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Duncan, Annie Jane (1858–1943)

by Kay Daniels

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Annie Jane Duncan (1858-1943), by Dobson & Co., c1883

Annie Jane Duncan (1858-1943), by Dobson & Co., c1883

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 10480

Annie Jane Duncan (1858-1943), factory inspector, was born on 25 September 1858 at Port Adelaide, South Australia, elder daughter of Handasyde Duncan, physician, and his second wife Anne (d.1861), née Williams. After the death of her mother and stepmother, Annie and her sister Mary were brought up and educated by female servants and relatives.

From 16 Annie kept house for her father; he died in 1878 and left her a small annuity. She went to live with an aunt at Dashwood Gully and shared the fashionable activities of girls of her class: singing and dancing lessons, archery, spending her dress allowance, and amateur theatricals, but did not take her admirers 'very seriously'. On 27 December 1884 Mary married Arthur Hammerton Champion, soon to become headmaster of Launceston Church Grammar School, Tasmania. When her sister became a semi-invalid, Annie joined their household and took charge of the kitchen and mending.

The depression of the early 1890s changed Annie Duncan's life-style, and in 1893 she travelled abroad: in London she realized that she would have to seek work or return home. Through an introduction to Lucy Deane, one of the first female inspectors of workshops in England, she took courses with the National Health Society and the (Royal) Sanitary Institute. In April 1894 she passed the examination for inspector of nuisances and was appointed to the South Kensington district. She found her new life 'in the ranks of workers' enthralling and that 'a sisterhood' opened up to her. She mixed with women in similar occupations such as Rose Squire and Adelaide Anderson and met Beatrice and Sidney Webb. When her appointment was not renewed she travelled in Europe then returned to Australia.

On 8 February 1897 Duncan was appointed factory inspector in the labour and industry branch of the New South Wales Department of Public Instruction under the Factories and Shops Act of 1896; she was promoted senior inspector in 1912. Her ability to create in a few words a sense of the plight of individual women in factories, laundries and workrooms, or to express the misery of homeworkers in the clothing trade made her reports a striking record of contemporary social conditions. In 1904 she contributed an article, 'Women's place in the industrial world', to the Public Service Journal.

Unequivocally condemning filthy and overcrowded working conditions, Duncan argued that an appointment of a female doctor to the factory department would be 'invaluable not only in eliminating work which is absolutely poisonous or dangerous, but also in eliminating all conditions which are unfavourable to health'. In politics she was conservative and was particularly unsympathetic to the industrial policies of the State Labor government. She increasingly believed that her position in the Department of Labour and Industry was undermined by her lack of enthusiasm for the Labor Party. She retired in 1918.

Duncan was a practising Anglican and a member of the Women's Auxiliary of the Australian Board of Missions and the Girls' Friendly Society. In the early 1900s she was involved in the National Council of Women of New South Wales, enlisting its support in her fight against industrial disease, and was a founder of the Business and Professional Women's Club of Sydney and a member of the Women's Club. In the 1920s she travelled in Australia and overseas. On her return in 1930 she lived in Adelaide where she was a member of the Adelaide Music Salon, the Alliance Française, the Victoria League and the Lyceum Club. In 1937-40 she lived in a boarding house at Kings Cross, Sydney, a way of life she found congenial, but returned to North Adelaide in 1940.

Annie Duncan died in hospital at College Park on 13 September 1943. She had seen herself both as a precursor in her profession in England and Australia, and a pioneer career woman among those of her social standing in New South Wales. Her estate was valued there for probate at £2565, and £169 in South Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Ryan and A. Conlon, Gentle Invaders (Syd, 1975)
  • K. Daniels et al (eds), Women in Australia (Canb, 1977)
  • Lone Hand, 2 Dec 1912
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 11 Feb 1914
  • Sun (Sydney), 17 Mar 1918
  • A. J. Duncan papers (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

Kay Daniels, 'Duncan, Annie Jane (1858–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/duncan-annie-jane-6043/text10333, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 17 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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