The Duncan Affair
George Duncan was born and raised in London England, born on the 20th of July 1930 at Golders Green. His parents were New Zealanders living in England, who eventually emigrated to Victoria, Australia in 1937.
George attended the Melbourne Grammar School, and graduated Dux of his class in 1947. He went on to earn an Honours Degree in Classical Philology (A branch of knowledge that deals with the structure, historical development, and relationships of a language) at the University of Melbourne.
In 1950, George contracted the deadly disease Tuberculosis and took some time away from studying to concentrate on getting healthy again.
Eventually he returned to his schooling, 7 years later, at St Johns College, Cambridge (UK), where he earned a BA in 1960, A Bachelor of Laws in 1961, an MA in 1963 and a Ph.D in 1964.
George eventually returned to Australia, much wealthier than when he had left, and took up a residence in Adelaide, South Australia at Lincoln College, He was also a law lecturer at the University of Adelaide
Within only 6 weeks of being back on Australian soil, George Duncan was found drowned, in The Torrens River, on the 10th of May, 1972, at the age of 41.
At this point, you may be wondering what the historical significance is of George Duncan’s death ?
In 1972, The River Torrens was known locally by Police as “Number One Beat”. Homosexuality was Illegal in South Australia at the time, so local gay men would meet along the Torrens River and engage in their private business.
At some time around 11pm on May 10th, George Duncan and another man, Roger James, were thrown into the Torrens River, Duncan, having had Tuberculosis when he was younger, now only had one lung, and was a somewhat frail man. He couldn’t keep himself afloat and drowned that evening.
Roger James, suffered a broken ankle in the incident, managed to get himself out of the river and up to a near by road, where he was assisted by a driver who was passing by, Bevan Spencer von Einem.
Von Einem took James to the nearby Royal Adelaide Hospital, and raised the alarm about the attack.
The police and passers-by rescued the body of Duncan, but weirdly, the body was returned to the river so news crews, who had turned up late, could film its extraction from the river.
This murder would change Adelaide forever, and eventually Australia, bringing about Homosexual law reform.
The attack attracted a lot of media coverage, and Roger James was offered government protection by South Australian Premier, Donald Dunstan. It was soon rumoured that the killing was done by three senior Vice Squad Police officers, who were assisted by a tall unidentified man.
The men were called to an inquiry trial to give witness to the events, where each man refused to answer any questions asked of them. This eventually led to their suspension, and resignations.
The Police investigation into the murder called the incident “A high spirited frolic gone wrong”, and failed to find any evidence sufficient enough to prosecute any of the accused Police Officers.
Public debate and speculation about the case was extraordinary, so Donald Dunstan decided to allow Police Commissioner, Harold Salisbury, to call in Detectives from Scotland Yard to investigate matters further. Whatever the Scotland Yard detectives discovered, it was never made public, and because of their findings, the Crown Solicitor announced on the 24thof October 1972 that he had “decided against proceeding with any prosecution”
|The Canberra Times – Friday 28th July 1972
This of course led to outrage in some parts of the community, and accusations of a cover-up amongst the Police and Government. National Media coverage only stirred the outraged public further, and Dr Duncan was held up as a Martyr by the Australian Gay Rights Movement, causing political unrest.
A Liberal Party Member, Mr Murray Hill, introduced a bill into local State Parliament on the 26thof July 1972, making vast amendments to the “Criminal Law Consolidation Act”, that was the law that governed the criminalisation of homosexuality in South Australia.
The following is from Wikipedia describing the process of the passing of the bill in South Australian Parliament:
“The amendment was assented to on 9 November 1972, however a further amendment weakened it to only allow a legal defence for homosexual acts committed in private. In 1973 the Labor Member for Elizabeth, Peter Duncan introduced the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill into Parliament which, although passed by the Lower House was defeated twice in the Legislative Council. On 27 August 1975 the unaltered bill was again introduced, defeated, reintroduced, defeated, reintroduced a third time and passed, all on the same day, making South Australia the first Australian State to fully decriminalise homosexuality.”
Many years later, in 1985, a former Vice Squad Officer, Mick O’Shea revealed to the Advertiser Newspaper that a cover-up was going on. He made very specific allegations, that it was common practice fo
r Vice Squad Officers of the time to throw homosexuals they found along the Torrens beat in the river, and sometimes even assault them.
This of course led to more inquiries about the case, and the three accused officers were charged with the manslaughter of Dr Duncan in 1986. Two of the officers eventually went to trial in 1988. After refusing to testify, were acquitted of their charges.
New allegations were made of Police firing shots as they chased one individual, and allegations of an attempt to influence a jury member also surfaced.
In 1990 a Police Task force was set up, reporting directly to Parliament, but it failed to find sufficient evidence, and was soon closed down
Calls for a Royal Commission into the events of that night in 1972 are still heard today, but fall onto deaf ears.
George Duncan is buried in Centennial Park Cemetery.
On 10 May 2002, the 30th anniversary of Duncan’s death, a memorial monument was erected near the site of the murder, on the memorial are the words:
“In memory of Dr George Duncan, whose death by drowning on 10th May, 1972, near here, at the hands of persons unconvicted, precipitated homosexual law reform in South Australia, making it the first state in Australia in 1975 to decriminalise homosexual relations.”
Also on 10 May, Radio Adelaide broadcast a feature documentary The Killing of Dr George. On 1 October, the South Australia Institute of Justice Studies awarded a special commendation to Radio Adelaide, praising the documentary for its historical significance and inclusion of comment from people who had been gay activists at the time of Duncan’s death”
© 2014 Allen Tiller
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