The secret of Camp Hill

When the Second World War broke out, little did Andy Duncan know that he would uncover a plot on Australian soil.

The grave news came that Great Britain and France had declared war on Germany, and it was received with a stoical calm by the majority of Australians, who realised that the Empire and its Allies were facing the inevitable

Riponshire Advocate 9 September 1939

Andy was determined to do his bit for the Empire once more, even though he knew he was medically unfit: he still carried shrapnel from Gallipoli, his mangled toes were a legacy of German interrogations, and he had increasing  periods where he was bed-ridden.

A War Veterans’ Defence Corps was proposed for Beaufort, to be made up of men who had fought in the 1914-18 war. Andy voted for it without hesitation. A unit was formed with Mr. C. H. McKay Commanding Officer, Mr. W. Cheeseman Second-in-Command, and Mr. A. S. Duncan – Andy – Adjutant.

As part of the home defences a communications bonfire was built on Camp Hill. It was to be lit if Beaufort was in danger of enemy attack.

The Defence Corps was a part-time affair, with weekly muster parades and drills. The rest of the time Andy continued his work as paymaster for the forestry workers on Mount Cole. Each fortnight he would ride out to the timber cutters’ camps to issue their wages.

While making payments Andy overheard a small group of migrant workers speaking in German. They were planning a night raid to set the communications bonfire alight. They were then going to take advantage of the confusion to target the state-of-the-art Wotherspoon store and steal from it and other retail shops in Neill Street and Lawrence Street.

The German workers thought that they could plan in secret if they used their mother tongue, but Andy had picked up enough German during his time as a prisoner of war that he understood the plan.

A few nights later, when the would-be looters arrived at Camp Hill to light the communications bonfire they were surrounded by members of the Defence Corps and the military – and interned until the end of World War II.

The men involved in this event kept it secret as Australia was at war. It was only years later that Andy told the story to his grandson.


Adapted from a family story told by Andy Duncan to his grandson, Robert Palmer

The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.: 1848 – 1957) 12 Aug 1940. National Library of Australia

Riponshire Advocate (Beaufort, Vic.: 1874 – 1994) 9 Sep 1939. State Library of Victoria

Riponshire Advocate (Beaufort, Vic.: 1874 – 1994) 29 Jun 1940. State Library of Victoria

Featured image: Camp Hill Beaufort. Looking across the railroad tracks to Camp Hill.

Leaving School

In 1936 Rene reached the school-leaving age of 14 and was sent to learn dressmaking with local identity, Miss Connie Russo. It was probably her mother Jane who arranged this loose apprenticeship. Jane’s own work as a laundress had given her independence and allowed her to travel. It was still helping to put food on the table. It is easy to imagine Jane impressing upon her daughter, “A woman has to have a livelihood”.

Rene Duncan 1936
Rene Duncan 1936. From the author’s collection. Copyright Andrew Palmer.

In her spare time Rene took violin lessons, also from Miss Russo. Rene played violin at the Beaufort Methodist Church, and as part of the Beaufort Municipal Band.

Band Rotunda, Beaufort, c. 1935. Rene Duncan would have played here as part of the Beaufort Municipal Band. State Library of Victoria Image No: pc004305
Band Rotunda, Beaufort, c. 1935.
Rene Duncan would have played here as part of the Beaufort Municipal Band.
State Library of Victoria Image No: pc004305

Featured image: 1936 ‘WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO MAKE OF YOUR GIRL?.’, The Don Dorrigo Gazette and Guy Fawkes Advocate (NSW : 1910 – 1954), 6 November 1936, p. 4.

100 miles to Melbourne

1931. In the hot, dry heat of a goldfields summer Andy, Jane and Rene Duncan returned to the Stewart family home in Beaufort.

The 100-mile post marked the edge of Beaufort township. It also marked the middle of the Stewart’s triangular strip of land that stretched from the town limits along the Ararat Road into Eurambeen parish. The Stewart house fronted the highway at the Beaufort end of the triangle.

Eurambeen Parish map. Stewarts land highlighted. VPRS 16171. Public Records Office Victoria. Stewart’s land triangle. Eurambeen Parish map. VPRS 16171. Public Records Office Victoria.

Did it occur to Andy that his circumstances echoed his father’s, all those years ago in Scotland? John Duncan had married Elizabeth Stewart and they had lived with Elizabeth’s grandmother on “Stewart’s Land” in Newton-on-Ayr. It was where Andy had been born. Now 50 years later and on the other side of the world, Andy was once again on Stewart’s land.

Andy quickly became one of the Stewart family fold. Sadly one of his first duties was to be pall-bearer at the funeral of Jane’s niece, Madge Loo, in February 1932. Madge died at the age of 21. She had been delicate from childhood and death was due to heart trouble, reported the Riponshire Advocate.

Madge’s funeral was carried out by H. Evans & Son of Ballarat. By April 1932 Andy had become the funeral director’s Beaufort representative.

Riponshire Advocate 23 April 1932. State Library of Victoria Riponshire Advocate 23 April 1932. State Library of Victoria

Andy’s health was starting to fail. When the shrapnel pieces in his back moved he would take to bed for days. He slept separately from Jane in his own room, which suggests that while the shrapnel tormented him physically, he endured mental distress as well.

Mental trauma was often accompanied by sleeplessness and dreams which could arouse the household … In some families, the nocturnal anguish of returned soldiers was such that couples chose to sleep in separate beds.

Marina Larsson, Shattered Anzacs, quoted by Christopher Wray in Pozieres: Echoes of a distant battle

Andy was hospitalised at the end of 1932. The newspaper reported his return to Beaufort in February 1933 after several months in the Caulfield Repatriation Hospital.

Andy looked for work less physically demanding than the sexton’s position he had left in Amherst, but his clerical skills were not in high demand. In a town like Beaufort, in the midst of the Great Depression, you had to wait for someone to retire before those kind of jobs opened up.

Andy Duncan with nephew Clarrie Stewart c.1932. The upturned handlebars on the bicycle allowed Andy to cycle with the minimum discomfort from the shrapnel in his back Andy Duncan (left) with nephew Clarrie Stewart c.1932. The upturned handlebars on the bicycle allowed Andy to cycle with the minimum discomfort from the shrapnel in his back. From the author’s collection. Copyright Andrew Palmer.

Jane was able to find work doing laundry for two large local homesteads – the Beggs family of Eurambeen and the Russell family of Mawallok. Laundry was delivered to the Stewart house once a week, and quite often the washing would arrive with a handout of surplus vegetables or meat.

Jane would do the washing by hand in a big copper pot and mangle behind the house. Six rows of washing stretched the entire width of the block. Once the washing was pegged to the line, Jane would insert y-shaped gumtree branches at intervals to lift the line up and keep the clothes off the ground (Blog site A Rebel Hand has a wonderful photo of this kind of wash day). Jane would then iron the sheets on a large kitchen table, using a flat iron heated on the stove.

Jane’s mother died in November 1934, leaving Jane to run the house and stretch the family budget.

Andy re-established his civic and social interests in Beaufort. He joined the local branch of the Returned Soldiers’ League and became a committee member, representing the men of the town. He became the secretary-librarian of the Beaufort Mechanics’ Institute, and Jane helped with the upkeep of the Mechanics’ Institute hall.

In January 1938 the newspaper announced At the annual meeting of the Beaufort Cemetery Trust, the resignation of Mr. A. Parker as secretary after 30 years of service was received with regret. Andy was appointed to the position, with an annual payment of £20. The money would not go far when the average wage was around £3 a week, but it would help make ends meet.

Then in June 1939 the same Mr. A. Parker resigned as Registrar of Births and Deaths. Andy was first acting Registrar, then appointed to the position.

Appointments. Victoria Gazette no. 225, July 5, 1939 Appointments. Victoria Gazette no. 225, July 5, 1939

Jane’s father John Stewart and Andy built an office for Andy’s Registrar duties on the front verandah of the Stewart’s cottage. They cut the logs and split the wood to make the weatherboard sidings. Considering that John Stewart was in his 90s at the time, he must have been in robust health.

Perhaps John Stewart also helped Andy build the shed behind the house. It was a very simple construction: four tree trunks rammed into the ground to form the corners of the shed, then corrugated tin sheeting for the walls and roof. Here Andy kept a trunk with his Anzac memorabilia.


1861 Census for Scotland Parish: Newton on Ayr; ED: 24; Page: 1; Line: 4; Roll: CSSCT1861_82

1875 Duncan, John – Stewart, Elizabeth (Statutory Marriages 612/00 0015)

1938 ‘OTHER DISTRICTS.’, The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), 14 January, p. 12

1939 ‘COUNTRY NEWS.’, The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), 5 June, p. 4 Gawler, O,

1934. Victorian Year-Book 1932-33. Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: H.J. Green

Riponshire Advocate (Beaufort, VIC: 1863 – 1994) 9 January 1932. State Library of Victoria

Riponshire Advocate  (Beaufort, VIC: 1863 – 1994) 20 February 1932. State Library of Victoria

1939, Victoria Government Gazette, no. 225, 5 July

1939, p. 2498. State Library of Victoria VPRS 16171. Regional Land Office Parish and Township Plans Digitised Reference Set. Eurambeen -1 Parish Plan, Imperial measure 2605. Eurambeen-1(Psh)LOImp2605.pdf. Public Records Office of Victoria

Wray, C., 2015. Pozieres: Echoes of a distant battle. Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: Cambridge University Press

Featured image: The Stewart family home, Beaufort, 2015. Andy’s Registrar’s office was where the verandah table sits. From the author’s collection. Copyright Andrew Palmer.

Back to civilian life

On 14 July 1919, the day before his 37th birthday, Andy was discharged from the Australian Army.

Andy and Jane had been married for 5 years but had spent barely 4 months as husband and wife. They must have been excited to restart their lives together. I imagine Jane was determined not to be separated from Andy again.

Jane brought Andy home to Beaufort, Victoria where he met her family probably for the first time.

No doubt Jane’s mother Elizabeth welcomed Andy into the family, but what did patriarch John Stewart think of his new son-in-law? Did John’s blunt manner cause tension?

The Stewart home was a small miner’s cottage – two bedrooms at the front, a kitchen-eating room behind and a verandah. There wasn’t much space to retreat from a tense situation. The kitchen was Elizabeth and Jane’s domain, the verandah was where John would sit and smoke his pipe. Where did Andy fit?

Andy was going through a difficult period, assimilating back into civilian life. He may have had bad dreams or flashbacks. He may have felt that there was no-one he could talk to about his experiences. But not only did he have to psychologically adjust, he had to find his place in the Stewart family.

Perhaps this is when Andy took on the chore of chopping wood for the fire and the stove. Next to the house was a substantial woodpile. Going out to the woodpile would have been a good way for Andy to get some time to himself and let off some steam, while also being a productive member of the family.


NAA: B2455, DUNCAN, A.S. National Archives of Australia.

Featured image: Andrew Stewart Duncan with niece Nellie Bruce Stewart and Clarence Leslie Stewart, Beaufort c.1919. From the author’s collection. Copyright Andrew Palmer.