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Murphy, James [John] (1913–2009), building contractor, was born on 5 October 1913 in Ohermong, near Caherciveen, co. Kerry, Ireland, one of the five children of John Murphy, farmer, and his wife, Bridget, née Sullivan. He was baptized James, but later changed his name to John. After leaving the local school, he spent time fishing for mackerel off the Basket Islands, before walking the 22 miles to Killorglin in search of work. There he found a job in a livery stable, and later moved to Tralee to work for a wrought-iron business. Kerry was one of the poorest counties in Ireland, with high unemployment and few opportunities, and in the late 1930s Murphy migrated to London, where there was a demand for unskilled Irish labour in the construction industry. One of his first jobs was at London airport, where he shovelled snow from the runways. After the outbreak of the Second World War the labour shortage became more acute, and the manager of London airport (who recognized his potential) encouraged him to get exemption from conscription, on the grounds that he would make a more valuable contribution to the war effort by staying in London to help build airfields. He worked on the construction of airports and the repair of bomb-damaged runways throughout the war, setting up his own sub-contracting business to supply labour from Ireland to the big construction companies. It was at this point that he changed his name to John Murphy, so that if he were killed in an air raid his father could take over his bank account. In 1946 he was joined by his brother John (who took the name Joseph), and the company prospered through clearing bomb sites and removing obstacles from the English Channel.

In 1951 Murphy established J. Murphy & Sons Ltd, leasing a yard in Kentish Town, north London, an area with a large Irish population; in 1956 his brother set up his own company, based in Camden Town. John Murphy used green vans, while Joseph's were grey, and the two companies became known as ‘the Green and the Grey’. The 1950s were a boom period for the building industry in Britain, with many job opportunities, while unemployment in Ireland remained high. Irish migration to England increased, and Murphy expanded his business, employing unskilled Irish labourers. He expanded into electrification, tendering for contracts from the electric companies. He also took on cabling contracts, and in the 1960s he installed cables for the Post Office. Murphy Pipelines was established in 1965, and he seized the opportunities opened up by the discovery of natural gas in the North Sea to tender for contracts to lay gas pipelines and install gas mains. In 1989 he was elected a fellow of the Institution of Gas Engineers for his services to the gas industry in the construction of the new gas transmission system.

In the 1970s the Inland Revenue became increasingly concerned about the scale of tax evasion and fraudulent practices in the big construction companies, and J. Murphy & Sons was one of the companies investigated by the fraud squad. This led to a trial, and in 1976 three senior executives were found guilty of cheating the Inland Revenue and gaoled for three years, though Murphy himself escaped prosecution. The judge described it as ‘a gigantic swindle’ and the company was fined £500,000. The charges centred on the system of ‘lump’ payments in the construction industry, whereby labourers were hired by sub-contractors (known as ‘gangers’, such as Murphy's close friend ‘Elephant John’ O'Donoghue, who worked for him for forty-five years) by the day, who paid them in cash at the end of each day, enabling the company to avoid paying PAYE (pay as you earn) income tax and national insurance contributions. Some sub-contractors deducted the tax from the wages, but did not pass it on, so that when the labourers became sick or unemployed they were without any benefits. Casual labourers wanting employment waited at certain places in the street for the vans to arrive, and the fittest were hired on the spot and taken off for the day's work. There was no job security, and if there was no work, no one was hired. The labourers often worked in poor conditions, with inadequate safety precautions. But although the system was often described as brutal, Murphy gave jobs to thousands of Irishmen, especially from his home county of Kerry, who sent most of their earnings home to support their families in Ireland. Many employees were trained, and were encouraged to set up their own companies, which then obtained work from Murphy as sub-contractors.

Although Murphy was involved in construction projects all over the United Kingdom, his base remained in London, and in 1984 he moved to a new headquarters, Hillview House, in Kentish Town. The 1980s saw another period of expansion in the construction industry in Britain and of high unemployment in Ireland, and the numbers of Irish arriving in London seeking work grew again. Murphy helped to build the Stansted airport rail link, which opened in 1991, and he undertook projects for the Broadgate development in the City of London. In 1985 J. Murphy & Sons began work on the channel tunnel, with responsibility for part of the cross-channel power connector, and the company's involvement in the building of the channel tunnel continued in 2000, with the construction of the channel tunnel rail link between Swanscombe and Thurrock. In 2001 he was awarded the contract for the diversion of all services to facilitate the construction of the cross-channel rail link in east London. In the 1990s he took on contracts for the installation of cable television, and another major contract was for the building of two major sections of the London water ring main, started in 1994. When London was chosen as the venue for the 2012 Olympic games, Murphy secured the contract to construct cable tunnels for the Olympic village. In 2009 J. Murphy & Sons became the lead contractor on the Liverpool and Manchester water pipeline project to carry 100 million litres of water a day. By the time of his death, the Murphy Group included 18 companies, generating revenues of £500 million a year, with a workforce of over 3000, mostly Irish.

Although Murphy amassed an enormous personal fortune, estimated at £190 million shortly before his death, he lived modestly in his home in Hampstead, enjoying dancing and golf, and kept out of the public eye. He refused to give interviews, and was rarely photographed. He donated generously to Irish charities in England and Ireland, and was a benefactor of the London Irish Centre in Camden Square, founded in 1954 to help the Irish community in London. He was also a member of the Irish Club in Eaton Square, in Belgravia. In 2007 the Kerry Association presented him with the Kerry London person of the year award. Although he had had very little formal education himself, he supported educational institutions, and in 1977 he established the John Murphy postgraduate research fellowship in civil engineering at University College, Cork, to enable research into problems arising with the industrial development of Ireland. In 1995 he funded a new laboratory, the John Murphy Laboratory of Civil Engineering, at University College, Cork, and employed many of its civil engineering graduates in his companies; in 2001 the college awarded him an honorary doctorate in civil engineering.

Murphy was twice married. After the death of his first wife, Christina, in the early 1980s, he married his second wife, Kathleen, c.1986. He had two sons from his first marriage, and one son and one daughter from his second marriage. He died on 7 May 2009 at his London flat in Regent's Park House, 105 Park Road, Westminster. His body was taken to Ireland for the funeral on 21 May at the Daniel O'Connell Memorial Church, Cahirciveen. He was survived by his wife Kathleen and three children, a son from his first marriage having predeceased him.

Anne Pimlott Baker

Sources  

www.murphygroup.co.uk, accessed on 10 May 2012 · The Times (7 Jan 1976); (8 Jan 1976); (19 May 2009) · The Independent (8 May 1994); (18 May 2009) · J. Fielding, ‘The success of the Irish in the construction industry’, diss., University of North London, 1996, London Metropolitan University, Irish Studies Centre, Irish in Britain archive · U. Cowley, The men who built Britain: a history of the Irish navvy (2001) · G. Harrison, The scattering: a history of the London Irish Centre, 1954–2004 (2004), 117–18 · The Kerryman (13 May 2009) · Irish Post (13 May 2009) · Camden New Journal (14 May 2009) · Irish Times (16 May 2009); (22 May 2009) · Irish Independent (19 May 2009); (23 May 2009) · Sunday Tribune [Ireland] (24 May 2009) · Sunday Independent [Ireland] (24 May 2009) · The Kingdom (28 May 2009) · Daily Telegraph (12 June 2009) · The Guardian (23 June 2009) · b. cert. · d. cert.

Likenesses  

photograph, repro. in The Independent (18 May 2009),

Wealth at death  

wealthy