The Tōtarapuka Duncans

Tōtarapuka, the Duncan Family estate in East Wanganui

Tōtarapuka, the Duncan Family estate in East Wanganui

During the 1840s many Scottish families chose emigration to start a new life. This is the story of one of those families.

Andrew Duncan

Andrew Duncan

Andrew Duncan, his wife Margaret and their two young sons arrived in Wellington in 1840 with other New Zealand Company migrants. A year later they completed the difficult journey by foot along the coast to Whanganui. Their first home was a raupo-thatched hut on the site of Tōtarapuka pā, near the Whanganui River in Wanganui East.
Duncan purchased 105 acres from local Māori and began farming. He increased his land holdings during the next 10 years both in Wanganui East and on Durie Hill. He built a large family estate situated on the East Bank of the Whanganui River, just north of where Wanganui Girls’ College is sited. He named his home Tōtarapuka after the original Māori settlement located in the area. The house was built from local pit-sawn heart tōtara, with front doors and window joinery of oak brought out from England. It comprised 24 rooms and a large stables, as well as a gardener’s and coachmen’s cottages.
Tōtarapuka is remembered for its hospitality; the family entertained on a lavish scale. During the 19th and early 20th centuries it was a coach stop for the horse-drawn passenger carriages that travelled to other districts. A fire in 1925 destroyed one wing of the original house. Today it forms a part of the Acacia Park Motel in Anzac Parade.
Andrew Duncan’s son John followed in his father’s farming footsteps, while his brother, young Andrew, trained as a barrister. They went on to purchase part of the Otairi block in the Rangitīkei in 1881. This farm is still run by the family today. One of John’s sons, Thomas, established the Duncan Hospital on Durie Hill in 1953.

Elizabeth Duncan née Boyd

Elizabeth Duncan née Boyd

Margaret Duncan died in 1872 and Andrew senior remarried, to Elizabeth Boyd, with whom he had four more children, Eliza, Charles, Isabel and Christina. These children were to inherit the Wanganui East and Durie Hill farms.
Andrew Duncan planted 13 acres of garden around Tōtarapuku homestead. The property was subdivided in 1917. Duncan, Boydfield and Young Streets were all named after this family, while Helmore Street is named for the Duncans’ Christchurch solicitors.
Isabel Duncan grew up at Tōtarapuka. She was sent “home” as a young woman to finish her education, travelling first in America then in England. Like her father she was a passionate gardener and further developed the gardens at Tōtarapuka. Her daughter Josephine once said “I’ve never known her cook … she’d work in the garden from five o’clock in the morning until five at night.”

Isabel Mackay, née Duncan

Isabel Mackay, née Duncan

Isabel married Charles Mackay in 1904 and they had four children: Elizabeth, Duncan, Sheillah and Josephine. Duncan died as a young child.
Mackay was born in Nelson in1875 and had established his own law firm in Wanganui in 1902. He was Mayor of Wanganui from 1906 to 1913 and again from 1915 to 1920 and was responsible for much of the growth and development of the city during this period. This energetic career was overshadowed by an event in 1920 when he was charged with attempted murder after shooting and seriously wounding Walter D’Arcy Cresswell and sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment. It was later alleged that Mackay had made homosexual advances to Cresswell, who then attempted to extract a letter of confession and resignation from the Mayor.

Mayor Charles Mackay

Mayor Charles Mackay

The sensational nature of Mackay’s disgrace in 1920 all but expunged from local history a career of considerable public service. Following Mackay’s release from prison in 1926 he became a journalist in England and Europe. He was shot dead in Berlin by a policeman in 1929.
Isabel divorced Charles in 1920 and reverted to her maiden name of Duncan; her daughters also became Duncans. From then on Isabel spent the New Zealand winters in California with her mother’s family. Her daughter Elizabeth moved to New York where she married George Packer-Berry in 1925 and had a daughter, Carolyn. Elizabeth died from pneumonia a year later, shortly after her 21st birthday.

Young Duncan Mackay, who died at an early age

Young Duncan Mackay, who died at an early age

Josephine was the youngest Duncan child. Born in 1917, she lived at Tōtarapuka until the property was sold in 1972. Jo Duncan had a governess until she was 13, when she went to Miss Curry’s school in Victoria Avenue. Although she wanted to continue studying her mother wouldn’t let her as she believed girls should stay at home. Her mother did encourage her to play golf and she became very accomplished. “Then before I was absolutely ruined the war came along”, she said.

Jo Duncan drove ambulances in the Whanganui region from 1939. During World War II she joined the Women’s War Service Auxiliary, trained at Trentham, was posted to Egypt then served on the hospital ship Oranje.
On her return to Wanganui she took over managing a 500 acre family farm at Rangiwahia, near Mangaweka until 1971. She gained a reputation for being one of the first women to attend and bid for her own stock at the Feilding stock sales.

Josephine and Sheillah Duncan

Josephine and Sheillah Duncan

Jo Duncan was a member of the Russell Grace golf team and played in tournaments throughout the country until she retired in the 1960s. For ten years from 1977 she was a voluntary co-ordinator at the Wanganui Women’s Emergency Refuge.
Josephine Duncan bequeathed her personal effects to the Whanganui Regional Museum. Her bequest includes many items of furniture brought to New Zealand by her family throughout the 19th century, as well as ceramics, jewelry, decorative arts, textiles, photographs, books and paintings. All of these items form a part of the legacy the Duncan family left to Whanganui.

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