Story: Duncan, David and Duncan, Peter

Page 1 - Biography

Duncan, David

1832–1897

Blacksmith, manufacturing engineer

Duncan, Peter

1838–1907

Blacksmith, manufacturing engineer

This biography was written by John Pollard and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 2, 1993

David and Peter Duncan were born on 22 January 1832 and 27 December 1838 at Braidmore farm, near Brechin, Forfarshire, Scotland, the sons of Ronald Duncan, a farm servant and later overseer, and his wife, Betty Low. Their trade training was in smithery and fitting. Peter emigrated to New Zealand, arriving in Lyttelton on the Lancashire Witch on 13 October 1863. Initially he was in partnership with Benjamin Cordery, a Lyttelton blacksmith, then from 1865 with Alex Scrimgeour. On 26 October 1866 Peter Duncan married Jessie Keir in Christchurch; they were to have at least seven sons and a daughter. The same year he and Scrimgeour set up a tiny establishment behind a seed shop in Cashel Street. The partnership dissolved in 1868. Scrimgeour continued business alongside Duncan, and on becoming bankrupt in 1870 entered his employment to become fitting-shop foreman.

David Duncan married Ann Bookless Robertson, a domestic servant, at Montrose, Forfarshire, on 4 June 1858; they were to have two daughters and a son. After Ann's death in 1864 he married Mary Ann Skene (née Duncan), a widow, on 31 July 1865 at Craig. They were to have a son. It is not known if Mary accompanied David Duncan when he emigrated to join his brother. He arrived at Lyttelton on the Blue Jacket in August 1867. The brothers were partners in 1870 but the name P. & D. Duncan was not used until 1874. William Boag, an advanced agriculturist farming at Burnside, encouraged the brothers to repair farm machinery. Plough making began as a fill-in, but the first was bespoken before completion. Their uninsured premises were destroyed by fire on Christmas Eve 1869 but friends helped the business to survive and prosper at a site in Tuam Street. Later a branch was established in Ashburton.

P. & D. Duncan Limited was incorporated in 1894, with shares being held by the Duncans, their families and Peter Duncan's brother-in-law, James Keir. David was chairman, Peter managing director, and both had sons on the salaried staff. The brothers took no significant part in public affairs apart from being elders of St Paul's Presbyterian Church. Instead they worked at expanding their company and developing their reputation as manufacturers of farm machinery.

In 1870 P. & D. Duncan won the mayor's cup for the best collection of implements at the Canterbury Agricultural and Pastoral Association show. By 1876 they had a new wheelwright and blacksmith shop with eight forges and 40 employees. At the 1883 show they were awarded the president's 40-guinea cup for winning the largest number of awards in the implement section. Their exhibits included patent wire strainers, two- and three-furrow ploughs, a sub-soiler for following the ordinary plough, the turnwrest or hillside plough, light and heavy grubbers, scarifiers, disc harrows, field rollers and clod crushers, farm carts and drays, double-furrow ploughs with 'ingeniously contrived potato planters attached', and a 'giant double furrow plough for heavy and stony land.' By 1884 there was a drill which could sow either seed or manure or both together. In 1891 19 forges and 108 employees turned out 330 ploughs, 150 disc harrows, 150 drills, 100 drays and 70 rollers.

The company's greatest achievement during the horse-drawn era was the manufacture in 1897 of the spring-tooth cultivator. James Keir, valued for his designing skill in modern machinery and destined to become managing director, moved from the Ashburton branch to participate in the development. But even as the brothers attained renown, the Duncan regime drew to an end. David died at Christchurch on 1 July 1897 and Peter, who retired through ill health in 1901, died there on 3 February 1907, survived by his wife Jessie. Mary Duncan had died in Scotland in 1895. David Duncan was described as a 'sterling' colonist who had done much to develop colonial resources, and Peter as 'a kindly, upright, devout Scot,…a sterling citizen'. After their deaths, several of their sons continued to work for the company.