The Founders of St Mary’s

With Founders’ Day at the end of this term it is perhaps a good time to remind ourselves who the three founders of St Mary’s were and how much we owe to their vision, commitment and faith in its success. The next blogs will look at these individuals who contributed so much in the early days of the school.

Canon John Duncan

John Duncan

Throughout the many years of remarkable dedication to all the work he undertook, Canon John Duncan found time to continue his childhood love of fishing and would pause in the centre of Calne and lean over the bridge to watch the trout rising in the stream below. It was a passion that started from his boyhood in Scotland where he spent his days riding, playing sport and exploring the countryside.

John Duncan was born in 1833 in Aberdeen, the son of a ship owner. He was the seventh child in a family of eleven children. An older sister told of his good looks, lively disposition and intelligence. He remembered himself as an idle child who only began working hard when he was fourteen, but with such success that he took the highest honours at Aberdeen University when he was sixteen.

He then left the city of his birth to study further, first in London and later in Berlin. He remained on the Continent travelling for some months with a friend, in what was said to have been a time of great intellectual development for him. He read extensively, gaining a love of Italian art and a knowledge of architecture which served him well when, as a parish priest in Wiltshire, he was involved in the restoration of church buildings.

Back in England, John Duncan took up the post of classics master at a boys’ school in Calne. He became a close friend of Archdeacon Drury, the vicar of Bremhill and through him met the Bishop of Salisbury, Bishop Hamilton. Under the Bishop’s influence, John Duncan was ordained in 1856 after a year at Chichester Theological College. He started his ministry as a curate in Sherborne before moving to Lyneham. Throughout the next six years John Duncan dedicated himself to the work of the parish, gaining a great affection for the local people. He turned his energies to pastoral work, establishing two new schools where he taught regularly, restoring the church and building a new one in the hamlet of Brandenstoke.

Calne at this time was regarded as one of the most important benefices of the diocese and a challenging one. The town had a strongly non-denominational population and John Duncan inclined towards the Anglo-Catholic theology of Bishop Hamilton. On the death of the vicar, Canon Guthrie, John Duncan was offered the post and, despite his concerns, became vicar in 1865. He remained so for nearly forty-two years. Some of his parishioners felt unable to support his teaching and left the church to start a free church. However, they appreciated John Duncan and valued his friendship. He became a familiar figure about the town. The warmth of his personality and his concern for the welfare of the inhabitants endeared him to the parish and he became a much-respected member of the community. He chaired many organisations in the town, had a long connection with the library and was chaplain to Lord Lansdowne and to the Union workhouse.

John Duncan could have made a success of whichever career he had chosen. He was described as having ‘an extraordinary aptitude for business’, the quality of his work was consistent and the amount of work he got through was ‘astonishing’. He is said to have had a keen insight, unimpeachable judgement and great attention to detail. He was ‘the soul of honour and integrity’.

Canon Duncan came to know and care deeply about the lives of those in the parish. The welfare of the children and their education was of particular interest to him. He was a regular visitor to five schools in Calne and oversaw the enlargement of three of them. At a period when the education of girls was receiving greater prominence, Canon Duncan became aware of the need for a school of high standards for the daughters of the tradespeople and farmers in the parish. He gained the support of the church community, particularly his fellow founders, Ellinor Gabriel and Penelope Murray, and in 1873 he founded St Mary’s. From the opening day, Canon Duncan was an integral part of the life of the school. He gave weekly scripture lessons and took services in the little chapel. He was convinced of the importance of regular examinations to keep standards high, and at first carried out the assessments himself. With a small group of local people, he acted as a trustee of St Mary’s and gave financial support when the school moved to a larger property.

In 1871 John Duncan married Alice Murray, the daughter of one of his fellow founders, Penelope Murray. They had a daughter Isabel and a son, J M Duncan, who was a student at Balliol when his father died in 1907.
One parishioner wrote of him, ‘As years went on it was noticed that he worked harder and harder. Up and down the streets, in and out of the houses, on the Green or the marketplace, at St Mary’s, at the Union, and to the farthest limits of his parish, he was seen every day hurrying along with his short, quick step, stopping to do some business or to ask after a sick child.’

On the day he died he was still busy, ‘soothing away a grievance or speaking a word of encouragement’. His death was sudden and unexpected. Sitting at home at the end of the day, he said to his maid, ‘I am going to die. Tell your mistress my last thoughts were of her’. His funeral cortege was attended by thousands, including many children, among them the girls of St Mary’s for whom he had been such a strong influence in their lives.