Duncan Papers

Reference code(s): GB 0469 DUN
Held at: Angus Library, Regents Park College
Domain: archival
Title: Duncan Papers
Date(s) of contents: 1876-1992
Level of description: Fonds
Extent and medium: 1 box of archival material, mainly manuscript with a few photographs, pamphlets and newscuttings.


Name of creator(s):
Duncan, Moir Black (1861-1906)
Duncan, Jessie Chalmers (1864-1966)

Administrative/Biographical history: Moir Duncan was born on 17th August 1861, on the farm of Reinchall, near Aberdeen in Scotland, the son of Alexander Duncan and Margaret Black. The youngest of thirteen children, he determined to better himself, and became a draper's apprentice in Glasgow. It was here that, at the age of 15, his attendance at the Cambridge Street Baptist Church led to his baptism and a committment to becoming a missionary in China. To this end, aided by the Baptist Union, he enrolled at Glasgow University, where he excelled in English and Moral Philosophy, followed by Medicine and Science. After gaining an MA from Glasgow, he went on to study Theology and Chinese at the University of Oxford, leading to his ordination in 1888.

In the meantime, Janet Chalmers Lister was born in Leslie, Fife, on 20th March 1864, the youngest of four children of Thomas and Isabella Lister. She became known as Jessie, and was schooled in Fife where she was also baptised at the Baptist Church in Leslie, which had been founded by her brother, the Reverend Thomas Whitson Lister. She went on to attend Queen Street Ladies' College in Edinburgh from 1877-79, and then undertook teacher training in Glasgow. It was here that she met Moir Duncan whilst he was studying at Glasgow University; they subsequently became engaged. In 1883 Jessie Lister began teaching in Sheffield, returning to Scotland the year after to spend six years teaching in King's Kettle, Fife. During this time she also read for the degree of L.L.A. (Lady Literate of Arts), becoming one of the first women to graduate (in 1889) from St Andrews University.

In October 1888 Moir Duncan set sail for China under the auspices of the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS). He was assigned to the province of Shanxi (Shansi), where the renowned missionary Timothy Richard had famously worked for famine relief on behalf of the BMS during the 1870s. For two years Moir Duncan studied Chinese at Taiyuan in Shanxi. In 1890 Jessie Lister sailed to China to join her fiancé, and on 28th November 1890 they were married at the British Consulate in Tientsin.

The Duncans set up home at the Taiyuan mission station, and in 1891 their daughter Frances was born. A year later they moved to the neighbouring province of Shaanxi (Shensi), where a small group of Chinese Christians had established a community known as Gospel Village. The province was sparsely populated and infested by wolves and bandits; the local Christian community made a point of shunning the prevalent opium culture. Moir targeted the Chinese intelligentsia, who, to a greater extent than Chinese peasants, had resisted Christian influence; to this end he established a bookshop and schools, as well as churches and medical centres, supported by Jessie and other pioneer missionaries such as the Reverends Arthur Shorrock and Evan Morgan. The early 1890s witnessed a programme of famine relief, much aided by the establishment of industrial schemes such as textile work. The Duncans spent six years in Shaanxi, their second daughter Dorothy being born in 1896, before returning to Scotland on furlough in 1898.

Moir spent this furlough undertaking deputation work throughout the UK. In 1900 he and Jessie returned to Shaanxi, leaving their daughters with relatives in Scotland. They took with them a printing press, which they intended to establish in the Shaanxi capital Xian (Hsi-an). However, just after their return, the Boxer Rebellion led to the killing of hundreds of missionaries and Chinese converts; thanks to the warning of the sympathetic Governor of Shaanxi, the Duncans were able to escape to safety in Shanghai. Thereafter Moir became an interpreter for the British Army in Beijing, whilst Jessie returned to Scotland. Subsequent terms of settlement between China and the Western powers included, by way of reparation, the establishment of a college of Western learning. This became Taiyuan University; in 1902 Moir was appointed as its first principal, and Jessie joined him as its treasurer. In 1906 Moir was awarded an honorary L.L.D. degree by Glasgow University; he died in China, from tuberculosis, on 5th August later that year. Honours of the highest order were bestowed upon the Duncans by the Chinese government, awarding them buttons of the Emperor of China.

Jessie remained at Taiyuan University for a few months before returning to Scotland where she set up home with her daughters and her brother Thomas. In 1909 she helped found the Women's Auxiliary to the Scottish Baptist Union, acting as national treasurer from 1913 to 1920. She was also a member of the College Committee of the Baptist Union of Scotland from 1932 to 1947, as well as a member of its European Committee. From 1947 she lived with her daughter Dorothy in Toronto, where she became a life member of the Women's Auxiliary of the Upper Canada Bible Society. She died in Toronto on 6th October 1966, still remembered as one of the earliest women missionaries to undertake pioneer work in China.

See also:
Moir Black Duncan, The missionary mail to faithful friends and candid critics (the substance of letters written from Shên Hsi) (London: Elliot Stock, 1900).
Jessie Chalmers Duncan, The life of Moir Duncan (Baptist Union of Scotland, 1907).
Brian Stanley, The history of the Baptist Missionary Society 1792-1992 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1992).
Doreen Raymer, Duncan family tree, supplement to The life of Moir Duncan (private press, 1995; copy available in the Angus Library).

Custodial history:

Immediate source of acquisition: Donated to the Angus Library in 1995.


Scope and content/abstract: The collection includes material relating to the lives and work of both Moir and Jessie Duncan.

The former includes: copies of academic records of his career at Glasgow University; letters (and typewritten copies) to family members including many written from China (1888-1904); letters to the BMS written from China (relating to conditions in Shanxi, and the need for medical and financial relief); a copy of The missionary mail to faithful friends and candid critics; newspaper articles including one relating to the Boxer Rebellion of 1900; his obituaries, will and declaration; a 1991 T'ai Yuan University statistical record; a pamphlet by the Duncans' granddaughter Doreen Raymer entitled Duncan family tree (private press, 1995; this work contains a reproduction of Jessie Duncan's The life of Moir Duncan (Baptist Union of Scotland, 1907)).

This last includes: speeches written by her relating to her China experiences; letters by her sent home to Scotland from China (1890-1903); a 1992 letter from St Andrews University describing her degree; lists detailing her time spent in Canada, and famous preachers that she had heard; letters, tributes and newspaper articles including some from friends, family and church members on the occasions of her 90th and 100th birthdays and upon her death; photographs of Moir and Jessie Duncan.

System of arrangement: As deposited; Moir and Jessie's papers are separated. Rearrangement in progress.


Language: Mainly English; a very little Chinese.

Conditions governing access:

Conditions governing reproduction: Remains with the descendants.

Finding aids: Handlists available. Cataloguing in progress.


Related material: The Angus Library also holds the archive of the Baptist Missionary Society, which includes papers relating to China at the time that the Duncans were there.


Note: Compiled using:
Jessie Chalmers Duncan, The life of Moir Duncan (Baptist Union of Scotland, 1907).
Mary Evans, 'The story of a hundred years old missionary', Missionary Herald, March 1964, pp. 42-3.
Olive Mary Coats, 'Mrs Moir Duncan - one of the pioneers', Scottish Baptist Magazine, January 1967, pp. 3-4.
Doreen Raymer, Duncan family tree, supplement to The life of Moir Duncan (private press, 1995; copy available in the Angus Library).

Date(s) of descriptions: July 2002.

Boxer Rebellion, 1900-1901
Cultural conflicts
Cultural interaction
Educational missionary work
Higher education institutions
Industrial missionary work
Literary forms and genres
Medical missionary work
Mission administration
Mission policy
Missionary work
Newspaper press
Ordained missionaries
Press cuttings
Religious activities
Religious groups
Religious organizations
Rural missionary work
Visual materials
Wives of missionaries
Women missionaries

Personal names
Duncan | Janet Chalmers | x Duncan | Jessie Chalmers
Duncan | Jessie Chalmers | 1864-1966 | née Lister | Baptist missionary to China
Duncan | Moir Black | 1861-1906 | Baptist missionary to China

Corporate names
Baptist Church
Baptist Missionary Society
Glasgow University
St Andrews University
T'ai Yuan University x Taiyuan University | Shensi
Taiyuan University | Shaanxi

East Asia
St Andrews
Western Europe