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Kerr, James Semple (Bully) (1836–1915)

by Tom Watson

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

James Semple (Bully) Kerr (1836-1915), schoolteacher, was born on 29 August 1836 at Stewarton, Ayrshire, Scotland, son of John Kerr, butcher, and his wife Agnes, née Semple. Attending lectures at Glasgow and Anderson's universities in 1852-53, he trained as a teacher at the Glasgow Free Normal School in 1854-55 and taught at Gourock Free School for six years. In 1863 he joined the teaching staff of the Queensland Board of General Education and spent five years as headmaster at Warwick and fifteen months at Fortitude Valley. In 1870 he was promoted to inspector and training master.

Becoming headmaster of the Brisbane Boys' Normal School in 1874, Kerr used his impressive physical presence, strength of character and awesome energy to fashion an institution renowned for its strict discipline upon pupils and teachers alike and for its academic standards, demonstrated each year by the long list of grammar school scholarship winners.

Kerr's devotion to the Protestant work ethic sprang from his firm Presbyterian convictions. Believing in the teacher as a moral example, he scorned laziness or shirking and was himself painstaking about school management. Parental concern over the length of home lessons and the daily two hours of extra tuition for scholarship candidates together with the jealousy of other schools caused an official inquiry in 1892. Kerr defended his policy vigorously. Despite a cramped urban environment with overcrowded classrooms and makeshift buildings alongside the girls' and infants' central schools and opposite the noisy and dusty road to Brisbane Central Railway Station, the Normal School boasted 1132 boys on the roll in 1888. Only 282 came from the immediate vicinity of the school.

He offered the substance of his educational convictions in evidence to royal commissions on education (1874), the civil service (1888) and a university (1891). A firm supporter of the British national system with its teaching of 'common Christianity', he regretted Queensland's move to purely secular education in the 1875 Education Act. He continually urged the foundation of a teachers' training college linked to a university. He preferred indirect to direct compulsion of attendance in a young colony heavily dependent on juvenile labour. An early believer in women teachers for young boys, he advocated equal pay for equal work and criticized the requirement for teachers' wives in rural schools to serve as unpaid assistants. 'The female mind', he said, 'is the clear mind of the colony'. As a representative of the East Moreton Teachers' Association before the civil service commission, he boldly criticized the bureaucratic high-handedness of Chief Inspector David Ewart and told of teachers' grievances over low salaries, uneven classifications, demoralizing transfers and poor rural housing. To the commission on a university he urged that state-subsidized grammar schools should be replaced by primary schools upgraded to matriculation level. He retired from the department in 1906 and, with his wife, ran a private school in the suburbs until 1912. He died in Brisbane on 18 February 1915 and was buried in Toowong cemetery.

Kerr was married four times: at Gourock in September 1859 to Margaret Black who left one daughter; at Warwick in January 1865 to Jane Twatt who left three daughters; to Wilhelmine Scott in Brisbane in April 1877; and to schoolmistress Jane Anne McLeod in September 1888.

Select Bibliography

  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1875, 2, p 171, 1888, 1, p 500, 1891, 3, p 873
  • J. S. Kerr testimonials (History Unit, Dept of Education, Brisbane)
  • Brisbane Boys' Central School files, EDU/Z326-27 (Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

Tom Watson, 'Kerr, James Semple (Bully) (1836–1915)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kerr-james-semple-bully-6939/text12043, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 26 October 2014.

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

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