Murder of George Duncan

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George Ian Ogilvie Duncan
Born 20 July 1930
Golders Green, London, England
Died 10 May 1972(1972-05-10) (aged 41)
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia
Known for Law lecturer/homosexual law reform

Dr. George Ian Ogilvie Duncan (20 July 1930 – 10 May 1972) was an Australian law lecturer at the University of Adelaide who drowned on 10 May 1972 after being thrown into the River Torrens by a group of men believed to be police officers. His murder was significant because public outrage generated by the murder became the trigger for homosexual law reform that led to South Australia becoming the first Australian State to decriminalise homosexuality.

Early life[edit]

George Duncan was born on 20 July 1930 at Golders Green, London, the only child of New Zealand born parents Ronald Ogilvie Duncan (d.1952) and his second wife Hazel Kerr née Martell (d.1944). Emigrating to Victoria in 1937, Duncan attended Melbourne Grammar School, graduating dux in 1947.

While taking an honours degree in classical philology at the University of Melbourne, Duncan's studies were interrupted in 1950 after contracting tuberculosis. In 1957, Duncan entered St John's College, Cambridge, where he was awarded a number of degrees including B.A. in 1960; a Bachelor of Laws in 1961; an M.A. in 1963 and a Ph.D. in 1964. From 1966 to 1971, he taught law part-time at the University of Bristol and published his doctoral thesis in 1971.[1]

Relatively wealthy, Duncan returned to Australia on 25 March 1972 to take up a lectureship in law at the University of Adelaide, moving into Lincoln College in North Adelaide. Six weeks later he was thrown from the southern bank of the River Torrens, near Kintore Avenue, and drowned.[1]


As homosexuality was still illegal in South Australia at that time, the banks of the Torrens River, or "Number 1 beat" as it was then known, was a popular place for homosexuals to meet. Around 11.00 p.m. on 10 May 1972, Duncan and Roger James were both thrown into the river and Duncan drowned. James suffered a broken ankle and after crawling to the road, was rescued by a passing driver, Bevan Spencer von Einem, who then took him to the Royal Adelaide Hospital. By the time a television crew arrived, Duncan's body had already been pulled from the river by police. The body was returned to the river to allow the crew to film its recovery.[2]

George Duncan is buried in Centennial Park Cemetery.

Investigations and trial[edit]

James declined to identify his attackers and the Premier of South Australia, Don Dunstan, offered government protection to witnesses after it was reported that they feared for their lives.[3] Within days of the murder it was suspected that the group of men who killed Duncan were three senior Vice Squad police officers. Witnesses claimed that the detectives were also accompanied by a tall civilian who was never identified. The detectives were called upon to give evidence at the Coronial Inquiry but they refused to answer any of the questions put to them and were subsequently suspended from duty and eventually resigned. The coroner returned an open finding on 5 July 1972. The subsequent police investigation, which called the incident "a frolic", failed to find sufficient evidence to prosecute any of the officers.

Public debate was so great that Premier Dunstan permitted police commissioner, Harold Salisbury, to call in detectives from New Scotland Yard, London, to investigate the murder. Their report, which has never been made public, led to the crown solicitor announcing on 24 October 1972 that he had decided against proceeding with any prosecution.[1][3]

On 30 July 1985 former Vice Squad officer Mick O'Shea told The Advertiser newspaper that the group involved were Vice Squad officers and that there was a cover-up to protect them. On 5 February 1986 three former Vice Squad officers, Brian Hudson, Francis Cawley and Michael Clayton, were charged with the manslaughter of Dr. Duncan. Cawley and Clayton eventually went to trial in 1988 with both being acquitted of the charges on 30 September after refusing to testify.[1][4][5][6] During the trial, O'Shea made specific allegations that it was a common practice for Vice Squad officers to throw homosexuals into the river, that certain members assaulted homosexuals and that on one occasion they had chased an individual while firing shots. A further allegation was later raised that there had been an attempt to influence a juror to find the two officers charged not guilty.[2] A police task force was set up, reporting to Parliament in 1990 that there was insufficient evidence to charge any person with the murder. Repeated calls for a Royal Commission have been ignored.[3]

Legal impact[edit]

The murder attracted national media coverage and public outrage resulted in Duncan being held up as a martyr by the Gay Rights movement.[1][3][4] As a result of the media attention, Murray Hill, a Liberal party member of the Legislative Council, introduced a bill on 26 July 1972 to amend the Criminal Law Consolidation Act (1935–1971) that criminalised homosexuality. The amendment was assented to on 9 November 1972, however, a further amendment weakened it to only allow a legal defence for homosexual acts committed in private. In 1973 the Labor Member for Elizabeth, Peter Duncan, introduced the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill into Parliament which, although passed by the Lower House, was defeated twice in the Legislative Council. On 27 August 1975 the unaltered bill was again introduced, defeated, reintroduced, defeated, reintroduced a third time and passed, all on the same day, making South Australia the first Australian State to fully decriminalise homosexuality.[1][4]


On 10 May 2002, the 30th anniversary of Duncan's death, a memorial monument was erected near the site of the murder.[7]

Memorial Inscription—
"In memory of Dr George Duncan, whose death by drowning on 10th May, 1972, near here, at the hands of persons unconvicted, precipitated homosexual law reform in South Australia, making it the first state in Australia in 1975 to decriminalise homosexual relations."

Also on 10 May, Radio Adelaide broadcast a feature documentary The Killing of Dr George. On 1 October, the South Australia Institute of Justice Studies awarded a special commendation to Radio Adelaide, praising the documentary for its historical significance and inclusion of comment from people who had been gay activists at the time of Duncan's death.[8]

The National George Duncan Memorial Award was inaugurated in 2004. The award is presented for an outstanding piece of work contributing to legal reform and the betterment of the Australian lesbian, gay, queer, bisexual, transgender or intersex community.[9]