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William Warren Kerr (1864–1949)

by Geoffrey Serle

This article was published:

William Warren Kerr (1864-1949), businessman and government adviser, was born on 21 December 1864 at Kilmore, Victoria, eleventh child of John Wilson Kerr, head teacher at Kilmore National School and later town clerk of Fitzroy, and his wife Ellen, née Gardiner, both Irish born. He was educated in 1877-79 at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School. In 1885 with Henry Richardson he formed Richardson & Kerr, insurance brokers. He married Jane Buchanan, daughter of Rev. Alexander Gosman, at Augustine Congregational Church, Hawthorn, on 7 April 1887. Kerr became a deacon and chairman of trustees of the Independent Church, Collins Street, Melbourne. In 1905-06 he was chairman of the Congregational Union of Victoria and was later treasurer of the Congregational Union of Australia and New Zealand. He was a member of Kew Borough Council in 1904-12 and mayor for the year 1907-08.

During World War I Warren Kerr became a prominent adviser of governments, serving as chairman of the Commonwealth War Savings Council and of the Victorian War Savings Committee. He was president of the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce in 1916-18 and of the Associated Chambers of Commerce of Australia in 1918-20. After the war he optimistically accepted 'new ideals of social justice', encouraged employers to face industrial disharmony 'on the lines of equity and justice and humanitarianism' and deplored 'useless party strife'.

In 1920 Kerr was appointed chairman of a Commonwealth royal commission which was intended generally to overhaul the taxation system. In the first twelve months from October, 118 public sittings were held and 191 witnesses examined. The final, fifth report was presented in February 1923. Meanwhile, important amendments to taxation law, based on the commission's recommendations, had been made in the Income Tax Assessment Acts of 1921 and 1922: boards of appeal were established and businessmen, as well as primary producers, were allowed to average income over five years. Kerr's advice influenced the shape of the Commonwealth-States Financial Agreement of 1927. That year he represented Australia at the World Economic Conference, Geneva, Switzerland. He had been appointed C.B.E. in 1918 and C.M.G. in 1924.

In his later years Kerr bore a heavy load of institutional commitments. From 1923 he was a commissioner of the State Savings Bank of Victoria and chairman in 1931-48. He was president of the Charity Organisation Society from 1923 to 1945 and important in shaping State relief policies during the Depression. He was also grand master of the United Grand Lodge Freemasons of Victoria in 1932-35, an international Rotary delegate, sometime president of the Constitutional Club, a director of the Mutual Store Ltd, and a founding council-member of Swinburne Technical College from 1908. He was active in the Scouting movement and Toc H; bowls was his chief pastime.

Kerr died on 2 July 1949 at his home in Kew, survived by a daughter and a son, and was buried in Box Hill cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £25,696. At the memorial service Judge Book singled out Kerr's 'remarkable humility', 'inspiring and persuasive eloquence' and 'great capacity for true brotherliness'. Another son had been killed on Gallipoli. In her grief Jane Kerr dedicated her remaining life to the abolition of war. In 1915 she issued a leaflet, 'An appeal to women', and later became vice-president of the Sisterhood of International Peace. She died in 1945.

Select Bibliography

  • C. A. Grant, 500 Victorians (Melb, 1934)
  • E. M. Moore, The Quest for Peace as I Have Known it in Australia (Melb, 1950)
  • J. A. Maher (comp), Tale of a Century: Kilmore 1837-1937 (Melb, 1938)
  • Southern Congregationalist, 2 Aug 1949
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 29 Jan, 16 Mar 1920
  • Age (Melbourne), Argus (Melbourne) 4 July 1949.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'Kerr, William Warren (1864–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 30 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

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