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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Duncan-Kemp, Alice Monkton (1901–1988)

by Pamela Lakin Watson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Alice Monkton Duncan-Kemp (1901-1988), author, was born on 3 June 1901 at Charleville, Queensland, second of four children of Scottish-born William Duncan, station-manager, and his wife Laura, née Davis, daughter of a Sydney solicitor. Alice’s father appears to have been well educated, with interests in comparative religion and anthropology. After their marriage the Duncans had bought the lease for Mooraberrie, a cattle property of 340 square miles (881 km²) west of Windorah, south-west Queensland. In 1903 their eldest child and only son died. After William’s death in 1907 his widow, with her three daughters, stayed on in the isolated desert country, raising `baby beef’ Shorthorn cattle. Her help came from local Aborigines and hired stockmen, and from her daughters as they grew older. Alice’s friends were the Aborigines who lived on the station. Her mother described her as `“mad” on horses, and fairly “cracked” on the blacks’.

Mostly educated at home, Alice boarded for a few years at Spreydon College (from 1917 Fairholme Presbyterian Girls’ College), Toowoomba. On 12 November 1923 at St Andrew’s Church of England, Longreach, she married Frederick Clifford Kemp, a New Zealand-born grazier. They were to have five children. Her husband soon became a manager with the Bank of Australasia, and while they moved around country towns, mainly in Queensland, they retained interests in pastoral properties, with Alice actively involved in stock work and management.

Writing under the name Alice Duncan-Kemp, she published a memoir, Our Sandhill Country (1933). She drew on her childhood experiences, her father’s diaries and day books, and information from a Karuwali man named Moses to cover the usual themes of bush life—droughts and floods, musters and race meetings, pastoralists and stockmen—all interwoven with lyrical and knowledgable descriptions of landscape, flora and fauna. Her open mind and observational skills led her to beliefs then rarely accepted in Queensland: that Aborigines were the true owners of the land and a moral community whose culture was based on obedience to an elaborate and unwritten system of law; that the introduction of cattle had brought severe food shortages to Black communities, leading them to spear stock; and that pastoralists could not have established themselves without Aboriginal labour and advice. Duncan-Kemp saw pastoralists and Aboriginal clans as equal protagonists in the management of a cattle station. The operational needs of the property adapted to and, in turn, forced changes on Aboriginal values and social responsibilities. She discussed the importance of women’s ceremonies and women’s country, the cultural differences between language groups, and the techniques employed to increase the natural stock of available food.

In 1947-58 Duncan-Kemp corresponded with Dr Lindsey Winterbotham, providing him with detailed descriptions of Aboriginal cultural practices as she remembered them. Her later books—Where Strange Paths Go Down (1952), Our Channel Country (1961) and Where Strange Gods Call (1968)— contained the same themes as in Our Sandhill Country but had a less systematic structure and an uncertain time-frame. Despite reflecting her generally liberal attitudes, they were not free of Imperial rhetoric. Although Duncan-Kemp stood in contrast to her times, she was still a woman of them. In retirement she lived at Oakey. She died there on 4 January 1988 and was cremated. Predeceased by her husband, she was survived by two of her three sons and one of her two daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • P. L. Watson, Frontier Lands and Pioneer Legends (1998)
  • Journal of Australian Studies, no 67, 2001, p 37
  • Y. Steinhauer, A. M. Duncan-Kemp: Her Life and Work (MA thesis, Southern Cross University, 1998)
  • L. P. Winterbotham papers (State Library of Queensland).

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Citation details

Pamela Lakin Watson, 'Duncan-Kemp, Alice Monkton (1901–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 23 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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