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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Duncan, Alexander Mitchell (1888–1965)

by Robert Haldane

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Alexander Mitchell Duncan (1888-1965), policeman, was born on 25 September 1888 at Mortlach, Banffshire, Scotland, son of John Duncan, farmer, and his wife Elizabeth, née Mitchell. Educated at nearby Dufftown, Alexander joined the London Metropolitan Police Force on 19 December 1910. He married Elizabeth Ann MacDonald on 1 September 1917 at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Lambeth. For twenty-six years Duncan served in the force, rising from constable to chief inspector (1934). Most of his work was in the Criminal Investigation Department and he headed (from 1935) Scotland Yard's 'Flying Squad'. Described by his peers as a 'strong silent type', he received forty-five commissioner's commendations for solving murders and other major crimes, and taught at the Scotland Yard School for Detectives.

In 1936, on the recommendation of his commissioner Sir Philip Game, Duncan was seconded to Melbourne in response to Premier (Sir) Albert Dunstan's request for a senior officer from Scotland Yard to inspect and report on the Victoria Police Force. The force had been rocked that year by the bizarre shooting of Superintendent John O'Connell Brophy, head of the Criminal Investigation Branch, and by the controversial resignation of the chief commissioner Sir Thomas Blamey. Under the temporary command of Superintendent W. W. Mooney, the force was beset by public allegations of inefficiency and corruption.

Reaching Melbourne on 12 October, Duncan was described by the Argus as a 'genial, but quiet man, with broad shoulders and thick grey hair'. He was of middle height and thickset, and spoke with a trace of a Scottish accent. Within months of his arrival, Duncan had completed his inspection of the force. He presented his interim report on 16 December 1936 and his final report on 22 January 1937. The first report, focussing on the wireless patrol, C.I.B. and plain-clothes branch, made sixteen recommendations, including proposals for detective training and the use of forensic science. His second report contained a further twenty-five recommendations, addressing such issues as traffic control, police transport, the promotion system and deployment of personnel. Both reports were blueprints for change. The Dunstan government gave them full effect when it appointed Duncan chief commissioner on 7 February 1937, with a mandate to implement his reforms.

Although the Australian Labor Party and others criticized the appointment of an 'outsider', Duncan moved quickly to improve the force. Despite the added pressures of World War II and his role as chief air-raid warden for the State, he became one of Victoria's most successful and its longest serving chief commissioner in the twentieth century. Appointed C.M.G. in 1946, he retired from the force in 1954, but remained active as a member of the Boy Scouts' Association, Melbourne Rotary, the Young Men's Christian Association, the Royal Humane Society, the National Fitness Council and the State Relief Committee. He died on 1 September 1965 at Brighton and was cremated; his daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Haldane, The People's Force (Melb, 1986)
  • People (Sydney), 16 Dec 1953
  • Police Life, Sept 1965, p 9, Mar 1981, p 14
  • Herald (Melbourne), 14, 27 Jan, 6 Feb, 29 July 1937, 8 June 1949, 2 Sept 1965
  • Argus (Melbourne), 13 Oct 1936, 14, 27 Jan 1937
  • Age (Melbourne), 3 Sept 1965
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 3 Sept 1965
  • private information.

Citation details

Robert Haldane, 'Duncan, Alexander Mitchell (1888–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 13 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

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