The papers of the Right Reverend William Shaw Kerr
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An important collection of materials has recently been catalogued at the RCB Library that provides a relatively rare detailed insight to clerical life the northern part of the island, during the first half of the 20th century, particularly the period between the two World Wars. The papers of the Rt Revd William Shaw Kerr (1897–1960) feature as April’s Archive of the Month.
As previously demonstrated, episcopal correspondence and other papers created during the course of the careers of bishops and archbishops are relatively rare survivals for documenting Church of Ireland history (see this presentation).
In many respects Kerr’s materials are no exception, for whilst they comprise correspondence, writings, sermon registers, select daily diaries, research notes and press cuttings on a wide range of topical, historical and theological issues together with Kerr’s additional literary and poetry interests, most of them pre– or post–date his time as bishop of Down and Dromore – between 1945 and 1955. Incidentally, Kerr was the first bishop of Down and Dromore, as oppose to Down, Connor, and Dromore – Connor becoming a diocese in its own right at the time of his consecration in 1945.
What these papers do provide is a very detailed insight to his clerical career up to 1945, and his political outlook which was strongly Unionist. Most significantly they provide the evidence that Kerr was the anonymous writer who penned a column for the Church of Ireland Gazette under the nom de plume ‘Shebna the Scribe, writing from the ‘Cave Hill’ Belfast on virtually a weekly basis between 1910 and 1916, which terminated quite suddenly after a particularly hard–hitting piece on the Irish Rebellion. In this regard, Kerr’s related papers, and the insight they reveal from the perspective of a northern cleric about the rapidly–evolving Ireland at this period, are likely to become important sources for researchers.
Although Kerr served his entire clerical career in the north east of the island through the Partition era, he was actually born in the south. The son of a Wicklow gentleman, James Heron Kerr (pronounced unusually as “Carr”, not as it is spelt), and his wife Rose Smith Shaw (who originated in county Sligo) he was born in 1873, and grew up at the family seat Broomfield House near Ashford, in County Wicklow. The papers reveal he maintained links with Wicklow, and continued to part–own the family house with his brother at least until the 1950s.
Following divinity training at Trinity College in Dublin, he was ordained deacon in 1897 and served two curacies in Shankill, Lurgan (Dromore) 1897–99; and St James Belfast (Connor) 1899–1901. In 1900, he married Amy Smith, daughter of Thomas Smith in All Saints Coxley Green in Hertfordshire, and they shared 58 years together before her death on 27 January 1958 (as his poignant diary entry for that day shows).
The year after their marriage, he was appointed to his first incumbency in the parish of Ballywalter (Down) where he stayed ten years (1901–10), followed by a further five–year incumbency in the parish of St Paul’s Belfast (Connor) between 1910 and 1915; and then a longer 17–year stint in the parish of Seapatrick (Dromore) from 1915 to 1932. During his time at Banbridge (the town where Seapatrick parish church is located) he rose through the senior clerical ranks serving as chancellor of Dromore 1920–29; and also archdeacon of Dromore for a further two years 1930–32.
Kerr’s papers reveal he was in the running to become bishop of Tuam in 1932, which might have taken him over the border for the first time in his clerical service, but he lost out in the final votes to William Hardy Holmes, and soon after was appointed dean and vicar of Belfast (Connor) in 1932, where he would continue through the war years until his election as the first bishop of Down and Dromore in 1945. After ten and a half years in this post, he retired on 31 July 1955. Two years after his beloved wife Amy, he died on 2 February 1960, at the age of 87.
A particular personal feature about Kerr that his papers do not reveal, but was confirmed by the cathedral librarian in St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast (where two original photographs of Kerr as Dean of Belfast and as Bishop of Down and Dromore are preserved –see below) is that he was handicapped by the fact that he had only the use of use of his left hand, the right one having been damaged either at birth, or as a result of a later accident or illness, and which he kept covered in a hard sling. Nothing in the papers alludes to this fact, but a distinctive feature of his handwriting is its poor quality. In both images from the Belfast cathedral collection, his right hand is very obviously hidden from view.
From the Belfast Cathedral Library collection: two images of Kerr, as Dean of Belfast, and a later one as Bishop Down and Dromore. In both Kerr’s right hand is conspicuously hidden. We are most grateful to Paul Gilmore, Librarian at the Cathedral for bringing this material to our attention.
Most of the papers in Kerr’s collection originate from his parochial ministry, particularly during his time in Banbridge between 1915 and 1932, but give detailed insight to the intellect and mindset of one of the Church’s most prolific and outspoken commentators of this period. The papers are organised into 11 record groups, and were transferred to the RCB Library with the assistance of former Chairman of the Library and Archives Committee, F.J. Rankin, where they are accessioned as RCB Library MS 813/.
The first record group consists of four sermon registers recording the scriptural texts on which Kerr preached on particular dates, and where he preached them. Unlike the remainder of the collection, these items cover the period from 1901 up to his retirement in 1955. On occasions when he preached in a cathedral (either St Anne’s in Belfast, or later his two diocesan cathedrals) the detail is annotated either with a red underscore, or later in red ink.
(left) List of sermons preached on the subject of ‘The Fall’, as recorded in sermon register RCB Library MS 813/1/3;
(right) entry showing sermons preached at Belfast cathedral, in red, RCB Library MS 813/1/3.
The real meat of Kerr’s archive is contained in the second record group, the correspondence, which runs from 1908–59 inclusive, with most items dated before Kerr’s appointment as bishop of Down and Dromore, providing evidence of careful record–keeping on Kerr’s part. A run of 37 miscellaneous letters received by Kerr from a single correspondent between 1908 and 1946, has been organised chronologically as 2/1, and a detailed catalogue list of these items is available here. A further six files contain runs with the same correspondent, items 2/2–7.
There is no doubt that whilst these letters form just a small corpus of the likely correspondence he would have received during his life, nevertheless the manner in which they were selected and carefully kept for the record reveal a particular significance for Kerr – several being from well–known figures of his day. There are also amusing, almost trivial and tellingly critical items too from parishioners and others mostly in relation to disputes at parish level which he may have felt he needed to keep for the record. As the archive as whole reveals, Kerr did not shy away from controversy and seemed to thrive on criticism and people having contrary views to his own. Take for example the letter from ‘A subscriber’, Banbridge, in May 1918 (item 2/1/11) which contains the protest from an anonymous woman parishioner to her rector ‘to draw [his] attention to this Ladies football club’:
‘if you have not already heard about it under Heaven’s what is this town going to turn to young Girls are going completely out of their latitude all winter going to dancing classes and Balls and spending their night from 12 o’clock until 5am in the morning out the roads with boys carrying on most racally’.
She concludes with a proposal for all the clergy of the town, ‘even the R.C. clergy’ to get together and ‘put an end … before it gets to [sic.] much of a catch’. It must have given Kerr some amusement for him to keep in his letter file alongside those from the Primate of All Ireland, and Sir Edward Carson.
From the former, Kerr received an angry reprimand in the form of a ‘pencil line from the train’ in January 1917. The writer was the Most Revd John Baptist Crozier (Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland 1911–20) and it concerned the establishment of a new more Unionist–orientated Irish Churchman newspaper, that was running in competition to the more liberal and Dublin–edited Church of Ireland Gazette. The archbishop flatly refused for his ‘photograph to appear in the Irish Churchman’, regarding it as a ‘gross insult to the Primate of all Ireland’, adding that ‘Few things have given me more pain or caused me deeper anxiety for the future of our Church than this startling [?] new church paper…’, admitting that the whole issue has made him ‘almost despair’. He ends that he is unable to write any more as ‘my Heart is very sore’.
A single letter on the controversial topic of ‘war temperance legislation’ is the only one received from Sir Edward Carson, then Attorney–General in Asquith’s wartime government, in December 1915. Again like the Primate’s above, this appears a tetchy response to published coverage of his views on the particular issue temperance.
An extensive letter from Warre B. Wells, Editor of the Church of Ireland Gazette on 9 December 1916 points to political tensions of the day, but confirms what a respected contributor to the paper Kerr was. The context is that Kerr was intending to resign his connection with the Gazette, something that Wells was clearly anxious to prevent. Describing himself as ‘imparted of Nationalist sympathies’ Wells assured Kerr of his deepest respect as ‘a Unionist of moderate views’.
The letter goes on to reveal much about the dilemmas facing the Church of Ireland at this time to keep itself removed from politics and yet remain united. Wells repeats the view of the Archbishop of Dublin that ‘the Home Rule Act being on the statue book, there is small prospect of getting if off again, and that if Home Rule is to come, I think that the interest of the Church, of the Unionist party, and of Ireland generally require that there should be no [absolute?] division between Ulster and the rest of Ireland’. His efforts to dissuade Kerr do not appear to have been realised, as no ‘Shebna’ columns appeared in the Gazette from 1917 onwards.
Specific groups of correspondence include some stinging exchanges on matters theological with the Revd Dr Frederick Wagner, rector of Knocknarea (Elphin) between 1916 and 1927; and a small run from Lord Londonderry, the first Minister for Education in the new Northern Ireland state on the hot and difficult subject of education. Londonderry was not always impressed by the criticisms of churchmen, as this item demonstrates.
The next and third record group consists of a selection of Kerr’s daily diaries, into which he recorded his daily activities including parish visits. Unfortunately the run is most incomplete, comprising odd years, 1909–19 and again the three years after his retirement, 1956–59. However, those that do survive give at least some insight to the daily routine of a young cleric in the early part of the 20th century, and then again during his final years following retirement when he remained in good health and active. These two extracts examples from the 1919 diary reveal as rector of Seapatrick he paid no less than 15 and 13 parochial visits on successive days in February of that year, as well as attending church committees, completing one ‘Shebna’ column (which by 1919 he was writing for the rival Irish Churchman (on the ‘industrial nation’) and starting a new one on ‘warfare’, together with his fairly heavy reading.
As previously discussed, Kerr’s prolific commentary output is emphasised by the complete run of ‘Shebna the Scribe’ articles as published in the Church of Ireland Gazette, from 1910–16, and then occasional items as published in the Irish Churchman, 1918–20, which make up group 4.
Here we see an example of the ‘Shenba’ column in the later publication on one of his favoured general themes – better relationships between Presbyterians and the Church of Ireland – this example specifically about the importance of Jeremy Taylor’s theology for both traditions.
Kerr’s other published writings (aside from the ‘Shebna’ columns) makes up the content of group 5. Comprising files of press cuttings, related correspondence and reviews, these cover the period from 1913 to 1953, and again reveal much about Kerr’s political outlook. As rector of St Paul’s Belfast, for example, he wrote a piece entitled ‘In Ulster Today: A Cromwell’s Army in Belfast’, being a reflection on the then peaceable but growing ‘white heat’ of the people against Home Rule, and justification of the mobilisation the Ulster volunteers, in The Evening News, published on 4 February 1914. There are also files on his The Independence of the Church of Ireland (SPCK, London, 1931), which was not well received beyond the Church of Ireland, Kerr retaining on his file the highly critical responses written by Eoin MacNeill, Professor of Irish History at UCD, published in The Standard newspaper, which he annotated: ‘Piffle. Nothing in this’!
Prof. Eoin MacNeill’s critical review of Kerr’s Independence of the Irish Church, as published in the Standard newspaper under the heading ‘Protestant Writer and St Patrick’, to which Kerr has annotated his dismissive remarks, 16 January 1932, RCB Library MS 813/5/2.
Kerr’s trademark to be controversial is evident in his open letter to the editor of the Gazette about an editorial piece that had appeared on the Twelfth of July, which he argued was one–sided, in 1936, while the files on his last publication Handbook on the Papacy (Marshall, Morgan and Scott Ltd, London, 1950) provide fascinating background about how he refused to tone down his views for the original intended publisher, the SPCK, during the 1940s, which delayed its publication until 1950 with the Baptist firm of Marshall, Morgan and Scott instead.
Reviews and related correspondence remain on file, including an unfavourable review by Canon Charles Smyth published in the Church of England Newspaper, 1 December 1950, who declared that Dr Kerr was ‘an expert controversialist’ but undermined the accuracy of his arguments, and Kerr’s subsequent protest to the editors about it.
Group 6 fleshes out the published works above, containing various lectures delivered by Kerr, together with drafts and research notes on a variety of the historical and theological subjects that interested him. Dated between 1916 and 1947 they vary from ‘Abraham Lincoln’ of whom Kerr was clearly a great admirer, to his most prolific lecture subject to ‘The Church and the Papacy’, first delivered to the Lurgan Clerical Meeting, at the Downshire Arms Hotel, Banbridge, 26 March 1946, but repeated multiple times.
The next group 7 comprises notebooks containing further research notes, press cuttings and other materials on current affairs, history, theology compiled by Kerr between 1911 and 1951. There is a notebook entitled ‘Romanism’ which compliments the lecture materials above, and provided much of the material that ended up in his published Handbook, as well press cuttings and handwritten notes, revealing his ongoing scrutiny of matters to do with the Roman Catholic Church.
Kerr’s book of personal press cuttings documents his clerical career and is particularly insightful, touching on many of the burning subjects of the day and also his appointment as bishop of the new diocese of Down & Dromore.
Kerr’s extensive notes and writings on poetry, c. 1919–35 forms group 8 and is something of a surprise, because it contains much about ‘Irish Ballad Poetry’ of which he was clearly a fan, and demonstrates the complexity of his identity as an Ulster Irishman. We find he organised a programme of entertainment at an official function held in Hillsborough Castle, 15 December 1919, during which Irish ballads and songs were included.
Group 9 comprises printed materials relating to events in which Kerr was directly involved such as the printed notices for ‘Three Services for Men and Harvest Festival’ services which date from his time in Banbridge. Miscellaneous printed materials make up group 10.
The final record group 11 comprises other miscellaneous materials, 1897– 1960, and includes such items as a small volume entitled ‘Books Lent’ being a record of the people to whom he lent books from his library, and an address book, which judging by its extensive amendments may have the only one he used.
More tellingly it includes an envelope containing his certificates for deacon and priest orders, and his consecration certificate as bishop of Down and Dromore, together with ‘Daddy’s Orange Sash’ (as the annotation records) being his collarette as Grand Chaplain of the County Down Orange Order, and of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland. It is the only item in the collection pertaining to his active and probably influential role within the order.
An appreciation entitled ‘In the News W.S.K.’, that appeared in the Church of Ireland Gazette following Kerr’s death and would have been added by his family during the 1960s when they gathered up the materials for the record, completes the collection, which as mentioned above was transferred to the library recently with the assistance of F.J. Rankin.
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For further information please contact:
Dr Susan Hood