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Kerr, Peter (1820–1912)

by George Tibbits

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Peter Kerr (1820-1912), architect, was born on 21 April 1820 in Aberdeen, Scotland, son of James Kerr (b.1791), shipmaster and leather merchant, and his wife Helen, née Chesney. He served his articles with the Aberdeen architect, Archibald Simpson (1790-1847), and then worked with George Fowler Jones at York. In 1845 he was engaged by the Duke of Sutherland to renovate and extend Dunrobin Castle. In 1848 he went to London and worked in the office of Sir Charles Barry (1795-1860), architect of the new Houses of Parliament at Westminster. Soon after they were opened by the Queen in February 1852 Kerr migrated to Melbourne.

Kerr joined the partnership of J. G. Knight & Thomas Kemp, architects and engineers. Kemp, who had worked in London under Barry, returned to England in 1855 but the firm of Knight & Kerr continued to about 1860 when Knight turned to other occupations. From the beginning the partners had a private practice but also designed and supervised government projects. In 1866-92 Kerr served in the Public Works Department as an architect, rising to first grade with a salary of £600 and taking charge of the 'principal Metropolitan Buildings'. His notable works included portions of the Law Courts, Government House, Post Office and Customs House. He was one of the able architects who enriched Melbourne with some of the finest classical public buildings in Australia but his reputation rests on the claim that he alone designed the impressive Houses of Parliament in Spring Street.

Kerr was associated with each of the four campaigns to complete the parliamentary buildings. Soon after he reached Melbourne a competition for designing the Houses of Parliament had been won by Smith & Pritchard but it was dropped. In a letter to the Argus, 15 January 1892, Kerr claimed that 'Our firm … brought influence … through our Mr. Knight and in the end the carrying out of the Houses of Parliament was entrusted to us. The designs for the Council and Assembly Chambers [built by 1858] and for the library [built in 1859] were prepared by me with my own hands and the drawings are still in existence [at the P.W.D.] to speak for themselves'. He also claimed that the building of these two projects were supervised by Knight and himself. In 1877 Kerr was appointed architect by the royal commission on extending accommodation in the parliamentary buildings. He designed and superintended the building of the Queen's Hall and the Vestibule, opened in 1879. He continued to work on the final scheme which included a massive dome and an overpowering Roman Doric façade round the entire building but only the west façade was completed by 1892. In June 1904 his paper on 'The Melbourne Houses of Parliament: The Ancient History' was read to the general meeting of the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects and published in the institute's journal.

Kerr served as a building referee in the administration of the Melbourne Building Act. His last work was as an honorary superintending architect for the memorial to Queen Victoria in the Alexandra Gardens, Melbourne. He died at South Melbourne on 31 March 1912, survived by his wife Harriette, née Bertrand, whom he had married in Melbourne on 8 August 1857, and by two sons and two daughters of their seven children.

Kerr was a fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects. He also helped to found the Victorian Institute of Architects in August 1856, served on its first council and was made an honorary fellow when the institute received a royal charter in 1889.

Select Bibliography

  • G. H. Jenkins, A Short History and Description of the Parliament House, Melbourne (Melb, 1886)
  • ‘Peter Kerr (Hon. Fellow), F.R.I.B.A.’, Royal Victorian Institute of Architects, Journal, July 1905
  • D. S. Lyall, The Architectural Profession in Melbourne 1835 to 1860 (M. Arch. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1966)
  • N. Chlebnikowsky, Parliament House, Melbourne (B. Arch. research report, University of Melbourne, 1970)
  • Kerr papers (privately held).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

George Tibbits, 'Kerr, Peter (1820–1912)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kerr-peter-558/text6221, published in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 3 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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