When you read Window Friends, you’ll discover an interesting character named William Galloway Duncan. While much of what I wrote about him is fiction, to some extent it was based on someone a little closer to home.
In my early teens I learned that my father’s birth name was significantly different from the name I, and the rest of the world, had always known. It was nothing illegal or untoward, which is always a great relief, rather simply when my grandmother was very young she had been briefly married in 1923 to a gentleman who was my Dad’s biological father. She was later to marry for a second time in 1936 to Fred Darley, who adopted my father. Dad was given the opportunity to choose his new name. He kept his first name Richard, and added Marvin as a middle name because that was the name of his best friend, thus becoming Richard Marvin Darley. This was a far cry from his birth name of Richard Wayde Gray Galloway Duncan. It was a a bit of a stunner to realize biologically I was a Duncan, not a Darley.
The paternal side of my family had always leaned toward being secretive. Many things were never spoken of in an environment that didn’t allow for questions. Whether our reluctance to be inquisitive was out of respect or fear or just acceptance, unspoken questions were never addressed.
Through the years, a few small niblets of information about my grandmother’s first marriage came to light. The gentleman was British, he was important maybe with a title, and he took my grandmother to England after their marriage. While one family member-by marriage denounced the whole thing as rubbish and a lie, that person never cared for my grandmother and rarely missed an opportunity to criticize her. Being young, it was all a great mystery and I admit to fantasizing about one day meeting my lovely grandfather who would adore me. In my imagination I would visit him in Great Britain and we would ride horses and enjoy a privileged lifestyle. In reality, I never knew who to believe or what the truth was. Was it fact or fiction?And I wasn’t asking any questions.
Toward the end of my Dad’s life I bravely inquired about his father and learned that he didn’t have any specific memories of meeting him, but did recall being given one of his golf clubs. It must have been lost somewhere along the line.
My father passed away at ninty-two years of age in 2016, and true to his incredible organizational skills, his possessions were carefully boxed and labeled in a massive storage building on their property in Sedona, Arizona. After a full day of going through what seemed like hundreds of boxes, I ran across a few that were filled with memorabilia from his youth. Late one night I sat on the floor of the guest house sorting through decades of keepsakes. A yellow three-ringed binder with the titled, ‘DD-Early Days’ caught my attention. Opening it up, I was face to face with a portrait photograph of a very handsome man I instantly knew to be my long-lost grandfather. It was in black and white, and obviously taken in a glamorous Hollywood style of the 1920’s. The back of the portrait had a rubber stamp from the photographer, however his aim wasn’t great and only half the stamp was actually on the paper. What remained was ‘MELBOU, PHOTOG, LOS ANGE.’ God bless the internet–within a few days I discovered a Facebook page dedicated to Melbourne Spurr, Silent Era Portrait Photographer. The person behind the Facebook page was very helpful and sent me on a journey through ancestry.com that became a minor obsession for a few years (one I look forward to getting back to soon). The information was overwhelming.
I discovered my grandfather, William Galloway Duncan, was born in Dundee, Scotland in 1884. An industrious lad, he had a caravan business as a youngster. In 1904, he began classes at St. Andrews University studying engineering, and in 1909 married Geraldine Birch, who later became a noted artist. They had two sons, John Peregrine Galloway Duncan and Aubrey William Montrose Duncan, both born in London. During the first World War the family immigrated to the United States through New Jersey on diplomatic passports. They stayed with the Merck family (of pharmaceutical fame) where he met with American inventor Thomas Edison. (Records show that in 1924 Mr. Edison and my grandfather began a partnership based on building waterproof cement houses.) Wife Geraldine moved with the children to the city of Pasadena in Southern California and rented a home. William Galloway Duncan was spending more and more time away from the family, including a stint as a munitions inspector for the British Government in Racine, Wisconsin, where an attempt was made on his life (there was a large German population in the area at that time). While inspecting munitions in Wisconsin, DNA records show that he fathered yet another son (more on that later). And the intrigue continues.
In the yellow three-ringed binder I found the newspaper write up of my grandmothers wedding to William Galloway Duncan, whose name had mysteriously morphed into William WAYDE Galloway Duncan. According to the three column write up in the Evansville (Indiana) Journal, this was the wedding of the year. The bride had been given a ring with thirty-nine blue diamonds by the bridegroom and they took a European tour honeymoon. According to the article they would end the trip in England and live outside of London. Finally there was proof of their marriage, (and slight vindication to the family member who said it was rubbish) and while he wasn’t a titled gentleman, he was interesting to say the least. When doing further research on their wedding, I found the Application for Marriage License my grandfather filled out. This was my first indication that my very handsome, rather smart, paternal grandfather was a bit of a scoundrel.
My grandmother was born in 1901 and William Duncan was born in 1884– a seventeen year age gap. Apparently that must have seemed like a problem as my grandfather wrote on the application that he was born in 1890, thus making him only eleven years older. Hmmm. And strangely enough, his name had the addition of Wayde which never appeared on anything prior to his relationship with my grandmother. Hmmm. But the absolute corker was on Question 21: ‘Is this your first marriage?’ To which he answered ‘Yes.’ Hmmm. Houston, we have a problem here. Compounded by the fact that I have never been able to find divorce papers between he and Geraldine. Part of that may have to do with the record keeping in California that far back or simply the man is indeed a scoundrel. According to records, William Wayde Galloway Duncan and my grandmother were married in April 1923, and sailed shortly thereafter on the S.S. Pittsburgh heading toward Southhampton, UK. She must have become pregnant on the voyage as she gave birth to my father about nine months later. The plot thickens when there is a record of her returning to the United States from London aboard the S.S. President Monroe in July of 1923…alone and using her maiden name. Papers I found documented they were divorced in 1926. Doesn’t this just open up Pandora’s Box with a million unanswered questions? Did she find out about his previous wife and sons?Was he not divorced from Geraldine? Did she find out he was using a false year of birth and false middle name? Did she find out about his age? Might she have found out about the child he fathered in Wisconsin in 1918? What caused her to rush home, pregnant, and divorce him? (Note: There was a marvelous PBS show titled ‘Mrs. Wilson’ that is frighteningly close to this story.)
But, more about my fascinating, slightly incorrigible grandfather. In the Who’s Who in the British War Mission to the USA publication, William Galloway Duncan is listed as a lecturer in engineering subjects at several colleges; appointed as the youngest headmaster of H.M. Government College of Engineering in Dacca, India; general manager of General Motors (Europe); Member of the Institution of Mining Engineers and Member of the Institution of Automobile Engineers; and he quality inspected shells for the British War Mission. In addition, there was his partnership with Thomas Edison. In one of the many news articles about him they say, “Much could be written concerning the success of William Duncan as a consulting engineer, of his stirling character, his linguistic abilities, and his kind and attractive manner. Sufficient, perhaps, has been said to show that he is a gentleman of more than ordinary qualifications and ability. Best wishes follow him in his new role of India’s youngest headmaster.” He was a well-traveled and seemingly charming, well thought of gentleman.
He traveled by ship frequently throughout the world and is on the passenger manifests of many transatlantic crossings from 1915 to the mid-1940’s. I’ve yet to uncover what the purpose was for his extensive, world-wide journeys. Was he working for MI6 (British version of the CIA)?
In April of 1925 William Galloway Duncan applied to be admitted to the Freedom of the City of London. It seems to have been approved in May 1925. An explanation of what this meant is as follows: ’Whilst the Freedom is indeed a recognition of lifetime achievement or high international standing, the Freedom of the City of London is open to a much wider section of society, and include many who have achieved success, recognition or celebrity in their chosen field.’ Apparently there were many who thought quite highly of him.
Listings of his connection with various branches of the British armed forces including being referred to as a Major in the British Army at the time of his wedding, and another article referring to him as Vice Admiral William Galloway Duncan of the British Navy. The latter article ends with the cryptic quote, ‘Now that Admiral Duncan has left on a special mission the news of his visit can be announced.’ I have yet been able to verify either of these titles. In 1942 his occupation is listed as working for the British Government. It has been said that he was also a correspondent for a British newspaper from Germany.
Writing must have been a great interest as he was the author of several books about engineering, mining and automobiles. Guide to the Engineer Profession was written in 1907. However, it seems his most important book was published in 1908, titled The Electrical Equipment of Collieries. According to Amazon, ‘This work has been selected by scholars as being culturally important, and is part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it Scholars believe, and we concur, that this work is important enough to be preserved, reproduced, and made generally available to the public…’ Fairly impressive for the boy from Dundee.
His last book I could find is titled, ‘The Modern Motor Car, It’s Management, Mechanism and Maintenance’ and was published in 1912. It has a charming cover featuring a green and yellow Rolls Royce, with fly fishermen in the background. This must have coincided with the time he headed General Motors in Europe. Over the years I have found a few rare copies offered by British antique outlets–at an impressive price. William Galloway Duncan’s personal life continued to be mysterious. In 1926 (the year the divorce from my grandmother is final) he is listed on the manifest of the ship Ordusa, sailing from New York to Southampton with a woman named Margaret Evans. This is the first time I found her name in connection with my grandfather. They are listed as living at the same address in London. In 1935 they both traveled to India by ship, and are listed as WG Duncan and Margaret Evans again. In 1936 they sailed from Jakarta, Indonesia to Southampton, this time she is listed as Margaret Duncan, again sharing the same address. According to legal records they were not married until 1940.
My illustrious, interesting and ever so slightly scandalous grandfather passed away November 1, 1962 in London at 78 years of age. His sister in law, Dorothy Evans signed the certificate. Numerous hours have been spent searching for his burial site, so far without success.
Sadly, he chose to not have meaningful relationships with any of his four known sons. Ironically, his oldest sons with Geraldine, Perry and Aubrey, resided in Pasadena, California, which is only about twenty miles from where my father lived with his mother. To my knowledge my father never knew he had Duncan half-brothers.
But wait–there is more! Several years ago my husband and I did the DNA test associated with ancestry.com . After several weeks, I received an email listing the names of my known DNA relations. While there were pages and pages, the top two were obviously very close DNA matches, Steve Duncan and Anne Kinne Renschler. We emailed each other and were amazed to find we were cousins, sharing the same grandfather, William Galloway Duncan. Steve is the son of Aubrey, one of WGD’s original children, and Anne’s father, Loren Henry Kinne, was the child conceived in Wisconsin. Given the nature of connecting through the internet, we all could have lived anywhere in the world. The incredible miracle occurred when we realized all three of us live in Washington State! We met for lunch and had an absolutely fabulous time and plan to meet again now that Covid is easing. Adding to the joy of finding new delightful new cousins, it turns out Steve has been close friends with my niece by marriage and her partner for years!
Everyone has notable family stories and legends surrounding generations of ancestors. I think the fact that William Galloway Duncan is my grandfather, not some far removed great, great relative, is what fascinates me. I wonder if I carry any of his traits–hopefully the good ones! What I wouldn’t give to chat with him for an hour about his life and the choices he made. When time permits, I will once again begin my quest to find out more about William Galloway Duncan, both fact and fiction.