Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Shiels Duncan (1886–1949)

by Kathleen Dermody

This article was published:

John Shiels Duncan (1886-1949), public servant and diplomat, was born on 19 August 1886 at Hamilton, New South Wales, and registered as John Shields, son of Scottish-born parents William Duncan, tailor, and his wife Annie, née Shields. Educated locally, at the age of 17 John entered the New South Wales Public Service as a clerk in the coalfields branch of the Department of Mines. He gave Shiels as his second Christian name when he married Christina ('Jean') Chalmers with Presbyterian forms on 20 April 1911 at Boolaroo; they were to have two children.

Determined, hard working and conscientious, Duncan progressed steadily. He moved to Sydney in 1912 to take a position as shorthand writer with the Public Service Board. By 1920 he was industrial arbitration officer and senior inspector, and conducted cases for the Crown before the arbitration courts. In 1923 he transferred to the Commonwealth as public service inspector for New South Wales and on 14 December 1925 was admitted to the Bar. As chief administrative officer he assisted the 1929-30 royal commission on the coal industry. The Newnes investigation committee (1933-34) sought his advice on industrial relations in a proposed shale-oil undertaking to the north of Lithgow. He also helped to prepare, collate and present evidence to the royal commission (1934-36) on the wheat, flour and bread industries.

His professional associates esteemed his zeal, co-operation, competence and commitment. Similar dedication characterized his activities beyond the public service. Duncan had joined the Rotary Club of Sydney in 1926 and was its president in 1933. Two years later he became governor of the 76th District of Rotary International and attended the world convention in Mexico City. In August 1935 he was promoted deputy-director of posts and telegraphs in New South Wales. Appointed C.B.E. in 1938, he was sent to London that year as official secretary under the Australian high commissioner. His family accompanied him; suffering poor health, his son was to die in 1942.

Duncan proved his worth in London, especially during World War II. S. M. (Viscount) Bruce described him as a man of 'marked ability' who handled 'the many and complicated problems' involved in the negotiation of financial arrangements and the supply of munitions and machinery. Duncan was deputy high commissioner from 1942 and occasionally acted as high commissioner. In 1946 he was appointed Australian minister to Chile. He arrived in Santiago on 8 August and was accredited as special minister to attend the inauguration of Gabriel Gonzáles Videla's presidency in November. Duncan worked to establish and strengthen diplomatic, commercial, cultural and social ties between Chile and Australia, and continued his involvement in Rotary.

During a visit to Argentina in June 1947 he fell gravely ill. Although in pain, he resumed his duties, but left Chile in January 1948 to enter a clinic in London. Returning to Sydney, he died of cancer on 8 March 1949 at Elizabeth Bay, and was cremated. His wife and daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • A Stirling, Lord Bruce (Melb, 1974)
  • CP268/1/1 A1/960 Box B2 and A1066/1 IC45/64/9/1, A1067/1 T46/248, A6348/1 S25/50 part 1 and A3318/1 L48/1/2/1/3 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Kathleen Dermody, 'Duncan, John Shiels (1886–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 16 July 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

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Duncan, John Shields

19 August, 1886
Hamilton, New South Wales, Australia


8 March, 1949 (aged 62)
Elizabeth Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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