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William Augustine Duncan (1811–1885)

by Michael Roe

This article was published:

William Augustine Duncan (1811-1885), by unknown photographer

William Augustine Duncan (1811-1885), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, PX*D 624

William Augustine Duncan (1811-1885), journalist and public servant, was born on 12 March 1811 at Bluefield, Towie, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, the son of Peter Duncan and Mary, née Macdougal. Duncan's early ability encouraged his parents to suppose that he might join the Presbyterian ministry, but in adolescence his unaided reading caused him to enter the Roman Catholic church. The Benedictine order attracted Duncan and he studied at Blairs. Having quarrelled with his teachers he withdrew, and for five years was a bookseller and publisher in Aberdeen. He agitated for the Reform Act of 1832. When his business failed he did some journalism and teaching. News of Governor Sir Richard Bourke's church and school measures prompted him to migrate to New South Wales as a Catholic schoolteacher in 1837.

Duncan taught first at Maitland, and there engaged in his first colonial controversy, repudiating an Anglican minister's designation of the Pope as 'the man of sin' (Correspondence Between the Rev. Mr Stack … and W. A. Duncan … and A Reply to the Reverend W. Stack's Attempted Defence of His Lecture, Sydney, 1839). In 1839 he became foundation editor of the Roman Catholic Australasian Chronicle, published in Sydney. Its columns ably expounded the rights, not only of the church, but of other out-groups, especially small farmers and working men. Duncan saw the established landowners as Australia's bane, falsely claiming to be an aristocracy. Against their pretensions he urged the growth of representative institutions in which the popular voice would assert itself. His chief ally among colonial politicians was the radical Henry Macdermott.

Politics never swamped Duncan's cultural interests. Adept in Latin, Greek, Italian, French and Spanish, he read widely in modern and classical literatures. In 1840 he published Aroldo and Clara, An Historical Poem. Translated from the Italian of Silvio Pellico and in 1841-42, expressing another love, wrote two patriotic songs which Isaac Nathan set to music.

Duncan's skill did not save him from conflict with his co-religionists. He disliked the ex-convict parvenu Irish who dominated the Sydney laity and financed the Chronicle. In the tension which developed between them and the English Benedictine bishop, John Bede Polding, his sympathies were strong with Polding. Polding being abroad, Duncan's critics, egged on, he alleged, by his political enemy, William Charles Wentworth, forced him from the editor's chair late in 1842, provoking his An Appeal from the Unjust Decision of the Very Rev. Vicar General (Sydney, 1843). In 1843 Duncan also published three polemical Letters, which answered Robert Allwood's criticism of Polding's assumption of a territorial title. Yet Polding did not reinstate Duncan to the Chronicle and the two thereafter were alienated.

Duncan established his own Duncan's Weekly Register, of Politics, Facts and General Literature in July 1843. Its literary columns revealed him as an intelligent critic and the patron, publisher and friend of colonial poets, especially Charles Harpur and (Sir) Henry Parkes. As editor Duncan stressed the liberal quality of his Catholicism. He deplored the tendency, strongest among the Irish but apparent even in Polding, to emphasize the alienation of Catholics from the community at large. Especially he disputed the church's antagonism to non-denominational education. Other leading articles, some reprinted as pamphlets (On Self-Supporting Agricultural Working Unions and A Practical Treatise on the … Olive-Tree, Sydney, 1844), praised close-knit rural life in a manner characteristic of much Catholic social thought. His campaign against the dominance of any narrow class interest continued, although squatters now replaced landowners as his major enemy. He stood firm, but not, as sometimes said, alone, beside Governor Sir George Gipps in the land controversy of 1844. The squatters' hostility might have contributed to financial troubles which forced the Register to close in December 1845. Gipps offered a post as customs officer at Moreton Bay and, to the cry of jobbery, Duncan accepted in May 1846.

Thereafter Duncan earned his living in the customs service. At Brisbane he filled many subsidiary posts including deputy-sheriff, immigration officer, chairman of the Steam Navigation Board, commissioner of the peace, and water police magistrate. His diligence and ability were as marked as ever, and won him appointment as the New South Wales collector of customs in May 1859. The most eventful episode in this position occurred in 1868, when Duncan left office during a complex dispute in which the Customs Department became a topic of political controversy. However, he soon returned to his post, continuing in it until 1881. On retirement he was appointed a C.M.G.

Duncan's success in an uncongenial job best proved his human quality. Moreover he always continued wider interests: anthropology, botany, literature, music, politics, philanthropy, education. His Lecture on National Education (1850) was the first pamphlet printed in Brisbane, and he was founding president of the School of Arts there (1850-54). In 1856 he published A Plea for the New South Wales Constitution, which criticized radical extremists who were already arguing for the replacement of the nominated Legislative Council by an elective body. Although denying any change of principle, Duncan now sympathized with Wentworth's plan for a local nobility. As a liberal churchman he engaged in controversies with both Polding (1858-59) and Roger Vaughan (1880), and sat on the National Board of Education and later the Council of Education. His Account of a Memorial … by Captain Pedro Fernandez de Quir (Sydney, 1874) was the fruit of a long-standing interest in historical research, while his Memoir of … Joseph Monnier, S.M. (Sydney, 1876) translated a biographical sketch of a priest who had worked in Oceania and New South Wales. Institutions to benefit from his support and leadership included the Free Public Library of Sydney, St John's College, St Vincent's Hospital, and St Cecilia's Philharmonic Society.

Duncan died at his home, The Boulevard, Petersham, on 25 June 1885 and was buried in the Devonshire Street cemetery. At Aberdeen in 1831 he had married Mary Yates (Yeats); she died on 21 December 1880. They had a son, Lewis (1834-1845) and six daughters, one of whom, Mary, became a member of the convent of the Sisters of Charity.

Select Bibliography

  • W. A. Duncan, ‘Notes of a Ten years' Residence in NSW’, Hogg's Weekly Instructor (Edinburgh), 5 (1847)
  • W. A. Duncan, autobiography (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Parkes papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Michael Roe, 'Duncan, William Augustine (1811–1885)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 16 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

William Augustine Duncan (1811-1885), by unknown photographer

William Augustine Duncan (1811-1885), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, PX*D 624

Life Summary [details]


12 March, 1811
Towie, Aberdeenshire, Scotland


25 June, 1885 (aged 74)
Petersham, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.