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Lady Anne Dorothy Kerr (1914–1997)

by Alexis Bergantz

This article was published online in 2023

Lady Anne Kerr, no date

Lady Anne Kerr, no date

Courtesy of the Office of the Official Secretary to the Governor-General

Anne Dorothy Kerr (1914–1997), teacher, researcher, interpreter, and vice-regal consort, was born Annie Dorothy on 21 August 1914 at Eastwood, Sydney, younger daughter of English-born John George Taggart, civil servant, and his Glaswegian wife Annie Gillan, née McKay, former primary school teacher. Raised by religious parents in a ‘loving but restrictive’ environment (Kerr 1988, 2), Nancy, as she was often known, attended Eastwood Public and Hornsby Domestic Science schools before enrolling at North Sydney Girls’ High. Passionate about basketball and languages, she excelled academically: in the Leaving certificate she came first in the State in French and German and second overall.

In 1932 Taggart began her studies at the University of Sydney (BA, 1935), where she resided at the Women’s College. She obtained first-class honours in French and second-class honours in German and was awarded several prizes and scholarships for her academic performance. While there she also trained at the Sydney Teachers’ College. As recipient of the 1935 French government travelling scholarship, Taggart left Sydney for two years of further study at the Sorbonne in Paris (licence ès lettres, 1937). During this time she travelled in Europe, visited family in Scotland, and worked as an au pair. The experience sparked a lifelong love for France, which she often thought of as a second home.

Upon returning to Australia in 1938, Taggart worked as a French teacher, including at Parramatta High and Marrickville Girls’ Intermediate High schools, and as a Leaving certificate examiner. She also tutored French at the University of Sydney and some of its residential colleges. On 24 August 1940 she married Hugh Walker Robson, a solicitor, at Wesley Chapel, Sydney, and over the next few years they had two children: Nicolas and Stephanie. Though Robson had a great deal of professional experience, including one term as senior lecturer in the university’s French department, when she applied for a permanent academic position she was passed over because she, unlike her male competitor, was a mother with a one-year-old child.

In 1946 (Sir) John Kerr, then head of the Australian School of Pacific Administration (ASOPA), offered Robson a job as a teacher and researcher. As fellow in colonial administration, she specialised in the comparative study of French overseas territories, on which she published several studies. The role involved extensive travel to these places and to the Territory of Papua and New Guinea to collect data and information.

Alongside her research, Robson became increasingly involved in interpreting. She gained her first official experience of this at the 1947 South Seas Conference held in Canberra. Seconded from ASOPA to the Department of External Affairs, she translated between English and French, the two official languages of the meeting, and made connections with French delegates that helped her research. This was the start of a career of more than twenty years as a simultaneous interpreter and consultant. Leaving ASOPA after about four years, she subsequently worked for several United Nations and international agencies such as the Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East, which saw her travel in South-East Asia and the Pacific. She later reflected: ‘to what captivating worlds interpreting had offered me the key’ (Kerr 1988, 201). Though often underpaid for what was long and difficult work, she was able to pursue this international career thanks to the help of her loyal housekeeper, nanny, and ‘angel’ (Kerr 1988, 202), Ethel Ryan, fondly known as ‘Ryany.’ From 1954 she appeared on radio with the Australian Broadcasting Commission as a specialist on French Indo-China, attracting praise for her knowledge.

With often long gaps between conferences, Robson took up casual teaching and co-authored a French textbook. From 1965 she spent more time advising governments and international organisations on consecutive interpreting services, supervising teams of interpreters and travelling even further afield. The next year she became the first Australian elected to the International Association of Conference Interpreters.

After a decade of building experience as an interpreter and consultant, Robson was considering a move to Europe but reconnected with Kerr, now governor-general and a recent widower, through a chance encounter on one of his evening walks through Kirribilli. Her first marriage ended in divorce on 18 April 1975, and the pair wed in a ceremony held at Scots Kirk, Mosman, Sydney, on 29 April. The convenient speed of the divorce and secret wedding provoked media controversy over alleged favouritism. Nevertheless, Lady Kerr recalled the early months of her new vice-regal life as ‘a time of serenity and intense personal happiness’ (Kerr 1988, 278). While she was privy to her husband’s intention to dismiss the Whitlam government, both the Kerrs later denied accusations that she had influenced his making this decision. Over the ensuing months they became the focus of demonstrations and protest as they continued their official duties. She was invested with the insignia of commander sister of the Order of St John in April 1976 for her support to the order as wife of the governor-general (dame of grace, 1977).

At the end of 1977 John Kerr retired, and the couple left Australia to reside in Europe. After celebrating Christmas in Austria, they spent a few months in a secluded French village in the Auvergne. They planned to move to Paris where he was due to take up the post of Australian ambassador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, but an overwhelmingly negative public reaction to the appointment eventually dissuaded them. They instead moved to England, spending the next six years living in Surrey and London and travelling throughout the south of England and Europe. The pair returned home to Sydney in the early 1980s.

Tall and self-assured, with blue-green eyes and auburn hair and often sporting a broad-brimmed hat and gloves, Kerr was widely seen as charming and sophisticated but also acquired a reputation among some critics for pretentiousness and snobbery. Outside of the public eye she enjoyed travel, literature, and art. Predeceased by her husband (d. 1991), she died after a long battle with breast cancer on 16 September 1997 at Longueville Private Hospital, Sydney, survived by her two children. Though often remembered in relation to her second husband’s controversial public life, Kerr was an important figure in her own right for her prominence as an interpreter and scholar.

Research edited by Michelle Staff

Select Bibliography

  • Abjorensen, Norman. ‘Brilliant Mind and Charming Manner.’ Canberra Times, 20 September 1997, 7
  • Howie, Ann C., ed. Who’s Who in Australia 1991. Melbourne: Information Australia, 1990
  • Kerr, Anne. Lanterns over Pinchgut. South Melbourne: Macmillan, 1988
  • Kerr, John. Matters for Judgment: An Autobiography. South Melbourne: Macmillan, 1978
  • McGinness, Mark. ‘Former Linguist Gave Kerr Courage.’ Australian, 23 September 1997, 17
  • Women’s College Roll Book, Women’s College Archives, University of Sydney

Additional Resources

Citation details

Alexis Bergantz, 'Kerr, Lady Anne Dorothy (1914–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kerr-lady-anne-dorothy-33442/text41813, published online 2023, accessed online 14 June 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Lady Anne Kerr, no date

Lady Anne Kerr, no date

Courtesy of the Office of the Official Secretary to the Governor-General