Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sir John James Duncan (1845–1913)

by Molly Huxley

This article was published:

Sir John James Duncan (1845-1913), pastoralist and member of parliament, was born on 12 February 1845 at Anstruther, Fife, Scotland, second son of John Duncan, sea captain, and his first wife Joan, sister of Walter Watson Hughes. Captain Duncan had first arrived in Adelaide in 1841 and engaged in sheepfarming with his brother-in-law at the Hummocks, but he went back to Scotland and made several voyages to India; in 1854 he returned to South Australia with his family and again joined Hughes on pastoral leases near Wallaroo. There his wife died, he became a justice of the peace and, when copper was found near Wallaroo in 1859, helped to develop the mines. He was a staunch Presbyterian and his obituarist claimed that 'no man ever complied so fully with the Scripture injunction of not letting his left hand know what the right hand did'. He died at Glen Osmond on 24 April 1880, leaving two sons by his first wife and two sons and two daughters by his second.

John James was educated at Watervale Grammar School, Bentley, near Gawler and the Collegiate School of St Peter; in holidays he brought the first four miners from Burra to Moonta and often carted water to his uncle's mines. He worked for three years with Elder, Smith & Co. and then took charge of the financial department of the Wallaroo and Moonta Mining and Smelting Co. He went to Britain in 1878, served as South Australian commissioner at the Paris Exhibition and travelled widely on the Continent. On his return he managed his uncle's pastoral properties, took up leases as far north as Lake Eyre and in 1887 inherited the stations of Hughes Park near Watervale and Gum Creek near Burra. On 5 November 1873 he had married Jane Morison, daughter of Arthur Harvey of Durban, South Africa; she died a year later without issue. In London on 27 August 1879 he married Jean Gordon, daughter of James Grant and Mary, née Todd.

In 1871 Duncan was elected to the South Australian House of Assembly for Port Adelaide which then included Wallaroo where the overwhelming mining vote made him one of the first members of parliament to be returned by a labour organization. In 1875-78 he represented Wallaroo after it became a separate electorate. He was elected for Wooroora in 1884 but resigned in 1890 to take a prominent part in the National League, a Conservative association which later became allied with Liberal and Democratic unions against the Labor movement. In 1891 he was returned for the North-Eastern District to the Legislative Council. He held the seat until 1896 and then visited Britain until 1899. He represented the Midland District in the council in 1900-13. In his last years he was leader of the Opposition to Verran's Labor government. Peculiarly loyal to South Australia, he rejected all pleas to nominate him for election to the Federal Senate, although he had forsaken much of the independence that earlier led him to refuse ministerial office three times. At first an impetuous and vehement speaker, he was said to 'wing a sparrow by his gunshot and disjoint his own shoulder with the recoil'; later he developed 'some oratorical magnetism', and despite 'an irruption of ahs' his speeches were vigorous and authoritative. Right or wrong he was always sincere and a popular choice for the joint committees which hammered out disagreements between the two Houses. Even in his last years when he cheerfully called himself a 'stonewaller', he was never cynical or bitter and prided himself on differing from his opponents 'with honour and without estrangement'.

Duncan was widely respected for his sagacity and immense influence in pastoral affairs, and the administration of big finance and local finance. He held many directorships including the South Australian Savings Bank and was president of the Northern Agricultural Society and in 1905-07 of the Pastoralists' Association, often representing South Australia on its federal council. He was a captain in the Watervale Volunteers and served for years on the Upper Wakefield District Council. In 1911-13 he was one of the first members elected by parliament to the Council of the University of Adelaide. He was knighted for his public services on 12 June 1913. In addition to his fine homestead at Hughes Park he had a large town house, Strathspey, at Mitcham. After an operation for gall-stones he died at a private hospital in North Adelaide on 8 October 1913. He was buried in the family ground at St Mark's Church of England, Penwortham, the mourners travelling by train to Saddleworth and thence to the cemetery by char-à-bancs. He was survived by his wife, four sons and two daughters. From his estate of £320,000 generous bequests were made to his numerous relations, £1500 to charitable organizations and £5000 to the Presbyterian Church of which he had been a devoted member at Flinders Street. Most of the remaining property was sold and placed in trust for his family and descendants. In memory of W. W. Hughes, he left £100 to maintain his uncle's grave at Chertsey, Surrey, and £50 'to keep clean and repair' his uncle's statue at the entrance of the University of Adelaide; his son John Grant was enjoined to use the surname Duncan-Hughes.

Select Bibliography

  • H. T. Burgess (ed), Cyclopedia of South Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1908)
  • Observer (Adelaide), 24 Apr 1880, 14 Apr 1900
  • Mail (Adelaide), 16 Aug 1913
  • 'Obituary: Sir John Duncan', Pastoral Review, vol 23, no 10, Oct 1913, p 974
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 9 Oct 1913
  • Register (Adelaide), 9, 10 Oct 1913.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Molly Huxley, 'Duncan, Sir John James (1845–1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 20 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


12 February, 1845
Anstruther, Fife, Scotland


8 October, 1913 (aged 68)
North Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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