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British Industrial History

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Robert Duncan (2)

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Published 1901.

Robert Duncan (c1851- ) J.P., M.Inst.C.E., M.I.N.A., of Ross and Duncan

Senior Partner of Ross & Duncan, Marine Engrs., Whitefield, Govan

1850 Born son of William Duncan, of Coltness Iron Co., Ltd., Glasgow

Educated at Glasgow High Sch., Academy and University.

Trained at Alexander Chaplin and Co., Dubs and Co., W. and A. McOnie

1876 Became a Partner in the firm

1880 Senior Partner .


MR. ROBERT DUNCAN is publicly known otherwise than as a master workman. It may come to many with all the force of surprise that the student of Carlyle who compiled "Thoughts on Life," the editor of Britannia, the scholarly writer, acts as the head and principal of a prosperous engineering firm. But the prejudice which divorces culture from industry is based on a fiction. Brain, not muscle, is the chief factor in modern industry. The ingenious inventor has long ago displaced the brawny workman, and intellect, aforetime relegated exclusively to literature or science or divinity, is employed by practical business and productive industry. Mr. Duncan is an engineer throughout his working day and a man of letters in his leisure time. He has characteristics which mark him as typical of the modern industrial leader. For Mr. Duncan's forebears we have to look away up the Valley of the Findhorn, within sight of Kinloss Abbey, in the little churchyard of which many of his forefathers lie buried. But his family migrated from Morayshire early in the nineteenth century to Glasgow, and, like many northerners, helped to make and shared in the prosperity of the city they came to dwell in.

About fifty years ago Mr. Robert Duncan was born in Glasgow, on the south side of the Clyde. He was sent to the old High School, thence to the Academy, and, having been destined for the engineering profession, attended the science and engineering classes at Glasgow University. His scholastic career was distinguished, and, though taking no degree, he won two Walker prizes, the blue-ribbon of engineering classes.

Having thus completed the theoretic part of his education, he was apprenticed an engineer with Messrs. Chaplin & Co., then engineers at Finnieston, and now in Govan. His apprenticeship ended, he entered the drawing office of Messrs. Dubs & Co., the locomotive builders, and continued there till 1875, when he engaged with Messrs. A. & A. McOnie, the makers of sugar machinery. Here Mr. Duncan came under the tutelage of Mr. John McNeil, to whom he expresses himself as greatly indebted for his knowledge of engineering. It would be interesting to learn what opinion Mr. Duncan's teachers and guides entertained of their pupil and apprentice, because his memory of them is uniformly grateful and admiring. Most probably the admiration was not all on the pupil's side.

In 1876 along with a partner named Ross, Mr. Duncan took over the premises and business of an old firm of boilermakers in Hydepark Street, and with a staff of twelve men engaged in the business of making marine engines and boilers. For some time the young firm had uphill work. Recalling those early days, Mr. Duncan tells how he bore the whole burden of the counting-house and drawing office on his own shoulders. By working late and early, however, the evil days were tided over, the force of evil fortune was broken.

After four years of it Mr. Ross went abroad, but Mr. Duncan stuck to the business, and by the aid of able assistants, whose abilities he frankly admires, he was successful. The premises in Hydepark Street afforded no room for expansion, except at too great cost, and so, in 1882, the firm of Ross & Duncan removed to Whitefield Road, Govan, and in the premises erected there developed rapidly. Originally of comparatively small dimensions, the works now extend over an area of 14,000 square yards, and employ over 450 men. Much of this prosperity Mr. Duncan modestly ascribes to the engineering abilities of Mr. Rankin, and to the able assistance he has received from Mr. James Galloway and Mr. Alfred Lonergan, his partners and managers; but it is impossible to believe that the chief part has not been Mr. Duncan's own. He delights in his profession, and takes a keen interest in new inventions and devices for improving marine engines and ship appliances. Patenting a special form of propeller, besides adding improvements of less note, he has also shown a readiness to forward the inventions of others. The Bremme valve gear is a speciality of the firm and we are led to believe that mere use and wont stands between it and universal adoption.

But it is not as an engineer alone Mr. Duncan has won his place in the industrial world: he is an organiser of labour in a very special sense. Early imbued with the doctrines of Carlyle. Mr. Duncan resolved to attempt practising the teachings of the Annandale prophet. He accepts as truth the assertion that, to do justice to the labourer, capitalists should share their profits with their workers, and with commendable . . . . . . . .

In another and perhaps more popular direction Mr. Robert Duncan has shown himself keenly alive to the tendencies of the times. Borne on the high fever of warlike enthusiasm the Imperial idea of the British race has come to greatness; but the majority of our Imperialists have South Africa to thank for their conversion. Not very many years ago, the ideal of Imperial federation was urged upon the British people by a few far-seeing enthusiasts who were received with ridicule. At first treated as a quixotic absurdity, then seriously considered, and finally respected by the press and public opinion, the infant Imperial idea has received its baptism of fire in South Africa and taken a splendid name. As a practical political idea it has received the imprimatur of politicians like Lords Rosebery and Salisbury, and thinkers like Professor Seeley. Mr. Duncan was the early pioneers of the movement, though the rash jingoism of his fellow Imperialists embarrassed him not a little. Like every new movement, its beginnings were inspired more by enthusiastic sentiment than guided by Practical and perhaps the cool waters of ridicule plentifully poured on its infant efforts were not wholly unnecessary. Associations, of more or less ambitious title, were started to organise the Imperialist movement, but one after another failed, because the promoters did not take account of the slow and steady character of the British people. Modestly framed, and guided by practical sense, an association to further the Imperial movement was organised in Glasgow, in which Mr. Duncan took a leading part. It was named "Council on Colonial Relations," and had among its active members Mr. F. T. Barrett, Mitchell Library, Glasgow Mr. George L. Houstoun, Johnstone Castle; Mr. David Johnston, Allan Line, Mavisbank, Glasgow; Mr. Thomas Russell, of Ascog; and others of similar standing. Mr. Duncan, however, regards the whole British race as essentially one nation, and favours the Imperial idea from that motive only. Perhaps we might venture to suspect in his Imperialism a deeper and grander motive still. It is significant, at least, that he has given his most ardent support to what is called the movement toward national unity.

In the year 1895 he founded and edited a monthly journal named Britannia, the sole aim of which is "to promote the closer union of home country and colonies." Under Mr. Robert Duncan's editorship, this organ has attained a wide if not numerous circulation, and had he been willing to allow the chief direction of the journal to fall into the hands of the British Empire League, Britannia would have become the official organ of British Imperialism. But Mr. Duncan is a man of strong individuality, and would not become the mouthpiece of any officialdom. Britannia has a good record, including among its contributors Professor Stanley Lane-Poole, Hon. W. P. Reeves, Lord Charles Beresford, Sir Spencer St. John, Dr. William Wallace, Mr. Felix Anders, and others of note, besides presenting monthly to its leaders a finely-conceived cartoon by Proctor and a complete record of the National Unity movement day by day.

Mr. Robert Duncan is no stay-at-home Imperialist, whose belief in his own people is fostered by ignorance of other nations. He has travelled in South America and on the Continent of Europe, gathering a wide knowledge of men and manners, arts and industries. Mr. Duncan holds a firm faith in the value of association and organisation, and has connected himself with those societies and institutions which exist to further his profession, principles, or ideas. He is a member of the Institute of Civil Engineers, Fellow of the Colonial Institute, Member of the Institution of Shipbuilders and Engineers in Scotland, etc.

With his strong belief in race and heredity, Mr. Duncan must needs be a loyal clansman, and is an enthusiastic member of the Robertson Clan Society. Nor has he quite escaped being infected with the passion for sport and athletics so prevalent now, and enjoys a game of golf or a yachting cruise with zest. Mr. Duncan is, as ire have indicated, a man of his time. Conservative in his leanings, an Imperialist in the best sense of that much misused term, a firm believer in the British Constitution, he is yet an employer of labour who practises Socialist doctrine, a cautious though sincere disciple of Thomas Carlyle, a practical humanitarian. Though successful in business and a good organiser, his personal appearance and manner suggest rather the poetic temperament of the man of letters. In all this there is no hint of incongruity or faddism, for Mr. Duncan clearly knows his own mind and drives straight to definite and practical objects. Benevolence and business, provide culture and practical industry, Imperialism and Socialism may not readily accord in these troublous days, but from all these an excellent unity may be beaten out at last. If Mr. Duncan's friends were to assert that he is a pioneer working toward such a unity, we should not greatly care to deny it.

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. ‘Captains of Industry’ by William S. Murphy. Published 1901.