Rev Alexander MacLeod Murray (1893-1978)

Rev Alexander MacLeod Murray

Written by John Maguire

Occupations: Clergyman and POW Camp Chaplain

Early Years

Alexander MacLeod Murray was born in Gibraltar on 28 April, 1893, the son of Scottish parents. His father, the Reverend Thomas Murray (1853-1888), was chaplain to the 2nd battalion, the Gordon Highlanders, who were garrisoned on the Rock. Alexander’s mother was Helen Scott (1854-1889), born in Montrose, Forfarshire. His parents had married in 1884.

By 1901, the Murray family was living in Dover and the children were J W Craufurd Murray (1884-1955), Robert Scott Murray (1886-1953), Louisa Marion Murray (1891-1980) and Alexander M Murray (1893-1978). William Turner Murray (1890-1949) was absent from the family home and at school on the night of the census. There were also two servants, Mary Harvey and Mabel Dixon, aged 52 and 19 respectively. At this date, the Reverend Thomas Murray was serving with the 2nd battalion in the Transvaal, during the Boer War, having been at the Seige of Ladysmith from November 1899 to February 1900.

Ten years later, Helen and four children were living at 89 South Norwood Hill, in Croydon. The house was quite large, with 9 rooms and they had one servant, Florence Mary Fields, aged 22. The two older brothers were employed at the Bank of England, where Alexander would also eventually work for a short period. Thomas Murray was still an army chaplain, serving at Limerick, Ireland and his son, J W Craufurd Murray, was a curate in a South London parish.

The Great War

MacLeod’s brother, William Turner Murray, enlisted as a private with the London Regiment on 15 September 1914, soon after the start of the Great War. He served in France in the first weeks of the war, as part of the British Expeditionary Force and was awarded the Mons Star. Commissioned in the Gordon Highlanders on 11 December 1914, he ended the war in 1918 with the rank of captain. In 1919, he was living at Lessendrum, Huntly, Aberdeenshire.

Another brother, John William Craufurd Murray was an army chaplain from 1915 to 1917. Prior to his war service, he had obtained a BA in 1905 from Durham university (MA, 1908), and was ordained in 1910 at Southwark cathedral. In 1917 he became the vicar of Holy Trinity Church, Upper Tooting and a year later he joined the Streatham Lodge of Freemasons. In 1929 he became the rural dean of Streatham.

In 1915, at the age of 21, Macleod left his studies at the University of London, where he was a member of the Officer Training Corps, and enlisted in the Inns of Court Yeomanry. Commissioned in the Royal Garrison Artillery in January 1916, after training, he joined the unit of heavy guns protecting Portsmouth and Plymouth. In September 1916 he was posted to Basra, Mesopotamia, with the 88th anti-aircraft artillery battery, his ship being an Australian ‘One Class Liner’ or troopship which was escorted by Japanese naval vessels from Malta to Basra. MacLeod was a duty officer on the ship, which was packed with soldiers. The U-boats active in the Mediterranean made for a hazardous voyage, so the Japanese naval escort must have been a reassuring presence.

The United Kingdom had been at war with Turkey since 1914. At Basra, Second Lieutenant Murray’s battery formed part of the build-up of Anglo-Indian forces under the command of Lt General Sir Stanley Maude (1864-1917), the commander of the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force. Maude was the last man to be evacuated from Suvla Bay at the end of the Gallipoli Campaign in 1915 and his task in 1916 was to rebuild the morale and reputation of British forces after the disastrous defeats at Gallipoli in 1915 and Kut, Mesopotamia, in April 1916. Kut was recaptured in February, and Baghdad fell to British forces on 11 March 1917 but General Maude died from cholera in November 1917.

In June 1917 MacLeod contracted septicaemia; three operations saved his life, but he was still unable to walk. Evacuated down the River Tigris to Basra, in the heat of 48 degrees centigrade, he was taken by hospital ship to Bombay. From there he was sent to the Sassoon Hospital at Poona and on recovery, he was posted to the Royal Artillery Depot at Kirkee, near Bombay. The Medical Officer wanted him to remain in India, but he returned to active service in Mesopotamia, joining the 394th Battery of the Royal Garrison Artillery.  In March 1918, after the German offensive of 1918 began, they were ordered to France.

Arriving at Port Suez in May, they were ordered to stay on, and joined General Allenby’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force, training beside the canal at Kantara.  In July they moved into Palestine and participated in the September battle that broke the resistance of the Turkish Army. Murray became an artillery observation officer during Allenby’s successful final offensive against the Turks, who surrendered on 30 October 1918. Murray was mentioned in Allenby’s despatches of 5 March 1919 in recognition of ‘valuable services rendered in connection with the military operations in Arabia.’

After the War

Following demobilisation in 1919, Murray was awarded a BA (War Degree) at London University, joined the Bank of England after passing at the top of the first class, and stayed there for a year. During 1919 he was in a great deal of pain in his leg which resulted in further operations. In 1920, Murray obtained a teaching post at the English College, Jerusalem, founded in 1857, in the hope that a warmer climate might help to alleviate his discomfort. Unfortunately, it did not.

So in 1921, he went up to St Edmund’s Hall, Oxford and achieved a double first in 1923 (MA, 1927). Murray then attended Wells Theological College, from 1923-1924, and was ordained at Salisbury cathedral, holding his first curacy at Holy Trinity, Dorchester, from 1924 to 1926. Then from 1926 to 1928 he was Foreign Secretary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.

After visiting his friend, the precentor of Carlisle cathedral, it was suggested that Murray should consider the vacant living of Ousby. He accepted the position and was inducted just before Christmas, 1928. The opportunity of a pastoral ministry greatly attracted him, as did the environment of the parish, just under Cross Fell, where he perceived a similarity with the hills of Judea.  His talents soon found him widely engaged beyond the parish, working in education, missionary activities, and as examining chaplain to the bishop from 1931-1946. Moreover, Murray’s deep interest in academic work led to his return to his old theological college at Wells as vice principal in 1933. Despite his enthusiasm here, he continued to feel that his true calling was to a pastoral ministry, so he accepted the living of Warcop, near Appleby, in 1934. Whilst there, he saw through the complete restoration of the church building and the parish grew in size when joined to Great Musgrave in 1938.

In 1939, on the National Register Murray was recorded as single, employing Rupert Harrison, as a driver and gardener, and Alice Harrison as a housekeeper.  Having been in Warcop for several years, Murray met Mary Wilkinson (1916-2011) who was a dairymaid on her father’s farm at nearby Burtergill.  Her parents, Gregson Wilkinson (1879-1968) and Ada Frankland (1884-1962), were dairy farmers.  Murray married Mary in 1941 and their first son, Andrew V. M. Murray was born in 1942, later becoming a schoolmaster at Fettes College. A second son, Craufurd Murray, was born in 1944 and became the rector of Fountains, and later archdeacon of Christchurch, New Zealand. Murray Sr was also the chaplain to the nearby Royal Tank Corps Training Depot, following the construction of the ranges in 1942.

The Move to Beetham

The Reverend MacLeod Murray and his family moved to the parish of Beetham, Westmorland, on 26 January 1946, remaining there until 1948. Nearby was Bela Camp, Milnthorpe, a prisoner of war camp of some eleven acres near Whassett, requisitioned from the Dallam Estate and holding about 200 men.  Here German and Italian officers were exempt from work, but other ranks worked five and a half days each week, for very little pay, which made them rather resentful.  It is very difficult to assess the extent of the economic contribution made by the prisoners, though the camp created employment for local people.  There was a shortage of local workers, so the prisoners worked on farms, in quarries, on roadwork on the Kirkstone pass, in a milk processing factory, at Libby’s in Milnthorpe, chopping wood, tidying up gardens, and snow clearing in winter. They were initially taken to work in lorries, accompanied by British soldiers, but later were allowed to drive themselves. A considerable number of prisoners became resident on the farms where they worked.

Kendal Oral History Group Memories

A farmer’s son in the Lyth Valley recalled ‘our Italian’, dressed in an English uniform, with circular or diamond patches on the knee as ‘a likeable chap’ who stayed on for twelve months after the war and who sometimes took him to school. A farmer’s wife and a blacksmith remembered that the prisoners were all really good workers.  Another recorded that their prisoner, a confectioner, ‘spoke perfect English, better than we did!’  Others perceived them as aloof and arrogant, so in some quarters they were not much liked and were criticised for not giving up their seats on buses. One girl had lost a brother in the war and when their prisoner foolishly sniggered, she threw a pitchfork at him.

From the start, Murray regarded the prisoners of war in the local camp as parishioners, sought to achieve their integration, took services in German, and organised concerts by POWs in the Church. He also encouraged parishioners to extend invitations to the prisoners to visit their homes. POWs were allowed to write home and receive mail and some, anxious about their families in Germany, were supported by parishioners posting clothing to their families.

The POWs were also encouraged to have their own recreation activities and they were lent a billiard table. They performed their own plays, concerts and puppet shows. Outside in the parish, concerts were organised at Beetham School by the Germans or jointly with English players. Heribert Moser was a librarian and schoolmaster who helped Murray to write the parish magazine and to design the covers. Gabriel Fabian, who had a film projector, toured camps in the area as the projectionist. Having married locally, he eventually worked as a plumber on the Underley Estate.

In the church there were times of community singing, at which there were talks in English and in German, and the tunes were so chosen that both English and Germans could sing together, blending their voices in their own tongues. At Christmas, prisoners visited several churches to sing Silent Night.  One prisoner remembered:when we held the first concert…..never had I seen a more devout people than at that hour.’

The camp had its own chapel in a hut which was used jointly by the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics. Once a month they had their own service in German, taken by their own chaplain Erich Schmidt, who became a close friend of Murray describing him as ‘a fatherly friend for our whole prison camp’, adding ‘there was inseparably linked in him deep faith and irresistible humour……he (often) struck so warm and happy a note that slight laughter ran through the Church.’  Schmidt had a motor bike for providing services in other POW camps in the area.  

When Victor Gollancz (1893-1967) started a reconciliation movement with the slogan ‘Save Europe Now’, a space was made within the church with a notice ‘Food for Germany’, where, Sunday after Sunday, precious fats and sugar were deposited as gifts.  At the disbanding of the camp the POWs expressed their thanks to Murray with a large crucifix and Christmas crib which Bruno Baumann had made with the simplest tools and after their departure some of them kept in touch.  Surviving letters of appreciation thank the parishioners of Beetham for their generosity, saying how they had ‘lightened considerably’ the POWs hard fate and referring to ‘the good things that you gave (us) to take home.’ Another hoped that Murray would visit them in their own country, acknowledging the presents ‘so urgently needed by my son’ who had lost his mother.

The Move to Sawrey

Murray left Beetham to become the vicar of Sawrey in 1948 and became a canon of Carlisle in 1953. He instituted a service in boats on Windermere that took place by the shore of his parish and remained at Sawrey until his retirement in 1961, when he moved to Graythwaite.   He believed that a priest’s life should be devoted to his people, and to that he gave his all. In addition, he found time to write witty and imaginative poetry for the parish magazines and to pursue his interest in languages, as a considerable scholar of Hebrew. In the last year of his life, this extraordinary priest completed the writing of a thought-provoking study of the Gospel of St. John.

The Reverend Alexander MacLeod Murray died on the 8 September, 1978 and was interred in St. Peter’s churchyard, Far Sawrey. He had been living at Silverholme, Graythwaite, near Newby Bridge. His sister, Louisa Marion Murray, died two years later on the 8 December, 1980, aged 90 and Mary Murray, his widow, died on the 29 December, 2011, at the age of 95, both being interred at Sawrey.

 A sense of the man is evident in two quotations:

  • ‘I pressed the bell at the parsonage…………and received an answer that I have never forgotten: ‘You are not Bavarians, I am not an Englishman, we are brothers.’
  • ‘He was a wonderful man, the late Reverend Macleod Murray of Beetham.” (Erich Schmidt, POW Padre).

The Christmas crib made by the German prisoners is still used each Christmas at Beetham church. Their farewell gift of the carved crucifix remains a treasured possession of the Murray family.


  • Sandy Lofthouse: Reconciliation 1946-1948, 2017
  • Alexander MacLeod Murray: A Brief Account of Bela River Camp
  • Alexander MacLeod Murray: An Account of the Battle of Megiddo in September 1918
  • Erich Schmidt, Article from the Association of Former Protestant Camp Communities magazine, ‘Mooseburger Brudergross’, August 1979

List of Documents

  • Andrew Murray: family letters, photographs and documents
  • Kendal Oral History Group: Transcriptions of interviews of local people who remembered the POWs
  • Letters from AVM Murray (6)
  • Letters of thanks from former Prisoners of War to the Reverend Alexander MacLeod Murray:
  • Friedrich Bobbe letter 8 August 1948
  • Karl Enders letter 27 July 1947
  • Frederick Forbach letter 27 October 1947
  • Heinz Janson letter 16 March 1948
  • Wilhelmine Janson letter 16 March 1948
  • Henry Kraatz letter 26 June 1949
  • Heinz Kroeger letters 2 July 1947 and 26 November 1947
  • Werner Oehlke letter 20 January 1948
  • Alfred Prottengeier letter 28 September 1947
  • Dr. Otto Rohm letter 5 December 1947
  • Erich Schmidt letter 18 July 1947
  • Family E. Tobias letters 8 March 1948 and 19 December 1948
  • Rudi Weis letter 11 August 1947
  • Karl Wernicke letter 17 November 1947
  • Karl Wernicke letter 7 June 1948