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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Duncan, Laura (1875–1955)

by Margaret Kowald

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Laura Duncan (1875–1955), pastoralist and charity worker, was born on 25 August 1875 at Balmain, Sydney, fourth child of Charles Davis, a solicitor from London, and his Sydney-born wife Maria Finch, née Heney. Laura spent her early years at the family home, Llewellyn, on the Parramatta River. In the late 1890s, while living with her sister Millicent and the latter's husband Allen Alexander at Daroo station, near Birdsville, Queensland, Laura met William Duncan, who had arrived in Australia from Midlothian, Scotland, in 1876 and was the manager of Mooraberrie station, a cattle property in the Channel Country of south-west Queensland. Laura married William on 28 April 1898 at Daroo. They had four children and purchased Mooraberrie in 1906. Following William's death on 16 February 1907, from consumption complicated by a fall from a horse, Laura managed the station.

In her fight to retain and improve the property and its cattle, Mrs Duncan aimed at building up a first-class Shorthorn herd and helped to pioneer the 'baby-beef trade' in south-west Queensland. Slightly built, quiet, kindly, but efficient and determined, she advocated the right of pastoralists to market their stock where they chose. In 1917 she contested the compulsory seizure by the T. J. Ryan government of some 500 Mooraberrie cattle under the Sugar Acquisition Act of 1915, which had sweeping powers over livestock as well as raw sugar. The Mooraberrie Cattle Case (Duncan v. Queensland, Duncan v. Theodore) challenged the power of the Queensland government to overrule section 92 of the Constitution, guaranteeing the freedom of interstate trade. Although backed by the Graziers' Association and the Commonwealth government, she lost in the Queensland Supreme Court, won in the High Court of Australia, but in 1919 the Privy Council decided against her.

A stickler for justice and a generous supporter of good causes, Duncan gave her Brisbane residence, Lynne Grove, at Corinda, as a home for the orphaned and destitute children of World War I soldiers. She travelled widely in her Ford motorcar during World War I to aid the Australian Red Cross Society and other patriotic causes. A splendid horsewoman, she was a capable educator of her three daughters; her only son had died of croup in childhood. Duncan respected Aboriginal people and observed their laws and rights to the land.

On 13 September 1920 at St Aidan's Church of England, Marden, Adelaide, she married John McKenzie, a contractor. He died in 1922. In 1940 she passed the management of Mooraberrie to her daughter Laura Lothian Duncan (1903-1988)—the property was managed continuously by the two women for some eighty years. Her other daughters Alice Monkton Duncan-Kemp (1901-1988), who was the author of several books, and Beatrice Margaret Galagher (1904-1995) had both married graziers. Duncan retired to her home at Kangaroo Point, Brisbane, where she died on 20 June 1955. She was cremated with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Pownall, Mary of Maranoa (Melb, 1964)
  • D. J. Murphy, T. J. Ryan (Brisb, 1975)
  • P. L. Watson, Frontier Lands and Pioneer Legends (Syd, 1998)
  • Commonwealth Law Reports, vol 22, 1916-17, p 556, vol 23, 1916-17, p 510, vol 26, 1918-19, p 276
  • Queensland Country Life, 4 Aug 1955, p 22
  • Pastoral Review, 16 Aug 1955, p 1015
  • private information.

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Citation details

Margaret Kowald, 'Duncan, Laura (1875–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 1 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Davis, Laura
  • Mckenzie, Laura

25 August 1875
Balmain, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


20 June 1955
Kangaroo Point, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence