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Book of the Month

March 2007

Ker family papers

 Various locations: c 1862-1970
MS Gen 1300

This month we highlight a collection of family papers, the majority of which comprise letters from or to the literary scholar, William Paton Ker (1855-1923). He was the eldest son of a Glasgow merchant, William Ker and his wife Caroline (ne้ Paton) whose surviving children included two daughters and five other sons. A student at Glasgow University and Balliol College, Oxford, W P Ker later held the post of Professor of English Language and Literature at University College London. Through his career and publications, including Epic and Romance (1897), he made a significant contribution to the development of academic study in these subjects. The collection provides an insight into Ker's life, his family and social circle and contemporary events in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Title page of 'The Forest of Bondi' from a collection of 'Five Plays',
including details of its staging at a fictitious Glasgow theatre.
(MS Gen 1300/3/1)

While Ker was of school age (he was a pupil at Glasgow Academy), he wrote and illustrated a number of stories and plays. This was a common enough amusement among children. However, Ker continued to sketch throughout his life, particularly when travelling and he sometimes illustrated his letters.

Closing lines of a scene from 'Five Plays' written
when Ker was about 12 years old.
(MS Gen 1300/3/1)

From the early 1870s, the Ker family home was at Windsor Terrace in the west end of Glasgow. William Paton Ker wrote to his mother in 1873, referring to work being undertaken at the address and saying 'I am sorry you haven't a house yet.'

Windsor Terrace (now Kirklee Terrace) was designed by the Glasgow-trained architect Charles Wilson (1810-1863). Following the construction of Great Western Road, the west end of the city was opened up for development, to which Wilson made a significant contribution with designs for a number of public and residential buildings. 

William Ker (W P Ker's father) was one of a number of subscribers to the second edition of 'The old country houses of the old Glasgow gentry', (1878) who gave Windsor Terrace as their address. Properties here were highly sought after, reflecting the increasing popularity of the west end at a time when industrialisation had led to overcrowding and pollution in the city centre.

Envelope addressed to Penelope Ker at the family home in Glasgow
(MS Gen 1300/4/2)

Ker's admission ticket for the installation ceremony of
Benjamin Disraeli (Prime Minister, 1868 and 1874-1880)
as Lord Rector of Glasgow University in 1873.
(MS Gen 1300/3/4)

Glasgow University
was originally located in the east of the city, adjacent to the High Street. In 1870 the University moved westwards, to the current Gilmorehill site. In the same year, Ker began his studies in the Arts faculty. He attended for four sessions, until 1873-4, and won a number of prizes in Latin, Greek, Logic and Moral Philosophy. In a letter to his father in 1877 Ker mentions a bill for a 'lunch wh[ich] was given to Lushington June 21st 1876.' This refers to Edmund Law Lushington, who had recently resigned as Professor of Greek after nearly forty years in the post.

Ker did not graduate from Glasgow University because in 1874 he was awarded a Snell Exhibition. The origin of this award was a gift made under the will of John Snell in 1677 which provided for selected Glasgow University undergraduates to continue their studies at Balliol College, Oxford. Ker was later awarded an honorary degree from Glasgow University, in 1898.
At Oxford, Ker obtained a first in Classical Moderations (1876) and a second in Literae Humaniores (1878), graduating BA in the same year and MA in 1881. In 1879 he was elected a Fellow of All Souls College, a connection he maintained for the rest of his life. In March 1883 he reports going to a lecture given by the critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) on the subject of "Recent English Art". In 1883 'recent' meant the work of artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) and William Holman Hunt (1827-1910). Ruskin, recently re-elected as Oxford's Slade professor of fine art, '...spoke better I think than I ever heard him... It was worth going to.'

While studying at Oxford, Ker witnessed the 1877 boat race against Cambridge. Writing to his mother two days later, he described the excitement of the event. 'Saturday - that was a day.' Having got up at 5am and travelled to Hammersmith by train, he walked along the south bank of the river until he and his friends found a suitable vantage point. 'We got on the raised bank of a reservoir from wh[ere] we cd see right up to Barnes Bridge ... When the boats passed us Oxford was leading by less than 1/2 a length ... They were rowing a fast stroke - about 39 I believe - but Cambridge were rowing about two more to the minute. I thought that we were safe to win ... It wasn't till we got back to town that we heard it was a dead heat, and even then no one wd believe it till the evening papers came out.' Ker's prediction that 'there won't be another dead heat for a long time' has proved correct, as it is the only one so far recorded.

Extract from W P Ker's letter to his mother,
26 March 1877 (MS Gen 1300/2/1)

In 1883, Ker was appointed the first Professor of English literature and history at the newly founded University College of South Wales, Cardiff. This was a pioneering role and Ker's letters give an indication of the many meetings he attended. However, he also found time to explore his new surroundings, including visiting Caerphilly Castle and suggesting 'a Sunday on the [River] Wye.'

95 Gower Street was Ker's London home
until his death. Letter to his father, 1891
(MS Gen 1300/1/1)

Ker achieved another 'first' in 1889 when he became the inaugural Quain chair of English language and literature at University College, London. Subsequently he divided his time between Oxford and his house at 95 Gower Street, near the University. His letters reveal some of the changes taking place in the capital at the end of the nineteenth century, including the introduction of electric street lighting. Ker agreed with those who did not think it was as effective as gaslight: ' is very dismal in London, at least in streets where there is nothing else, and where you can't see anything half way between the lamps unless there are shop windows to help.'

Evidently though, there were more positive aspects to living in London, such as the evening he spent at the house of 'Mrs Clifford' in December 1896. Lucy Clifford (1846-1929), who wrote under the pseudonym John Inglis, was well-known as a hostess and numbered among her friends the novelist Henry James (1843-1916); the two had an extensive correspondence. James, who had just begun writing 'What Maisie Knew', was present that evening, along with another writer, Mrs Humphrey Ward (Mary Augusta Ward, 1851-1920). Ker enjoyed himself but another guest '... seemed to be thinking there was too much literature at the party.'
Ker's literary interests were wide ranging and his letters, especially to his father, contain numerous references to his current reading and recommendations of books and articles. The flow of information was not one-way though. Ker was keen to keep in touch with current events in Scotland and regularly thanked his father for sending press cuttings from Scottish newspapers. The two discussed political affairs, including the controversy following the death of General Gordon (1833-1885) and the dominant contemporary issue of Irish home rule. There are also references to the progress of the Boer and first world wars.

The letters frequently mention Ker's wide circle of family, friends and acquaintances. Sometimes, paths would cross in rather official settings. In June 1898 Ker had been to the Royal Society and reported that
'Ramsay's show was crowded - new gas - He is said to have more up his sleeve'. He was referring to William Ramsay (1852-1916) who had attended the same school as Ker. Ramsay had shared in the identification of argon in 1894 and the 'new gas' was probably the newly discovered krypton. Ramsay would later receive the Nobel prize for chemistry.

Letter from W P Ker, 24 December 1894, thanking his father
for sending copies of the Glasgow Herald (MS Gen 1300/1/1)

Passport for 'Mr William Paton Ker ...
travelling on the Continent' 1873
(MS Gen 1300/3/4)

Despite Ker's dedication to his university career and responsibilities, he was a keen walker, rower and climber who looked forward to his holidays, which he usually spent with friends. His travels in the British Isles and abroad are well-documented in his letters, diaries and sketchbooks.

He continued to visit Scotland after moving away, writing from Brodick in 1877: 'The sun was shining at the top of Goatfell as we climbed down the hillside but it was pretty dark in the glen - the outline of the hills very black against a perfectly clear sky ... the burn looked quite white as we looked back. The brackens are quite yellow now. It was high time to come here, you see, for any one who cared about coming at all.'

In February 1886 he wrote that 'I am going to Italy for Easter vac. with A L Smith prob to Milan Verona & Venice.' Arthur Lionel Smith (1850-1924) was at this time a history lecturer at Balliol, and later master of the college. One of the results of the holiday was the purchase of a birthday present for Ker's sister, Penelope. 'I send you a brass plate with a picture of an Emperor on it. Bought it in ironmonger's shop in Venice.'

In 1895 Ker visited Iceland, and again in 1899. He was interested in the language and taught it to his students. In 1917, largely through his initiative, the first department of Scandinavian studies was established at London University. This was a major achievement and the first department of its kind in England. Ker served as its director.

Folder of letters from Iceland
(MS Gen 1300/1/1)


Letter written from Thorshavn, Faroe Islands,
en route to Iceland, 4 August 1895
(MS Gen 1300/1/1)

Letter posted from the 'Hotel Reykjavik' in the Icelandic capital,
22 August 1895
(MS Gen 1300/1/1)

W P Ker's pocket diaries
(MS Gen 1300/3/2)

Ker resigned from his language and literature chair in 1922. However, he remained as Chair of Poetry at Oxford, to which he had been appointed in 1920. Some drafts of his poems appear in his diaries and sketchbooks, and there is a copy of a posthumously published collection of birthday poems written for Penelope Ker.

William Paton Ker died in July 1923 while walking on the Pizzo Bianco at Macugnaga, Italy. In 1938 a lectureship was founded at Glasgow University in his memory. The first postholder was R W Chambers who had succeeded to Ker's post at University of London. Others who have held the post include the writers T S Eliot (1941), E M Forster (1944), J R R Tolkien (1953) and C S Lewis (1959). The resulting annual lectures have included 'The music of poetry'; 'The politics of King Lear'; 'The influence of mountains upon the development of human intelligence'; 'Abelard and Heloise in medieval testimonies' and 'The legendary history of Olaf Tryggvason (King of Norway 968-1000)', thereby reflecting Ker's varied professional and personal interests.

Ker signs off a letter to his sister Penelope (MS Gen 1300/4/2)


For further information about the collection, see MS Gen 1300. There are also letters from and to members of the Ker family in other collections including MS Gen 532 and MS MacColl.

Published works by W P Ker are held in Glasgow University Library. See the Library catalogue for more details.

W P Ker Memorial Lectures (University of Glasgow) Stack College Coll Pers (1939-)

Glasgow University Archive Services holds records of the university, its staff and students.

Related material elsewhere:

The letters, diaries and notebooks held in Special Collections relate more to William Paton Ker's personal life than his academic career, although a few of his notebooks contain lecture notes, and his diaries record both personal and work appointments.

Material relating to William Paton Ker is also held by London University (correspondence and papers, lecture notes), Oxford University (letters, Icelandic collection) Leeds University (letters), the British Library (correspondence with publisher) and the National Library of Scotland (letters and papers).

The following were useful in compiling this article:

W Innes Addison, The Snell Exhibitions from the University of Glasgow to Balliol College, Oxford (Glasgow: 1901)
Sp Coll Mu21-a.52

R W Chambers, 'Ker, William Paton (1855-1923)', rev. A S G Edwards, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2005 [, accessed Feb 2007]

Michael Moss, Moira Rankin and Lesley Richmond, Who, where and when: the history & constitution of the University of Glasgow (Glasgow, c 2001) Sp Coll Reference



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Sarah Hepworth March 2007