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Leland L. Duncan – about him and his work

An introduction to Leland L. Duncan's field notebooks by Frank Bamping

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Many local historians will know of the respected Lewisham antiquarian and author, Leland Lewis Duncan, from his published works. These represent just a few of his interests. After his death in 1923 very many of his unpublished notebooks, papers and other collections were put into the care of archives and learned societies; some went to the Kent Archaeological Society of which he was a lifetime member. Lewisham Local History Society in 1998 published a Borough Profile No.2 containing a short biography of L.L.D. by Sylvia Macartney. And elsewhere on these Internet pages is a full obituary published in the Archaeologia Cantiana.

A quote here from L.L.D. "It is my earnest hope that in years to come
 those with the facilities may be able to exploit my work".

It is only now with new resources and the ability of the personal computer to rearrange, record and register information that full use can be made of these unpublished notebooks and papers. Without the benefit of talking directly to Mr Duncan we can only guess at the object of his vast efforts in recording memorial inscriptions located in the churchyards of Kent. His little field notebooks date from the 1880s right up to days before his death.

He, in his efforts to record as much as possible used a shorthand of his own devising which is sometimes difficult to penetrate. This difficulty is coupled with the fact that the notebooks were written up in the field in pencil and on many occasions he should have used a sharpener on his rather hard HB pencil to make the writing more readable. But, then, these field notebooks were written for himself and he intended back at base to transcribe them in ink into quarto notebooks. This he did in the case of Ash and Horton Kirby which he called Volume One and on another occasion Hartley, Ridley, Kingsdown, Knockholt, Longfield, Fawkham and High Halden parishes which he called Volume Seven. It is possible that there were other quarto fair copies which have now disappeared.

Before setting out on his very, very many field trips he called at his local stationers, Messrs Lydall & Son of 75,  High Street, Lewisham, situated not far from his home at Rosslair, 8, Lingards Road, Lewisham, S.E.13. The notebooks were of reasonable quality, with sewn contents, even so in many the paper has aged to light brown over time but not deteriorated to such a state that rescue is required.

How Mr Duncan managed to get around to all the churchyards he did is to us today something of a marvel. But the evidence is there in a notebook where he had copied out from Bradshaw the train timetable to three villages in the Weald. Did he actually manage all three in one day? He could easily have had a pony and trap awaiting him at the railway station given that a halfpenny postcard posted a.m. would have been delivered p.m. the same day.

Another curiosity among the collection of over a hundred notebooks is one for which the provenance is unusual. Firstly the handwriting is not rounded and flowing as Mr Duncan's, it is rather jerky. Secondly, it is dated 1877 which was when L.L.D. was just a 15 year old. It has also at some time been through a transcriber's hands, as each entry is ticked off and initialled "R.H." in ink. So did he stand on the shoulders of others or collaborate with other recorders?

These current transcriptions have all been checked against the field notebooks by Mrs Zena Bamping, but Leland Duncan's readings of the stones have not been systematically checked with the burial registers, though one or two discrepancies have been noted by the transcriber.

In recording the memorials Leland Duncan used an almost stylised system of his own. Readers will be aware that modern churchyard recorders use a strict system of literally writing down every single word, comma and break using an oblique stroke to indicate the line lengths and punctuation. Leland Duncan was in a hurry to get down on paper as much information as possible at the time, and given the short time available to him. It was part of his grand oeuvre. Only seldom does he record exactly what is carved in stone. Readers, too, will perhaps be disappointed not to find a particular late memorial in his collection if their interest is, say, post-1900. Frequently Duncan records that "all the rest of the memorials in the churchyard are modern". That was his opinion writing at any time from 1880 to 1920. His interests were concentrated on the earlier times and he found that the stones were deteriorating rapidly even then. We are fortunate that he recorded as much as he did at the time. We, some 100 years later have found that many memorials he saw and recorded have now disappeared.

As an example, one of the smaller parishes has been checked against an up-to-date list of its memorials in 1985. It was found that six memorials out of 46 had completely disappeared while two stones had been replaced by new memorials to the same persons. This latter point was very surprising.

Many of the parish churchyards he visited were becoming full and interments were taking place in municipal and parish owned burial grounds. From time to time the memorials record that other members of the family were being interred in one or other of the huge Victorian cemeteries. Just as he and his family are buried in Hither Green Cemetery which at the time, in 1923, was described as Grave 339 in Plot A, but since 1998 is now marked by an appropriate stone.

Viewing the collection as a whole they reveal unexpected as well as the expected features of the many villages. Thus the poorer villages have fewer stone monuments and more made from wood. The middle class villages have many impressive tombs, all fenced in iron railings, and often revealing hitherto unknown family relationships for the family historian. One does wonder, however, about the genetic inheritances of some families as one after another their offspring die making one amazed that any families survived at all to old age.

Another feature of the memorials from the 1700s onwards is how they demonstrate clearly the social hierarchy and how the members of that society knew their places. The sirs and baronets are at the peak of the pyramid; the esquire knew his place and said so; whilst the yeoman clearly proclaims his; and those with a foot on the ladder get called "Mr". The populace as a whole went unmarked. From time to time the skilled workman such as bricklayer, farrier, blacksmith, wheelwright and shipwright was recognised and recorded.

The burial registers are a much more reliable source for statistical study than memorial inscriptions. However, since the memorials always declare the age of the deceased, and parish registers rarely do before 1812, the striking advance made by the age at death of the modern population compared with the 19th century is very noticeable. It also shows up in the healthy village against the unhealthy village, which can only be explained within the terms of the living conditions in a given village. The early age given on the memorial of death of what we regard today as men and women in their prime is really staring us in the face. Only one is on record as reaching 100 plus years old and but a few into their 90s.

Now that these records are posted on the Internet it may well solve a problem for many a family history researcher. Would they have ever thought of looking in Kent for a relative from Durham, or another searcher in Ireland considered a village in the Weald?
                                                                                                              Frank Bamping January 2001

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                     OBITUARY. Archaeologia Cantiana Vol XXXVII (1926)


Leland Lewis Duncan died at Lewisham on 26 December1923, aged 61.  He had for some time been in poor health, but so sudden an end was quite unexpected and came as a great shock to his friends
    He was born on 24 August 1862 at Lewisham and educated at the Colfe Grammar School there, from which he passed into the Civil Service, being appointed to the War Office in 1882, and there he remained until he retired in 1922 at the age of 60.  While in the War Office lie steadily improved his position in the office, his services being recognized by an M.V.O. in 1902 and an O.B.E. later.  He lived all his life at Lewisham, and from one point of view his life was quite uneventful.  From another point of view his life was full of events, marked by productions of archaeological. interest of many kinds to be set out later, for, from his. earliest years, he took interest in matters archaeological, and he frequently amused his friends in his later years by stories of how he would, when a, junior clerk, slip out of the War Office during the luncheon hour and make for the underground chamber at Somerset House, where those interested were allowed to copy the wills entered in the various. registers.  He would copy a will or two and then return to, the office, and he was full of amusing tales of his various adventures in this connection.  Luckily the time when Duncan, first began copying wills was when Challenor Smith had succeeded, in the teeth of all kinds of opposition, in getting the records indexed and put in tolerable order, and, under the influence of Challenor Smith's enthusiasm for accurate and exhaustive study, Duncan was inspired to take up the line of work upon wills, to which he devoted himself down to the time of his death, and he was privileged, as one of the general editors of the Index Library of the British Record Society, to supervise the publication in 1893 of Challenor Smith's index of P.C.C. wills from the earliest date to 1558, which was soon seen to be a model of its kind, neither to jejune nor too copious.
    Duncan became a member of the K.A.S. before 1887, and his first contribution to Archaeologia Cantiana was an admirable list of Kentish Administrations 1559-1603, which appeared in the early pages of  Vol. XVIII. and has been an immense boon to Kentish students ever since.  The excellence of this and of some subsequent contributions led the Council to take an unusual course in 1906 of printing an extra volume called Testamenta Cantiana, consisting of extracts: from wills of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries concerniri., the various churches of the county.  For this volume Duncan found a collaborator of his own calibre in Ivor Hussey, who undertook the East Kent portion, mainly from Canterbury wills, while Duncan dealt with the West Kent portion from the P.C.C. and Rochester wills.  The result was admirable, and it is unfortunate that this new experiment, breaking absolutely fresh ground, has not up to the present inspired antiquaries of other counties to attempt a similar volume.  In general form and arrangement the work would be hard to rival, but it might well be imitated with advantage.
    Duncan, besides finding rich store of matter in the testamentary dispositions of the dead, paid very special attention to their existing memorials in our churches and churchyards, and his soul was often vexed by the treatment meted out to them at the "restoration " of churches and in the' improvements " in churchyards.  He had a well-thought-out plan of plotting the churchyards, so as not to risk getting an accurate copy of all the legible inscriptions remaining, and the collection of such things which he made is likely to be of great value to the student.  The memorials he copied at 'Tenterden were printed at his own expense in 1919, and he very handsomely presented a copy to every member of our Records branch.  Those of many other parishes were left in manuscript at his death and presented by his sisters (he was never married and was an only son) as his administrators to the K.A.S., who will preserve them as priceless records, which may, it is hoped, eventually be printed in full as, historians come forward to write each the particular history of his own parish.  The fast perishing nature of these memorials makes such records of importance in the highest degree. 
    I might here have attempted some appreciation of the man as apart from his work, but that has been done so beautifully by our member Dr. F. W. Cock in a contribution from his pen inserted in the Kentish Express of 9th February 1924, that I could in no wise hope to rival its felicity and its eloquence, so with his consent and that of the publisher of the paper it is reprinted below.  It remains for me only to finish the account of his work by collecting here a slight bibliography of his printed productions, little alas, though it be in comparison with what we hoped he was to do, when his leisure was more abundant, after his retirement from the public service.

The Parish Church of St. Mary, Lewisham, and an account of its Vicars and Curates. 1902.

     The History of the borough of Lewisham. 1908.

     'The History of Colfe's Grammar School and a life of its founder. 1910.


The Renunciation of Papal Authority in West Kent, 1534. Vol.  XVII.

'The Rectory of Cowden with a list of Rectors.  Vol.  XXI.

The Will of Abp.  Courtenay.  Vol.  XXIII.

Ecclesiological Notes on Shoreham.  Vol.  XXIII.

The Will of Cardinal Bourgehier.  Vol.  XXIV.

Extracts from some lost Parish Registers.  Vol.  XXXI.

Who would have thought that he who delighted us in, last summer's [1923] K.A.S. expedition with his illuminative description of Warehorne Church should so soon have ceased from teaching, and that never again should we hear that quiet voice and see that kindly smile as he put us in possession of all that was to be known of an ancient site or building?  Under that pleasant friendly exterior was a wealth of knowledge of the past, a persistent diligence in recording it, and a, charm of expression which is given to few.  Never in a, hurry to overwhelm a more eager, but less ill formed brother, his "Don't you think it may be so. and so?" saved many of us from too quick a judgment and fixed the truth which was obvious to him so firmly in his hearer, that he in turn could almost believe that he himself' had discovered it.  Ars est celare artem, and this art he had in perfection.  Of his published work the list is a long one, and this outside of a very responsible post in the War Office, and when, but a short year ago, he retired from his public work, he seemed to be endued with a renewal of his untiring energy.  In that year he had copied all the ancient inscriptions in fifteen East Kent churchyards, had transcribed a, large number of the " Aid " lists in the Record Office, besides many other documents noted and epitomized for his, Kent work.  The present writer can but add this little -tribute to his old friend.  How, after the meetings of the 'Society of Antiquaries be used to walk home with him all through the darkened streets of London during the long years of the war and discuss many things, seldom of raid or other dangers, largely of Kent antiquarian topics, and hardly ever missing asking advice how he could be of service to his “boys" of the War Office, who were on service at the front, home on furlough, or wounded in hospital.  Always .thoughtful of others, with no delight in contradiction, his friendship was a, liberal education to me as we took sweet ,counsel together, and in thought were not divided.  Vale, amice,, vale,.

F. W. C.


The dedication, altars, images and lights in parish churches in West Kent.  Vol.  III.

On the commemoration of John Potter of Westerham at Westminster.  Vol.  IV.


The Register of St. Margaret's, Lee. 1888.

Monumental Inscriptions in St. Mary's, Lewisham. 1889.

Calendar of Kentish Wills in P.C.C. 1890.

The Register of St. Mary's, Lewisham. 1891.

R. G.


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Kent Records – Index of Wills (KAS 1924) compiled by Leland L. Duncan




I have been asked to say a few words about my friend Leland Duncan in introduction to this Index of Rochester Wills, which he compiled.

Leland Lewis Duncan was born in 1862, the son of Leland Crosthwait Duncan, of the Inland Revenue Office and of his wife, Caroline Ellen Lewis, also of Government Official ancestry, her father being in the Paymaster General's Office.

Educated at Colfe's School, Lewisham, under the Rev.  Thomas Bramley, D.D., from 1874 to 1880, he entered in 1882, the War Office, from which he retired in 1922, having occupied a most responsible and laborious position with such distinction that he was given the M.V.O. in 1901 and the O.B.E. during the War.  He was elected  Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1890.  He died suddenly on Boxing Day, 1923, after a year of obscure invalidism, which nevertheless, was characterized by a wonderful total of solid antiquarian work.  Whatever Duncan put his hand to, he did it with all his might.  Laborious, conscientious and most minutely accurate, he was a pattern antiquary with a power of synthesis which made all he wrote easy to understand and withal, nothing was left out in the statement of facts.  A man of a charming personality, with a quiet musical voice, a cheerful friendly smile, he was a most entertaining companion, informative and with the great gift of correcting the erroneous statement of another so that that other took no offence and was almost persuaded that he had been right all along.

In the last year of his life, when emancipated from the responsible work of the War Office, he seemed to be filled with renewed energy, although troubled with what was undoubtedly the beginning of the terminal disease.  He made a good many researches at the Public Record Office, tabulated and extracted a large number of Kent Wills, principally at Lambeth, copied out the inscriptions of no less than fifteen churchyards, took rubbings of Masons' marks in many of the Weald Churches and read an interesting and exhaustive paper on the Church at Warehorne, when the Kent Archaeological Society met there in the summer of 1923.  Of his work for his old school at Lewisham, both in writing its history and furthering its interests in every way others have written. I cannot omit here how good he was to all under him, always thinking of his " boys " in the office.  When during the War, he and I were walking homewards in the darkened streets, from the meetings of the Society of Antiquaries, there was but little talk of raids and suchlike, but much eager questioning as to how he might be of use to these " boys " whether on furlough, at the Front, or invalided in Hospital.  Ante them periit, but he will always remain an inspiration.

I have added a list of his printed works, known to me, but there may be many other items hidden away in Transactions, Proceedings and similar publications.

Whatever Duncan took in hand he carried through to completion and death alone wrote " Unfinished " on what he had commenced in the last few months of his life.  This Calendar, or Index as it is being called, in conformity with modern usage, has had a long history.  It took Duncan close on seven years to compile, as he only had an half-hour available most mornings.  He made a good many notes, some of which were printed in " Testamenta Cantiana " and some in the St. Paul's Ecclesiological Society's Publications, Vol.  III.  Then his father wrote out for him from his note-books the greater part of it, on foolscap paper, still in the order in which the wills occurred in the registers.  The whole work was then checked through most carefully by Duncan himself, so that he spared no pains to make the Index as perfect and as correct as it could be made.  In 1917, the late Hon.  Treasurer of the Records Branch, Mr. Churchill, offered to transfer the entries to slips so that they could be sorted and arranged alphabetically.  He had completed the task a short time before his death in December, 1922, and Duncan finally pasted these slips on to foolscap paper in their proper order, grouping the names and generally preparing the index for the printer.  He seemed to have a premonition of his own approaching end and hurried on the work so that it might be finished, although it was, as he described it in one of his last letters to me, " a dull, somewhat laborious and distinctly messy job." Those who have had much to do with paste will appreciate the last adjective.

Unfortunately, though all the pasting and most of the editing was done, the MS. was completed for the press only to the end of the letter P, and no introduction had been written.  It was felt that in issuing the work now, as little as possible should be altered or added to the MS. as left by him.  Perforce the final editing from Q to Z has had to be done by the general Editor, but no material alteration of the grouping of the names in the part completed by Duncan has been made : all that has been added are some further cross references.  The queries of which he left a list, have been verified and others that arose in the course of seeing the work through the press have been checked.  The Index, therefore, is issued substantially as he left it. 

When Mr. Churchill undertook to write the slips it was decided to put the modern spelling of the place names and to include in the Introduction a list of the most out of the way varieties, since these often give the local pronunciation and sometimes a clue to the earlier forms.  But it was not without regrets that this decision was carried out, for in March, 1918, Duncan wrote: " I have a great pang at the modernisation of the names." It was to lessen this pang if possible, that Mr. Churchill compiled the list of Place Names and their variants with dates now given as an appendix at the end of this Index.  He likewise made out a list of Clergy, whose wills are given in the Registers (Appendix B).

The following notes on the registers have been sent me by the Editor:

The Registers used in the compilation of this Index comprise the first twelve volumes in the series of Rochester Wills preserved at Somerset House.  They are stout volumes measuring roughly 12 ins. by 9 ins., containing any number from 153 to 413 leaves in each, and yielding nearly 8,000 references.  In many instances, besides the original pagination in roman numerals, there is also a modern arabic numbering, sometimes at variance with the roman ; in most cases the reference in this Index is to the old paging, but there are exceptions, as in volume III., when after cclxxixb the modern numeration is followed.  The references in this Index to V* and VI* require explanation.  There are no volumes so labelled at Somerset House, but Vol.  V. as now bound contains two parts.  Part I. is a section of 70 leaves covering from 1482-1501 and containing probate acts and administrations, while Part II. is the Register of Wills.  In this Index V* is used to designate Vol.  V. Part I. Similarly in Vol.  VI. there is a section of 29 leaves (inserted between pages xxiii and xxiv of the Wills) containing probate acts, which is referred to here as VI*.


The Wills registered in these volumes are those of persons dying in the diocese of Rochester, exhibited and proved in the Consistory Court of Rochester before the Bishop, his Official, his Commissary, his Vicar-General or their deputies.  It is worth noting that between 1554 and 1558 the Vicar-General is John Kenall, Archdeacon of Rochester.  The Wills are proved variously I coram nobis johanne Kenall legum doctore etc.  Reverendi in Christo patris ac domini Domini Mauiicii, permissions divina Roffensis Episcopi vicario in spiritualibus generali' or, ' coram venerabili viro Magistro Johanne Kenall etc. vicario in spiritualibus generali' or, in the case of his deputy, ' coram...... deputato magistri Johannis Kenall, etc.  Archidiaconi Roffensis (etc.)

In one instance the scribe wrote ' vicarii' after the name then crossed it out and wrote ' Archini,' the abbreviation for ' archidiaconi.'

The note affixed to the first volume of the series by William Petyr, Registrar, is of considerable interest, for he states that it is a register of testaments and codicils of the last wishes of those dying in the Rochester diocese and proved in the Consistory and before the Official of Rochester, hitherto registered in various books among Corrections and Causes, from 1440 and continuing in another book during the episcopate of John Low, 1444 to 1467.  On the back of this page as a heading is the following: Registrum Renerendi patris johannis Lowe Roffensis Episcopi de testamentis continentibus@1) vltimas voluntates decedencium in diocesi Roffensi.  A similar beading marks some, but not all, of the beginnings of registers kept under successive bishops.

The volumes do not follow in strict chronological order, but the arrangement so far as can be judged is contemporary, and it does not seem to be possible to identify from the bindings any earlier system of arrangement.  Thus volume III. contains the register of the time of Thomas Rotheram (1468-71) and John Russell (1476-80), with a contemporary note at the end of Rotheram's stating that the Register.of Dominus John Alcok (1472-76) is missing here, but will be found in another register.  This is the present volume IV., described as the register of Dns.  John Alcok, bishop of Rochester consecrated by the Lord Cardinal Archbishop of Canterbury (Bourgchier).  The wills registered in the time of Edmund Audley (1480-92) and Thomas Savage (1493-96), when Master Martin Bere notary public is ' Registrarius Episcopatus Roffensis' are contained in volume V. But volume VI. goes back in date being labelled 1478-1513.  It begins with a section of 24 leaves for 1478-84, containing part of the registers of Russell and Audley not able to be included in their proper order in volumes III. and V. because they had been carried off and afterwards restored, as may be learnt from a note roughly contemporary at the beginning of the volume.  Between the last two leaves of this section have been inserted the Probate Acts to which reference has already been made.

The earliest will in English is that of John Spreuer, 'Barbor and Leche' of Cobham dated 9 December, 1448 (i. 61ab), the testament is in Latin; a@d the first filed Will is that of Dominus William Quyntyn, parish priest of Bromley dated 16 February, 1498[-91 (v. 332a).