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Kerr, George (1853–1930)

by Rodney Sullivan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

George Kerr (1853-1930), blacksmith, politician and grazier, was born on 7 February 1853 at Beadnell, Northumberland, England, son of John Johnson Kerr, farm-labourer, and his wife Catherine, née Atcheson. He trained as a blacksmith and migrated to Queensland in 1877.

At the new Croydon goldfield in 1888-90 Kerr acquired a reputation as a mining speculator. In 1891 he set up his forge at Tambo in the Barcoo electorate and in 1893 won the seat for the Labor Party. From October 1895 to June 1896 and from July 1901 to September 1907 Kerr was a member of Labor's central political executive; he was president in 1904-05 and treasurer in 1905-07. Leader of the Parliamentary Labor Party from May 1904 to May 1907, he joined the Kidston faction after the 1905 split and was minister for railways in July-November 1907 and minister for railways and public works in February-October 1908. He earned a reputation for humane administration. In October 1908 Kidston formed a coalition with (Sir) Robert Philp. Unable to deny so completely his labour origins, Kerr resigned his portfolios. He stood as an Independent at the October 1909 election but was defeated by the endorsed Labor candidate for Barcoo, the formidable T. J. Ryan.

Kerr believed that parliamentary representatives were 'the reflex of the people' and that their brief was 'to frame a political programme that is possible of attainment within a reasonable time'. Thus he had supported Kidston's proposal for coalition with Morgan Liberals in 1903 in the hope of achieving adult suffrage and other electoral reforms and opposed, as impracticable, the socialist objective adopted at the 1907 Labor-in-Politics convention. As parliamentary Labor leader he supported continuation of the coalition but was decisively defeated when the convention resolved that Labor should fight the next election alone.

Industrious and moderate despite his suspension with others in September 1894, Kerr was noted for his unassuming tenacity and responsible approach to parliamentary matters. He rejected the popular Labor view that a member is a delegate rather than a representative, but his frequent trips throughout his large electorate, his regular attendance at and reports to Australian Workers' Union meetings and his close attention to local deputations assisted his political survival; however, his majorities declined at the elections of 1907 and 1908 against endorsed Labor candidates. The Western Champion depicted him as St George defending the Barcoo maiden against the dragon of extremism. Kerr's faith in Queensland's potential overrode his reservations about capitalism and he was party to Kidston's 'apostasy' on land sales and private railways because of their developmental emphasis. A Methodist and a Freemason with a firm belief in the human potential for self-improvement, Kerr was particularly interested in friendly societies. He was compared frequently to Longfellow's village smith. The Western Champion reported that 'he left his peaceful smithy under the gidyea tree at Tambo to become a political angel and Minister of Grace in the Councils of the Nation'. His faith and somewhat plodding tenacity were best conveyed by a Worker rhymester:

His brow was wet with honest sweat
He earned six quid per week
And looked the whole House in the face
When he began to speak.

Married in May 1882 to Florence McCulloch at Bogantungan, he was left a widower in February 1883. On 17 February 1891 at Tambo he married with Church of England rites a widow, Susan Jane Moore, née Deacon; they had one daughter. After leaving public life he acquired grazing properties at Longreach and Cloncurry. Kerr retired to Brisbane and died there on 18 January 1930. He was buried in Toowong cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • D. J. Murphy et al (eds), Prelude to Power (Brisb, 1970)
  • Worker (Brisbane), 22 Jan 1930
  • Brisbane Courier, 15 Mar 1907
  • Western Champion (Barcaldine), 27 Apr 1907, 1 Apr 1908
  • Queenslander, 23 Jan 1930.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Rodney Sullivan, 'Kerr, George (1853–1930)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kerr-george-557/text12041, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 2 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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