By MICK ROBERTS ©
THE life of one of Sydney’s most successful publicans, a man who hosted some of the harbour city’s grandest tourist hotels, ended tragically in 1935 after he murdered his wife while she slept, and he then turned the revolver on himself.
The son of a celebrated New Zealand ‘whip’ in the old coaching days of Otago, James Alfred Duncan made his way to Australia to host some of Sydney’s top-notch hotels during the first three decades of the 20th century.
Duncan had cut his teeth as a Kiwi hotelier, and knew the ropes. In fact, hotels were in his blood. He was born in his father’s Palmerston pub, the Empire Hotel on New Zealand’s South Island, in 1881, before moving-on to host one of Christchurch’s most notable tourist destinations – Warner’s Hotel.
After his father’s death, and a protracted legal battle with his mother’s new husband, a determined Duncan took control of Palmerston’s Empire Hotel – his birth place – in 1903, at the age of 22.
The Empire Hotel in Palmerston, Otago was burned to the ground in 1905, with the Duncan family and guests escaping unhurt.
Duncan went on to host the pub around the corner from the Empire, the North Western Hotel. He also had the Bridge Hotel in Kaitangata, and one of New Zealand’s most notable tourist destinations, Warners Hotel, in Church Square Christchurch.
Warner’s Hotel in Cathedral Square was the site of a hotel established in 1863. The original building was extended numerous occasions, before it was burnt down in 1900, and replaced by a new building in 1901. Again, Warners Hotel underwent numerous alterations over the years with a fourth storey added in 1910. The historic hotel was demolished in 2011 after it was deemed unsafe as a consequence of the Christchurch Earthquake.
Duncan married Violet Ina Duncan in 1910 before building a reputation as a competent hotelier. With his wife and two young children, he ‘crossed the ditch’ from Christchurch to Sydney to manage the Hotel Australia during the later years of the Great War in 1917.
The Hotel Australia in Castlereagh Street was until its closure and subsequent demolition, “the best-known hotel in Australia” and “the premier hotel in Sydney”. Situated in one of Sydney’s important thoroughfares in the heart of the city, the foundation stone was laid by Sir Henry Parkes Henry in 1889.
The hotel boasted international standards of comfort and service. It became “the place to stay and be seen by the upper echelons of society”, and sought the more refined atmosphere of the classic European hotels. It was demolished and replaced by the MLC Centre in 1971.
When Duncan was assistant manager, the Hotel Australia had accommodation for 300 guests, and a dining room that seated 500 people. A “high-class” orchestra played afternoons and evenings. The death of a young violinist in the orchestra would lead to circumstances that ended in his and his wife’s tragic death.
Less than a year into his new Australian career venture, Duncan was involved in a serious accident on February 19 1918, when a car he was travelling in as a passenger slammed into the veranda posts of – ironically – the New Zealand Hotel.
The accident almost claimed his life and was said to have changed him from an outgoing friendly person, to an introverted, distant man, who never was quite the same again. The Sydney Morning Herald reported the accident on Wednesday February 20:
FATAL MOTOR SMASH
A motor party driving out from the city to Waverley met with a dreadful accident at 1.30 yesterday morning, resulting in the death of one of the occupants of the car, while three other persons are all dangerously injured.
The occupants of the car were:-
- C. C. Rust, manager of the General Motors Export Co., 350 Kent-Street.
- J. Duncan, assistant manager of the Hotel Australia, Castlereagh-street.
- Miss Annie Egan, Birrell-street, Waverley.
- Miss Ivy Allen, Gordon-street, Paddington.
The party had been at the Hotel Australia during portion of the evening, and later at the T. and G. buildings. In the early morning they left in a car lent them by Mr. Lee, of the T. and G. buildings, for the purpose of taking the young ladies home.
The accident was witnessed by a police officer attached to the Darlinghurst Station. He first observed a car swiftly descending the hill into William-street from the city. Half way down the slope the car apparently got out of control and bounded on at a terrific pace. It dashed into a verandah post of the New Zealand Hotel, at the corner of Yurong and William streets, snapped it like matchwood, and carried two more posts away in similar fashion before it overturned. The occupants were scattered about the roadway.
The first assistance was rendered to the injured motorists by Mrs. Broad, who resides close to the scene of the accident. She tried to alleviate their suffering until professional assistance arrived. When they were taken to Sydney Hospital by the Civil Ambulance, it was found that all but Miss Egan were unconscious and had been terribly injured. Mr. Rust was suffering from a fractured skull, a fractured right scapula, and internal injuries; Mr. Duncan received a fractured skull and puncture over the right eye; Miss Egan sustained a fractured right clavicle, abrasions of the body, and shock. Miss Allen, who sustained a fractured skull, died at 5.30 yesterday morning.
At a late hour last night, the condition of Miss Egan had shown slight signs of improvement, but the condition of Duncan and Rust was unaltered.
One of the two young women, who both were violinists in Duncan’s hotel orchestra, Ivy Allen, and the driver, Cecil Rust of Auburn, died as result of injuries received in the accident.
Duncan told an inquest into the deaths that he was asked to escort Miss Egan and Miss Allen home after their evening performance at the hotel. He went to the ‘T. and G.’ flats, where they were having supper, and left with them to take them home. He told the Coroner that he had one drink and the four of them were quite sober when they left about a 1.15am.
Duncan’s next memory was being lifted from his seat when the smash occurred. Despite witnesses reporting the smell of alcohol at the accident scene, it was concluded that it was caused by whisky being poured over the victims for medicinal reasons after the accident.
The Coroner found that Allen and Rust “died from injuries accidentally received”. But Duncan, aparently never recovered mentally after the accident.
After a long recuperation, in July 1920 Duncan took the license of another of Sydney’s grand tourist destinations, the Hotel Mansions in Bayswater Road, Potts Point. From the Hotel Mansions, Duncan moved onto Usher’s Metropolitan Hotel in Castlereagh Street, Sydney when he received the license in June 1922.
Duncan remained at the Metropolitan until 1928, when he took the license of the newly completed Panorama Hotel, at Bulli Tops, on the NSW South Coast in 1931. He had a short stay at Bulli, and the following year he was appointed manager and licensee of the Wentworth Hotel, Sydney.
Duncan, 53, and his wife, Violet, 50, along with their 26-year-old daughter Margaret, returned to New Zealand in 1933. Duncan took the license of the Royal Oak Hotel at Wellington, where he murdered his wife, later turning the gun on himself, and committing suicide. The New Zealand Herald reported on March 25 1935:
The licensee of the Royal Oak Hotel, Wellington, Mr. James Alfred Duncan, and his wife were found shot dead in their room at the hotel shortly after 6 o’clock this morning. It was customary for Mr. Duncan to take the keys of the various bars and cellars with him when he retired, as a rule about midnight. He did this on Saturday night. Following instructions, a porter knocked at Mr. Duncan’s door at 6 o’clock this morning to get the keys in the usual way, but could get no response. He knocked again and again, with no result. As this was most unusual he became alarmed and advised the police. They tried the door and as it could not be opened from the outside, the porter offered to get into the room by one of the outside windows. He found both Mr. and Mrs. Duncan dead with a revolver lying beside them. News of the double tragedy came as a shock to many in the city, particularly to those who knew Mr. Duncan intimately. There is evidence that it occurred about 3.25 this morning, as at that time police officers on duty at James Smith’s corner are reported to have heard sounds they took to be shots, but investigations in the neighbourhood revealed everything quiet. James Smith’s corner is 60 or 70 yards away from Dixon Street at the side of the Royal Oak Hotel. People and servants living in the hotel were, it is believed, not disturbed by the shots… Mrs. Duncan also came from Palmerston South. Mr. and Mrs. Duncan leave one son, Mr. Leonard Duncan, who is manager of a motor tyre business at Launceston, Tasmania, and one daughter, Miss Duncan, of Wellington.
The murder, suicide was reportedly widely in Australia, with the Sydney Truth revealing some further details on the Duncan’s motives on March 31.
EVER since he was involved, a few years ago, in a motoring accident in Sydney in which a girl lost her life, the hoodoo of misfortune seems to have haunted the life of James Alfred Duncan, formerly manager of the Carlton, the Mansions, the Wentworth and Usher’s hotels, and well-known and liked in Sydney.
Now, misfortune has culminated in tragedy, for, on Sunday morning last, Duncan and his wife were found dead in their room at the Royal Oak Hotel, Wellington, of which Duncan was the licensee.
Both had been shot dead, and in the man’s hand was a revolver. The police are satisfied that it is a case of murder and suicide. Close friends believe that the tragedy is a sequel to the motor accident in Sydney a few years ago, in which Duncan sustained grave head injuries.
Duncan retired apparently in his usual spirits at midnight on Saturday, but when the night porter made his usual call shortly after six o’clock the following morning he got no answer.
The police were called in and the Duncans were found dead in the un-disturbed room. Each had a revolver bullet in the head. It has been revealed that the tragedy was the culmination of domestic trouble between Duncan and his wife. Mrs. Duncan told a friend that on her return from Wellington races last Monday week, Duncan accused her of infidelity which was denied by Mrs. Duncan and also by a man named.
Stormy scenes took place at the hotel during the week before the tragedy between the licensee and his wife which were the subject of comment among the staff and even the guests. On Friday, Mrs. Duncan told friends that she was leaving Duncan because of his accusations and was going to Auckland. She also stated her solicitors had advised Duncan to this effect and that on Monday, the day after the crime was committed, proceedings would be started for maintenance.
What happened after that is a matter for conjecture but it is believed that Duncan made efforts to patch up the trouble, realising that if his wife left him it would wreck his career as a hotelkeeper. At any rate, Mrs. Duncan did not leave the hotel on Saturday as she told friends she intended. It would appear that in spite of efforts at a reconciliation Mrs. Duncan again reiterated her determination to leave her husband and that in the early hours of Sunday morning Duncan killed her and then took his own life.
Miss M. Duncan, the nineteen-years old daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Duncan who was asleep in a nearby room, knew nothing of the tragedy until the dreadful discovery a few hours later… A quiet, reserved man who following the motor disaster, was slow to make friends. A man who while not mixing to any extent with his guests was very much respected by the staffs of the hotels which knew him. A capable man, but one over whom a shadow was cast after his accident, and who seemed unable to shake of memory of the tragedy. Duncan leaves one son, Leonard Duncan, manager of a motor tyre business at Launceston, Tasmania, and one daughter. He has a brother, Edgar Duncan, resident in Sydney.
The formal finding of the Coroner, Mr. E. Gilbertson, J.P. was as follows:
“Violet Duncan was killed by James Alfred Duncan by a revolver shot in the head while she was asleep in the Royal Oak Hotel, Wellington, on March 24, 1935. James Alfred Duncan took his life by shooting himself in the head with a revolver on March 24, 1935, at the Royal Oak Hotel, Wellington.
“The inquiry discloses that the marital relations of the deceased had .recently ‘become strained’,” said the Coroner.
“Arrangements for a separation had been discussed and proceedings were to have been commenced on Monday, March 25.
“Witnesses state that Mr and Mrs Duncan retired to their bedroom apparently in a normal state of mind about midnight on Saturday, March 23. Nothing further is known about their movements until about 3.45 a.m. on Sunday, March 24, when two shots at short intervals were heard by persons in the street, but not by anyone in the hotel building itself.
“At. 6.30 on the same morning the hotel porter failed to arouse Mr. Duncan -by knocking at his bedroom door, and then sent for the police. Access to the bedroom was then gained through a window by the house porter. The bodies of the deceased were discovered lying peacefully in separate twin beds, the bedclothes undisturbed, and no signs of any struggle.
“The deceased Violet Duncan was lying on her side in a relaxed attitude as if asleep and with a bullet wound in the forehead, while James Duncan was on his back in bed with a small revolver in his right hand and a bullet wound in his forehead.
“The conclusion I arrive at is that James Duncan had risen from his bed in the night, shot his wife in her sleep, then returned to his own bed and there shot himself. His fingerprints alone were on the revolver.
“A bullet of the calibre of the revolver was found in the head of each of the deceased, and two discharged shells in the chamber of the revolver corresponding with the size of the bullets. The remaining three cartridges were not discharged.”
First published 2015. Updated 2022.
© Copyright 2022 Mick Roberts
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