Thursday 25 May 2023

Alfred Lord Tennyson - the Greenock connection

Mary Tennyson, sister of Alfred Tennyson, married barrister Alan Ker who was born in Greenock in December 1819.

Alan Ker (1819-1885) was the eldest son of Robert Dow Kerr and Augusta Buchanan.  The Ker family of Greenock were merchants (Ker & Co) who traded and travelled all over the world.  Robert Dow Kerr and Augusta married in Greenock in 1819 and went on to have 15 children, all born in Greenock.  Ker Street in Greenock is named after this family.  The family lived at Finnart House.  Later the family moved to Clifton, Gloucestershire.

 Alan Ker attended the Grammar School in Greenock and later Glasgow University.  In 1838 he studied at the Middle Temple in London and in 1842 became a Barrister at Law.  He moved to Cheltenham, home of his brother Claudius Ker who was a doctor in the town.   It is here that he met the Tennyson family and in 1851 married Mary Tennyson.  After their marriage they moved to the West Indies where their son, Walter Charles Alan Ker was born in 1853 in Antigua.  Mary travelled back to Britain she was not particularly happy living abroad.  Walter received his education in Britain at Cheltenham College and Trinity College, Cambridge.  Read more about the Tennyson sisters here.

Alan Ker remained abroad.  From 1851 to 1854 he was Attorney General of Antigua before moving to Nevis where he was Chief Justice from 1854 to 1856.  From 1856 to 1861 he was Chief Justice of Dominica before becoming, in 1860, Puisne Judge of the Supreme Court until 1885.  He had retired from his position and was about to return to Britain when he became ill and died at Kingston, Jamaica in March 1885.  Mary Tennyson Ker died at Margate in 1884.

Their son, Walter Charles Alan Ker (1853-1929) was said to resemble the Tennysons in looks.  He became a barrister but spent his time translating and editing books.  He married in Julia Susan Christiana Holmes (1862-1900), daughter of Robert Holmes of Moycashel, Westmeath.  The couple had a daughter, Dorothy Mary Ker (1886-1965).  The family lived at Vicarage Gardens, Kensington, London.

A Kensington Mystery!     However all was not well in the Ker household.  On Boxing Day 1900 the body of Julia Susan Christiana Ker was found floating in the Thames.  She had been missing since 7 December.  

The body was found by John Harved, a picture frame maker of 30 Stowe Road, Shepherd’s Bush.  He stated that he had been standing talking to someone near Biffen’s Boat Yard at Hammersmith Bridge on Thursday morning about 9.30 when he noticed something floating down the river from the direction of “The Doves”.  He went down to the boat raft and rowed out into the stream catching the body on an oar as it swept past.  The body was then conveyed to the shore and the police were sent for.  When asked how the body was dressed he described a black dress and jacket with a fur boa round the neck and that she was wearing gloves.  When questioned whether the the dress was grey, he relied that it had been black but that “there was a lot of mud.”

PC Robert Sears 683 T stated that he had been called to the riverside at 10 o’clock on the Thursday morning when the body was brought ashore.  He called for Dr Musson and the body was removed to the mortuary.

One of Julia’s friends, Margaret Butterworth of 47 Camden House Road had known her for two or three years and had heard that she “suffered mentally” and described her as “a very delicate woman”.  She said that when Julia returned from Yorkshire she had remarked that she looked very well, to which Julia had replied “Yes, in my body.”  When asked about her home life, Margaret stated that - “ Her home life was very happy, and her husband was kindness itself to her.”  Margaret had last seen Julia on 21 November.

Walter Ker stated that his wife had been suffering from “hysterical delusions” or “aberration of mind”.  She had been admitted to a “home” in  Ilkley, Yorkshire which she had left on 17 November 1900 and returned to her home in Kensington.  Her doctor Sir John Williams had given a good report on her health and all had assumed she had completely recovered and she was in good physical health.  On 7 December Walter Ker returned home and was told by his niece who was living with, them that Julia had gone out and had not returned.  No one knew where she had gone.  When asked by the coroner if he had ever heard her threaten to take her own life he said that he had not, but he believed that she had told her sister who had not taken her seriously and indeed had laughed at her.

Kate New, a servant with the Kers said that she had seen her mistress go out about 4.30 in the afternoon but she had not said where she was going.  She was wearing a grey costume (suit) and seemed very well.  When asked by the coroner  if her mistress “seemed strange at times”, the woman replied “Oh, yes, sir.”

Dr W E C Musson of 61 Bridge Avenue described her clothing the same as Harved and stated that two old letters, a gold wedding ring and a purse containing £1 4sh 5d had been also been found with the body.  He had performed a post mortem examination and found no external signs of violence upon the body which had been in the water for at least two weeks.  He stated that “the brain was congested, but there was no water in the lungs.  The valves of the heart were affected and might cause sudden fainting at any time.  There was an abrasion on the right side of the head, caused just before or immediately after death, which, in his opinion, was due to asphyxia and shock from immersion.”

The coroner Mr H R Oswald said that there was no evidence to show how the deceased came into the water and the jury returned an open verdict.

Walter Ker and his daughter Dorothy Mary Ker (1886-1965) continued to live at Vicarage Gardens until his death in 1929.  He left the residue of the property in trust for his daughter, Dorothy, for life, with "the remainder to her issue as she may appoint, or failing appointment to her children equally or on failure of issue", then he directed the trustees to cause to be erected in the parish or other church at Greenock a tablet bearing the following or a similar inscription:-

Sacred to the memory of Alan Ker, the eldest son of Robert Dow Ker of Finnart in this burgh, who was successively Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Jamaica from 1860-1884.  As a Judge he was distinguished for an inflexible firmness of principle and independence of character, as a man for his earnest solicitude for the welfare of his fellow-men, which was the guiding star of his life, and to which he sacrificed his private interest and his ease and comfort.  He was born on December 7th 1819 and died at Kingston, Jamaica, on March 20, 1885, being accorded the honour of a public funeral – R.I.P. The memory of the just is blessed.

Dorothy Mary Ker died in 1965.

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