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Duncan, Sir Walter Gordon (1885–1963)

by Jenny Tilby Stock

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

Walter Gordon Duncan (1885-1963), by Hammer & Co.

Walter Gordon Duncan (1885-1963), by Hammer & Co.

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 9197

Sir Walter Gordon Duncan (1885-1963), pastoralist and politician, was born on 10 March 1885 at Hughes Park, near Watervale, South Australia, third of six children of (Sir) John James Duncan, a Scottish-born pastoralist and politician, and his second wife Jean Gordon, née Grant, from England. The family derived its considerable wealth from the pastoral and mining activities of John's father Captain John Duncan and maternal uncle Sir Walter Watson Hughes. Young Walter was educated at Cheltenham College, Gloucester, England (1897-98), and at the Collegiate School of St Peter, Adelaide. Athletically rather than academically inclined, he captained the school cricket team in his final year and maintained a passion for the game, along with riding, racing and golf.

Leaving school in 1903, Duncan worked at Hughes Park, and on other family properties—Gum Creek, near Burra, and Manunda in the saltbush country near Yunta. On 20 October 1909 at Chalmers Church, North Terrace, Adelaide, he married with Presbyterian forms Bessie Graham Fotheringham; they lived at Parkside and were to have three children. He became part-owner of several properties, a director of the Milo and Bon-Bon pastoral companies, and chairman of directors of Manunda Pastoral Co. Ltd. As the result of a family decision in 1914, Walter—the only son with young children—remained in South Australia in charge of the Duncan concerns while his mother accompanied her three other sons to England where they joined the British armed services. In 1918, as a Coalitionist, Walter was returned to the Legislative Council as a member for Midland, the district which his father had represented in 1900-13. Ability, and an electoral system that favoured rural property owners, kept him there for forty-four years.

An astute, practical and likeable man, Duncan emerged as a major figure in the State's commercial, agricultural and political life. He was a director (1922-62) of Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd and, with Harold Darling, was one of Essington Lewis's closest friends; all three crossed the continent from Adelaide to Darwin by train and car in 1924. Duncan also enjoyed overseas travel: he visited Britain and Europe with his wife in 1926, and inspected steel-mills in India with Lewis in 1938-39. South Australia's industrial development at Whyalla owed much to Duncan's influence in B.H.P. and Australian Iron & Steel Pty Ltd. He chaired the board of Bagot's Executor & Trustee Co. Ltd (1921-54), and the Adelaide boards of the Australian Mutual Provident Society and Goldsbrough Mort & Co. Ltd, and was a director of the Adelaide Steamship Co. Ltd (1932-60) and of Wallaroo-Mount Lyell Fertilisers Ltd. During World War II he was chairman of the State's Business Administration Committee, which was established to investigate allegations of wastage and which reported to the Department of Defence Co-ordination, Melbourne.

A source of personal and professional satisfaction to Duncan was his long association with the Royal Agricultural and Horticultural Society of South Australia. As president in 1924-25 (and also in 1932-50) he oversaw the move from North Terrace to the Wayville showgrounds; much of the new venture's success was due to his efforts. In 1939 he was knighted. He was president of the Stockowners' Association of South Australia and an honorary member (1943) of the Royal Agricultural Society of England. An exhibition hall bearing his name was opened at the Wayville showgrounds in 1962.

For four decades Duncan influenced non-Labor politics. Heeding his father's advice that more power could be exercised 'as an outside member' of the council, he did not seek ministerial office or a seat in the House of Assembly. While Liberal Federation president (1930-32), he kept the Hill Labor government in office to implement the Premiers' Plan. Duncan also helped to recruit (Sir) Archibald Grenfell Price as organizer of the 'non-party' Emergency Committee of South Australia which neutralized the Citizens' League and delivered a united conservative vote (and six of South Australia's seven Federal seats) to the Lyons government in 1932. Duncan was one of the Liberals who ended fourteen years of feuding with the State Country Party by negotiating a merger which formed the Liberal and Country League in June.

A member of the South Australian gentry, and of the Adelaide (from 1914) and Australian clubs, Sir Walter led the council in 1932-44, defended States rights and was deeply suspicious of any suggestion of socialism. He fought Lyons's 1937 referendum on marketing, and favoured big merchants over small farmers in the protracted debates on bulk-handling and wheat-pooling. His opposition spelt defeat in 1938 for Premier (Sir) Richard Layton Butler's voluntary equalization scheme for the depressed dairy industry. Yet, Duncan was not averse to government assistance for projects endorsed by trusted business associates or deemed to be for the greater good, like Whyalla, Cellulose (Australia) Ltd and the South Australian Housing Trust. He and his friend the premier (Sir) Thomas Playford each valued the other's common sense and pragmatism.

As president (1944-62) of the Legislative Council Duncan was fair minded, good humoured and prepared to bend the rules to expedite proceedings. He won both popularity and respect. With severely parted grey hair and eyes that twinkled behind heavy horn-rimmed glasses, he wore a spotted bow-tie and smoked a large-bowled pipe. He retired due to age and increasing deafness in 1962. His last years were shadowed by the death of a daughter, Bessie's ill health and his own battle with cancer. Survived by his wife, son and a daughter, he died on 27 August 1963 at Parkside and was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at £125,617. G. A. Thorley's portrait of Duncan is held by the Legislative Council.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Blainey, The Steel Master (Melb, 1971)
  • C. and M. Kerr, Royal Show (Adel, 1983)
  • South Australiana, 17, no 1, Mar 1978, p 5
  • Observer (Adelaide), 23 Mar, 27 Apr 1918
  • News (Adelaide), 1 Oct 1928
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 2 Jan 1939, 3 Nov 1961, 3 Nov 1962, 28 Aug 1963
  • R. F. I. Smith, The Butler Government in South Australia, 1933-1938 (M.A. thesis, University of Adelaide, 1964).

Citation details

Jenny Tilby Stock, 'Duncan, Sir Walter Gordon (1885–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/duncan-sir-walter-gordon-10066/text17757, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 21 December 2014.

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

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