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Ada Constance Duncan (1896–1970)

by Diane Langmore

This article was published:

Constance Duncan, c.1922

Constance Duncan, c.1922

photo courtesy of International House, The University of Melbourne

Ada Constance Duncan (1896-1970), welfare activist and international affairs specialist, was born on 26 October 1896 at Canterbury, Melbourne, third daughter of Australian-born parents Andrew William Bartlett Duncan, agent, and his wife Alice Dalby, née Bellin. She was educated at Hessle College (a local Baptist school) and at the University of Melbourne (B.A. Hons, 1917; M.A., 1922) where she was one of the first women to own a motorcycle: during World War I she offered rides to raise funds for the Australian Red Cross Society. After graduating, she worked for two years as a travelling secretary for the Australian Student Christian Movement.

In 1922 Constance Duncan was appointed an Australian secretary of the Young Women's Christian Association, on loan to the association in Japan. She learned Japanese and worked for the Y.W.C.A. in Tokyo and at Kyoto as a secretary and teacher of English. On furlough in 1928-29, she visited Australia and also studied at the London School of Economics.

Returning to Australia in 1932 when her father fell ill, Duncan joined the Lyceum Club and, in 1934-41, was employed as secretary of the Victorian branch of the Australian League of Nations Union and of the Bureau of Social and International Affairs. In 1936 she was a Victorian delegate to the Institute of Pacific Relations conference at Yosemite, California, United States of America. On her way home, she toured China and Japan for the Australian Broadcasting Commission, inquiring into the reception of short-wave programmes.

Her wide experience with international affairs led to her commitment to the peace movement, and, with Dorothy Gibson, she served on the executive of the United Peace Council. In 1937 Duncan became secretary of the International Peace Campaign. She was valued not only for her administrative capability, but also because, essentially more conservative than most of its members, she helped broaden public support, especially from women's organizations. Duncan resigned after the Munich agreement and was replaced by Doris Blackburn. At the same time she continued her association with the Y.W.C.A., serving as president (1938-42) of the Melbourne branch.

In December 1938 the Victorian International Refugee Emergency Council, sponsored by the L.N.U. and the churches, was formed to assist in selecting European refugees and helping them adapt to Australian life. Duncan was appointed director. She fought to dispel community prejudice against refugees, publicly condemning, for instance, the reference by Sir Frank Clarke, president of the Legislative Council, to 'slinking, rat-faced men' who provided sweated labour for 'backyard factories'. She asserted that stringent selection criteria ensured high-calibre immigrants, and reminded Australians that it was their responsibility to acquaint new arrivals with the language and labour laws.

Early in September 1940 Duncan learned through British Quakers that internees deported from Britain in the Dunera were headed for Australia. According to her friend the composer Margaret Sutherland, 'Con, being a practical and compassionate person, got immediately busy. She found clothes, cases, rugs' and met the ship at Port Melbourne. Following initial refusal, she was later permitted to visit the refugees in camps at Tatura, Victoria, and Hay, New South Wales. She informed the British Society of Friends that conditions on the ship had been 'deplorable', and that the men had arrived in 'a destitute condition and did not possess a razor blade, much less a change of underwear'. As a result of her letter, she was summoned to Victoria Barracks. Profiting by the experience of two colleagues who had been interrogated, she insisted on having her lawyer present. She was treated courteously, but conflict with officials persisted as she tried to ameliorate conditions for the refugees. In February 1941 she reported that new restrictions had been imposed on contacts with them, but these were eased from May.

Throughout 1941 Duncan continued to spearhead V.I.R.E.C.'s activities. She maintained her campaigns to remove the perception of refugees as 'enemy aliens', and to gain an impartial tribunal to assess their loyalty and suitability to serve with the Australian forces. In December she resigned from V.I.R.E.C. and joined the Department of Labour and National Service to investigate the welfare of children whose mothers were in the workforce. She produced a report in 1944 for the National Health and Medical Research Council which advocated a national programme of maternal and child welfare, further support services for mothers, better pay for domestic workers, crèches, subsidized kindergarten training colleges and uniform divorce laws. In 1943 she had stood unsuccessfully as an Independent candidate for the Federal seat of Balaclava.

Appointed in 1945 to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration as welfare officer for the South-West Pacific, Duncan visited Korea next year as a member of an U.N.R.R.A. special mission and stayed on as liaison officer to the commanding generals of the United States and Soviet armies. When she returned to Australia she continued to use her expertise as a university extension lecturer in international affairs. In 1948 she helped organize the first United Nations appeal for children.

After spending a year abroad with Sutherland, in 1953 Duncan was invited by (Sir) Ian Clunies Ross to be city organizer for the university's International House building appeal; she later became a foundation member (1955-66) of the International House council. Her fund-raising task completed, she diverted her still considerable energies to the Australian Council of Churches. She belonged to its resettlement committee and was employed from 1955 as agency sponsorship officer.

Throughout her varied career, Duncan's commitment to international peace and to justice for those whose lives were dislocated by war remained firm. Some remembered her as a 'large and imposing' woman, although the impression may have been 'due more to personality than to cubic capacity'. Others were intimidated by her 'big, booming voice' and her tendency to give short shrift to those—especially men—who did not match her energy and dedication. (She referred to one unfortunate as a 'milksop'.) Despite her 'almost masculine forcefulness', most colleagues were disarmed by her warmth, compassion, humour and thoughtfulness. Friends relaxed with her at her weekend cottage at Olinda where she enjoyed gardening and woodwork. Having shared a house at Kew with Sutherland for many years, Miss Duncan retired to a Baptist hostel at Canterbury. She died on 13 September 1970 at Kew and was cremated. In 1972 the private dining-room at International House was named after her.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Gibson, One Woman's Life (Syd, 1980)
  • C. Pearl, The Dunera Scandal (Syd, 1983)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 May 1928, 3 Dec 1936, 9 Mar, 20 Aug 1938, 19 July 1943, 9 Dec 1944, 2 May 1945, 2 Jan, 5 Mar 1946
  • Age (Melbourne), 9 May 1939
  • Argus (Melbourne), 4 Nov 1940, 14 Aug 1943, 30 Oct 1952
  • Herald (Melbourne), 12 May 1955
  • Victorian Immigration Refugee Emergency Council minutes (Australian Council of Churches, Melbourne)
  • Australian Refugee Immigration Committee policy file, A434, item 49/3/7286 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Brookes papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Eggleston papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Diane Langmore, 'Duncan, Ada Constance (1896–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Constance Duncan, c.1922

Constance Duncan, c.1922

photo courtesy of International House, The University of Melbourne