Duchess, a former mining town, is a hamlet on the railway line between Cloncurry and Mount Isa, 130 km from the former and 90 km from the latter. Duchess is in the Cloncurry Shire.
The Duchess ore body, a jutting outcrop of green rock, was discovered in 1897 by Alexander Kennedy, pioneer pastoralist and, incidentally, the first passenger on the first Qantas flight from Cloncurry. Kennedy chose the name 'Duchess' in memory of a black woman who had arrived unexpectedly at his station homestead some time before. She had been the black mistress of a supposedly aristocratic Englishman known as 'the Duke'.
The Duchess mine was financed by Kennedy, Ernest Henry (the first discoverer of Cloncurry copper) and Melbourne mining interests. It was the richest copper mine in the Cloncurry district with serious production beginning in 1907. In 1912 Duchess was linked by railway to Cloncurry, enabling fuel to be brought in for the Duchess smelter. Wartime copper prices were buoyant, and it was estimated that about 1000 people resided at Duchess in 1917, compared with 74 in the 1911 census. Pugh's Queensland Directory (1918) recorded three drapers, four hotels, two market gardeners, two motor garages, a picture theatre and a school (1911).
By 1920 copper prices had collapsed. The smelter closed and the population dwindled; the 1921 census count was 344 and 135 in 1933, both of which appear giant against the current population of three. The Queensland Mining Guide, 1932, stated that the Duchess was a deep mine, the lode was large, and the ore was rich and easy to smelt. But it was idle, probably because of water encountered at a shallow depth. There were other copper lodes in the vicinity, nearer the surface and more readily mined.
Phosphate discoveries in the 1960s kept the Duchess Hotel, general store and primary school going. The settlement was also a pastoral supply point. The school closed in 1983 although the hotel remains, a landmark to inland travellers, as is the remaining brick smokestack from the old smelter.
Cloncurry 100: 1867-1967, Clonclurry, Cloncurry Centenary Celebrations Committee, 1967
Perry Hardy, A short history of the Cloncurry district, Cloncurry, Cloncurry Shire Council, 1983
Geoffrey Blainey, Mines in the spinifex: the story of Mount Isa Mines, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1960