on the doorway pediment" and "the delicate cornicing of wood in the front hall." "By these things," he observed, "do we judge perfection, and here we can say that the work is about as good as it could be." "William Murray," he stated, "was an artist in architecture if there ever was one."

Murray was a director of the Newcastle Total Abstinence Society, which was formed in 1837, and a charter member in 1851 of the Newcastle division of the Sons of Temperance. He was supposedly one of only three members who never took a drink. As a pastime, he wrote "acrid little poems commenting with pawky Scots humor on local happenings." He and his wife had ten children, at least six of whom survived childhood. Besides James Murray, they included Elizabeth Murray, the wife of John H. Sivewright, and Margaret Murray, the wife of Francis Bockler.

Sources

[d] Advocate 18 Jun 1873 / Advocate 1/8/15 Dec 1937 (report by Frank Nobbs, B. Arch.); Douglas; Gleaner 10 Sep 1853; Hoddinott; Manny (Murray); Mercury 15 Apr 1828; Williston Collection


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