More than just an Original Anzac

Andrew Stewart Duncan c.1915. From the author’s collection. Copyright Andrew Palmer.
My great-grandfather Andrew “Andy” Duncan was a soldier for a good part of his adult life. The military service that defined him to his wife and family was his enlistment as an original Anzac, but by 1914 Andy already had 12 years’ British Army experience in England, South Africa and India and a year in the South Australian Militia. The story of 17 year old Andy joining the army and travelling the world is seldom told and the details almost forgotten.

By piecing together war diaries, military histories, newspaper articles and family stories we can start to see the man with a love of empire and military tradition, a strong sense of civic duty and an independent streak that sometimes got him into trouble. While there are gaps in the story and questions that might never be answered, the 100th anniversary of the First World War seems a fitting time to tell Andy’s story.

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Andrew Stewart Duncan

Beginnings

Andy Duncan was born on 15 July 1882 in the family home at 9 Damside in Newton on Ayr, Scotland. He was the second son and the fourth of ten children born to John and Elizabeth Duncan (nee Stewart).

Andy’s world was working class, poor and built on coal. For generations the men of his mother’s family had been coal miners. His father had worked his way up from stoker to engine driver for the Glasgow and South Western Railway, operating locomotives between the Ayrshire collieries and the local industries hungry for coal.The local gasworks stood on the south side of Damside, the stink and soot from converting coal to gas a part of daily life.

Damside was a cobbled street of single-storey houses of brown-grey stone and thatched roofs. 9 Damside had been “Stewart’s Land” for several generations at least, and was the home of Mary Stewart, Elizabeth’s grandmother. Here the Duncans lodged along with Elizabeth’s sister Mary and her husband, engine driver William Cowan.

Between the two families there were nine children in the house when Andy was born. There would be sixteen children crammed around the Damside dinner table before the Duncans moved into their own home about 1890.

None of the Duncan children would take up work in the mines or on the railways. The industrialisation and urbanisation of Scotland opened up new and different employment opportunities, but did John and Elizabeth encourage their children to look away from the back-breaking and often dangerous work of their forebears?

Andy’s elder brother John worked as a boot finisher before moving to Clydebank to work as a machinist and driller for the Singer Manufacturing Company; his younger brothers Anthony and Hugh found apprenticeships as a baker and printer respectively.

Andy seems to have struck out on his own. By 1898 he had left Ayr for the booming port of Liverpool, where he worked as a labourer for a “Mr Stewart”. Was the Stewart name just a coincidence, or was there a connection with his mother’s family?

In 1899 when Andy attested for the South Lancashire Militia, his address was recorded as “Regin Street” Liverpool. Old maps of Liverpool don’t seem to include a Regin Street, but there is a Regent Street not far from the docks. Could Andy’s Scottish accent have been misheard by a Lancashire recruiting officer?

Sources

Statutory Births http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk 

Scotland Census 1881, 1891, 1901, 1911.

Scotland Valuation Rolls 1885, 1895, 1915, 1920.

British Army Service Records. The National Archives UK. WO96/684/108 .

Featured image: The Twa Brigs, Ayr. Postcard. From the author’s collection. Copyright Andrew Palmer.

Where am I from?

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It’s not so straightforward to say where home is after living in numerous places in Australia, Japan, New Zealand and Australia again. I sometimes feel homesick for Japan, though my wife asks how an Australian can use that word about Japan.

Now I live in Geelong, Victoria. As I’ve learnt more about my forebears I’ve been surprised to find how many of my earliest Australian ancestors lived or passed through Geelong. Five of my great-great-great grandfathers were here in the 1850s.

  • Two free-settler British ancestors first set foot on Australian soil here, John Nicholls from Cornwall in 1849 and Henry Palmer from Kent in 1852. John was a miller, Henry a bricklayer.
  • Another free-settler, Somerset labourer Solomon Ball, married Frances Victoria Hemmens at Christ Church, Geelong, in 1855.
  • One of my convict ancestors spent some time in Van Diemen’s Land first, but later came this way. Henry Steward, transported for 14 years for stealing a velveteen coat and a pair of trousers, came to Geelong around 1846 after receiving his conditional pardon. He worked as a carpenter and stonemason in Geelong district. Henry buried four of his children during his ten years in Geelong.
  • During the gold rush George Powell walked 85 kilometres from Ballarat to Geelong to deposit his gold in the bank. Riding a horse would have made George a potential target for bushrangers, so he chose to walk.

Gold, land or work drew all these families to Ballarat, where I was born generations later. I am proud of my Ballarat history, but it also feels right to have put down roots in Geelong.