The Tragedy of John Duncan

In early 1845 the Chartist lecturer John Duncan died.  He was just 35 years old.  Duncan was not a front-line Chartist.  He didn’t edit a periodical.  He didn’t do national tours.  He didn’t get many mentions in the Northern Star.  But John Duncan did his bit.   He was an Edinburgh man, a shoemaker.  In that place, and in other towns in Scotland, he began to appear on Chartist platforms.  He was an effective speaker.  When Feargus arrived in Scotland after his release from prison in 1840, John Duncan was his companion for part of his tour.

In summer 1842 John Duncan was having his say at big open-air Chartist meetings.  He wasn’t impressed by the rulers of the people, and he said it.  The politicians, the magistrates, the clergy, they were all as bad as each other as far as John Duncan was concerned.  He told the people that they had the right to strike for the Charter.  If they had no food, he advised them to get it from the fields full of potatoes.  It was defiant talk … and defiant talk from a man who did not possess the confidence and resilience of other Chartist speakers who were stirring up resistance at meetings across Britain in that fateful summer.  John Duncan knew what fate awaited him.   He was arrested, of course.

Many years later his friend Robert Kidd of Dundee recalled his story.  There had been a confrontation between the special constables and the people.  The Riot Act had been read … which pretty much brought things to a close. There was no riot.  John Duncan, Kidd tells us, was a quiet man, ‘a mild, gentlemanly, Christian creature’.  And he wasn’t present at the confrontation … he was ‘quietly at home, saw and knew nothing … until he read in the papers next morning an account of the proceedings’.   Home he might have been on that occasion, but John Duncan was not the sort of chap the magistrates wanted going around stirring things up. He was charged with inciting violence.

Robert Kidd was to remember the trial of John Duncan for the rest of his life:  ‘For the defence the best counsel were engaged and there was no proof to incriminate Duncan.  Judge of my surprise then when , in answer to the charge, he, in a dazed way, pleaded guilty.  Shocked at what he had done, I rushed forward to the dock, seized him and shook him, demanding that he should retract his plea.  He withdrew his plea.  Duncan was taken to jail and I never saw him again.’

The authorities dropped the case.  But for John Duncan it was all too late.  The strain of his arrest and of his trial destroyed him.  For the final months of his life, he was in severe mental distress.  KIdd informed the Northern Star, in late 1844, that Duncan didn’t even recognise his wife.  ‘A very sad end, was it not?’, he was to recall to a journalist almost half a century later.

Dundee Advertiser, 21 November 1891; W.Hamish Fraser, Chartism in Scotland (2010).

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