Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Doris Boake Kerr (1889–1944)

by John Arnold

This article was published:

Doris Boake Kerr (1889-1944), writer, was born on 29 August 1889 at Summer Hill, Sydney, elder daughter of native-born parents Gregory Augustine Kerr, civil servant, and his wife Adelaide Eva, née Boake. Her maternal grandfather Barcroft Capel Boake (1838-1921) had emigrated to Australia in the late 1850s and established himself as a professional photographer, first in Melbourne and then in Sydney. His son was the poet Barcroft Boake. Doris was later to use 'Capel Boake' as her pseudonym. When her father—described by his father-in-law 'as a helpless creature'—lost his job with the Railways Department, the Kerrs moved to Melbourne about 1893. Hindered by a club foot which was subsequently amputated, Gregory probably never had regular employment in Melbourne, although he was for a time draughts correspondent for the Age. Doris's mother supported the family by working for a commercial photographer. By 1915 they had settled at Caulfield.

Although she attended a state school, Doris claimed that 'she was self-educated at the Prahran Public Library'. She left school relatively early and worked as a shop-assistant before becoming in turn a typist and a librarian. Her first story was published in the Australasian in January 1916. It was followed by other stories and poems, some of which appeared in the Victorian School Paper. Her first novel, Painted Clay (Melbourne, 1917), was published by the Australasian Authors' Agency and reprinted by Virago (London, 1986). It tells the story of a shop assistant's fight for independence in a period when menial work or marriage were the only choices for a majority of young women. In 1923 the New South Wales Bookstall Co. published The Romany Mark, her novel about circus life. Kerr's best book, The Dark Thread, was released under the Hutchinson imprint in London in 1936. It was one of the few interwar Australian novels to deal with urban everyday life. Her last novel, The Twig is Bent, written with the aid of a Commonwealth literary grant but published posthumously (Sydney, 1946), was a rather wooden historical tale set in early Melbourne.

Kerr remained single and continued to live in the family home. Active in P.E.N. International and a foundation member of the Society of Australian Authors, by the early 1940s she was working as secretary to J. K. Moir who was credit manager at Paynes Bon Marchè Pty Ltd in Bourke Street and a noted supporter of Australian literature. Kerr died suddenly of a cerebral haemorrhage on 5 June 1944 at Caulfield and was cremated. Her friend Myra Morris wrote immediately to Moir: 'There'll never be anyone else like Doris—so generous, so full of understanding, with so rare a mind'.

A collection of Kerr's verse with a foreword by Morris was published in 1949 as The Selected Poems of Capel Boake. Although her work, with that of her Melbourne contemporaries 'Georgia Rivers' (Marjorie Clark) and Jean Campbell, is passed over in studies of Australian women's writing in the interwar period, her two main novels, Painted Clay and The Dark Thread, deserve to be more widely known.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Arnold (ed), The Imagined City (Syd, 1983)
  • C. Boake, Painted Clay, introduced by C. Downer (Lond, 1986)
  • J. Kerr (ed), Dictionary of Australian Artists (Melb, 1992)
  • Listener In, 17-23 Feb 1940
  • Australasian, 27 May 1939
  • Herald (Melbourne), 5 June 1944
  • 'Capel Boake' material, J. K. Moir collection (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

John Arnold, 'Kerr, Doris Boake (1889–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 20 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Boake, Capel

29 August, 1889
Summer Hill, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


5 June, 1944 (aged 54)
Caulfield, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia