Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Duncan, Henry

DUNCAN, HENRY, D.D. (1774–1846), founder of savings banks, was born in 1774 at Lochrutton, Kirkcudbrightshire, where his father, George Duncan, was minister. After studying for two sessions at St. Andrews University he was sent to Liverpool to begin commercial life, and under the patronage of his relative, Dr. Currie, the biographer of Burns, his prospects of success were very fair; but his heart was not in business, and he soon left Liverpool to study at Edinburgh and Glasgow for the ministry of the church of Scotland. At Edinburgh he joined the Speculative Society, and became intimate with Francis Horner and Henry Brougham. In 1798 he was ordained as minister of Ruthwell in Dumfriesshire, where he spent the rest of his life. Duncan from the first was remarkable for the breadth of his views, especially in what concerned the welfare of the people, and the courage and ardour with which he promoted measures not usually thought to be embraced in the minister's rôle. In a time of scarcity he brought Indian corn from Liverpool. At the time when a French invasion was dreaded he raised a company of volunteers, of which he was the captain. He published a series of cheap popular tracts, contributing to the series some that were much prized, afterwards collected under the title ‘The Cottage Fireside.’ He originated a newspaper, ‘The Dumfries and Galloway Courier,’ of which he was editor for seven years.

But the measure which is most honourably connected with his name was the institution of savings banks. The first savings bank was instituted at Ruthwell in 1810, and Duncan was unceasing in his efforts to promote the cause throughout the country. His influence was used to procure the first act of parliament passed to encourage such institutions. By speeches, lectures, and pamphlets he made the cause known far and wide. The scheme readily commended itself to all intelligent friends of the people, and the growing progress and popularity of the movement have received no check to the present day. Great though his exertions were, and large his outlay in this cause, he never received any reward or acknowledgment beyond the esteem of those who appreciated his work and the spirit in which it was done.

In 1823 he received the degree of D.D. from the university of St. Andrews. In 1836 he published the first volume of a work which reached ultimately to four volumes, entitled ‘The Sacred Philosophy of the Seasons.’ It was well received, and ran through several editions. To the ‘Transactions of the Scottish Antiquarian Society’ he contributed a description of a celebrated runic cross which he discovered in his parish and restored, and on which volumes have since been written. He made a memorable contribution likewise to geological science by the discovery of the footmarks of quadrupeds on the new red sandstone of Corncockle Muir, near Lochmaben.

While at first not very decided between the moderate and the evangelical party in the church, Duncan soon sided with the latter, and became the intimate friend of such men as Dr. Chalmers and Dr. Andrew Thomson. In the earlier stages of the controversy connected with the Scottish church he addressed letters on the subject to his old college friends Lord Brougham and the Marquis of Lansdowne, and to Lord Melbourne, home secretary. In 1839 he was appointed moderator of the general assembly. In 1843 he joined the Free church, leaving a manse and grounds that had been rendered very beautiful by his taste and skill. He was a man of most varied accomplishments—manual, intellectual, social, and spiritual. With the arts of drawing, modelling, sculpture, landscape-gardening, and even the business of an architect, he was familiar, and his knowledge of literature and science was varied and extensive. In private and family life he was highly estimable, while his ministerial work was carried on with great earnestness and delight. The stroke of paralysis that ended his life on 19 Feb. 1846 fell on him while conducting a religious service in the cottage of an elder.

The following is a full list of Duncan's publications:—1. Pamphlet on Socinian controversy, Liverpool, 1791. 2. Three sermons. 3. ‘Essay on Nature and Advantages of Parish Banks,’ 1815. 4. Letter to John H. Forbes, esq. [on parish banks, and in answer to his letter to editor of ‘Quarterly Review’], 1817. 5. ‘Letter to W. R. K. Douglas, Esq., M.P., on Bill in Parliament for Savings Banks,’ 1819. 6. Letter to same advocating abolition of commercial restrictions, 1820. 7. ‘Letter to Managers of Banks for Savings in Scotland.’ 8. ‘The Cottage Fireside.’ 9. ‘The Young South Country Weaver.’ 10. ‘William Douglas, or the Scottish Exiles,’ 3 vols., 1826. 11. ‘Letter to Parishioners of Ruthwell on Roman Catholic Emancipation,’ 1829. 12. ‘Presbyter's Letters on the West India Question,’ 1830. 13. ‘Account of the remarkable Runic Monument preserved at Ruthwell Manse,’ 1833. 14. ‘Letters to Rev. Dr. George Cook on Patronage and Calls,’ 1834. 15. ‘Sacred Philosophy of the Seasons,’ 4 vols., 1835–6. 16. Letter to his flock on the resolutions of the convocation, 1842. 17. Articles in ‘Edinburgh Encyclopædia’—‘Blair,’ ‘Blacklock,’ ‘Currie.’ 18. Account of tracks and footmarks of animals found in Corncockle Muir (‘Transactions Royal Society of Edinburgh,’ xi.). 19. Many articles in ‘Edinburgh Christian Instructor.’

Duncan's second wife was Mary Grey, daughter of George Grey of West Ord, sister of John Grey of Dilston, a well-known Northumbrian gentleman (see Memoir by his daughter, Mrs. Josephine Butler), and widow of the Rev. R. Lundie of Kelso. She was a lady of considerable accomplishments and force of character, and author of several books: 1. ‘Memoir of the Rev. M. Bruen.’ 2. ‘Memoir of Mary Lundie Duncan’ (her daughter, author of several well-known hymns for children). 3. ‘Missionary Life in Samoa, being the Life of George Archibald Lundie’ (her son). 4. ‘Children of the Manse.’ 5. ‘America as I found it.’

[Scott's Fasti, pt. ii. 626–7; Disruption Worthies; Life of Henry Duncan, D.D., by his son, Rev. G. J. C. Duncan; Pratt's Hist. of Savings Banks; Lewin's Hist. of Savings Banks; Notice of Dr. Duncan in Savings Bank Magazine, by John Maitland, esq., with note by Dr. Chalmers; private information.]

W. G. B.