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Kerr, William (1812–1859)

by Lyndsay Gardiner

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

William Kerr (1812-1859), journalist, was born in Wigtownshire, Scotland, the son of David Kerr, farmer, and his wife Anne, née McGammon. He migrated about 1837 to Sydney, where at first he worked as a tutor, becoming a journalist with the Colonist and then with the Sydney Gazette. In 1839 he moved to Melbourne, where he worked briefly with George Cavenagh on the Port Phillip Herald before replacing Smith in January 1841 as editor of the rival paper, John Pascoe Fawkner's Port Phillip Patriot and Melbourne Advertiser. Originally this paper was the voice of the early settlers and big landholders, but after 1844, when Kerr and Fawkner quarrelled, Kerr changed its policy and it expressed the views of urban rather than rural Port Phillip. Superintendent Charles La Trobe stated that it dealt systematically 'in abuse and gross misrepresentations of persons and facts'. Kerr even used his editorials to vilify its proprietor, Fawkner, who was driven to reply in the columns of the hated Herald. Soon afterwards Kerr left the Patriot and in 1846 started his own Argus, which became a daily in June 1849. The general tone of the Argus, lamented La Trobe, 'is quite as discreditable as that which distinguished the Patriot newspaper formerly'.

In 1848, as a result of damages arising from his libelling of Henry Moor, registrar of the new Anglican diocese, Kerr became insolvent, and sold the Argus to Edward Wilson, but continued as editor. Under Kerr and Wilson the paper remained extremely radical. One of its slogans was 'Unlock the Lands', indicating its strong urban sympathies against the powerful squatting interest. Kerr spoke of the 'insatiable rapacity' of the squatters and of the support given them by 'this despicable abortion of a government'.

Another Argus slogan, representative of Kerr's strong views, was 'No Pollution'; this epitomized the opposition to convict labour of any sort, even to Pentonvillians and expirees. At a public meeting in 1844 Kerr thundered that 'he could not stand quietly by and see a whole community prostituted to get a little cheap labour for the squatter'; six years later the Argus was still condemning 'the insatiable cupidity of a few of the more greedy squatters who would sweep the bottomless pit to procure cheap labour'. Kerr was a member of the committee of the Anti-Transportation League and drafted the Convicts' Prevention Act in 1852.

Apart from his journalistic activities, which also included the publication in 1841 of the first Melbourne directory and of an almanac and directory in 1842, Kerr was active in local politics. In December 1842 he was elected as one of the twelve city councillors at Melbourne's first municipal election, and became one of the first four aldermen. He was Melbourne's second town clerk. In this capacity he served in 1853 on the first Commission of Sewers and Water Supply which was responsible for building the Yan Yean reservoir opened in 1857. Kerr was also influential in introducing the secret ballot in Victoria in 1856; indeed John Dunmore Lang insisted that credit for this should go to Kerr rather than to William Nicholson. Kerr was a protégé of Lang, with whom temperamentally he seems to have had much in common. It was partly at Kerr's urging that Lang stood for election as one of the Port Phillip members of the Legislative Council in 1850. Like Lang, Kerr was a keen advocate of separation, having been elected in 1840 as secretary of the Port Phillip Separation Association. Lang's influence may also be seen in Kerr's continual fermenting of the Catholic-Protestant feud, both as journalist and as provincial grand master of the Orangemen of the district. He resigned as town clerk in 1856 after some irregularities were shown in the accounts. He became stationmaster at Sunbury where he died on 25 May 1859, survived by his wife Caroline Amelia, née McCandlish, and four daughters.

Kerr was a man of many violent enthusiasms, and abounding energy despite a crippled arm. His language was unrestrained and during his twenty years in Port Phillip he quarrelled with most of the leading Melbourne citizens. He was given to stinging and sarcastic personal abuse of his opponents. Contemporary opinions of him range from 'thoughtless and thriftless' to 'generous and charitable'.

Select Bibliography

  • Garryowen (E. Finn), The Chronicles of Early Melbourne, vols 1-2 (Melb, 1888)
  • W. Westgarth, Personal Recollections of Early Melbourne and Victoria (Melb, 1888), 83-91
  • J. Bonwick, Early Struggles of the Australian Press (Lond, 1890)
  • H. G. Turner, A History of the Colony of Victoria, vols 1-2 (Lond, 1904)
  • A. D. Gilchrist (ed), John Dunmore Lang, vols 1-2 (Melb, 1951)
  • R. D. Boys, First Years at Port Phillip (Melb, 1959)
  • R. C. Seeger, ‘The History of Melbourne's Water Supply: Part 2’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 22, no 1, June 1947, pp 23-48
  • R. M. McGowan, A Study of Social Life and Conditions in Early Melbourne Prior to Separation, 1836-1851 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1951).

Citation details

Lyndsay Gardiner, 'Kerr, William (1812–1859)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kerr-william-2304/text2981, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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