John Kerr Esquire
John Kerr, an engineer and machine maker, established Douglas Foundry in Blinshall Street, reputed to be one of the largest and most successful in Dundee. He gained a wide reputation as a man of great skill in his profession.
Subscription value in 1863:
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Relative to income compared to 2020:
Personal details and history
Name of spouse
Isabel b. 1836: Jane:
Age at death:
Date of death:
Grange Cemetery, Edinburgh
Affiliations, clubs, offices and related subscribers
Clubs / societies
Honorary Member of Dundee Choral Society from 1865 to 1866
Reported as never having taken part in public affairs
Career and worklife
Engineers and Millwrights
Place of work
John Kerr & Co., Engineers & Millwrights
Career to date:
Before embarking in business on his own account, John Kerr, as a young man, reputedly spent some time in the employment of Messrs Carmichael, engineers, as a journeyman mechanic. It was reported that he then commenced business as a millwright and machine maker in Dundee. Subsequently, he assumed William Umpherston as a partner, creating a new firm titled 'Umpherston & Kerr.' The new firm prospered and their business rapidly extended. In 1837-38, Dundee Directories listed 'Umpherston & Kerr' as 'millwrights and machine makers,' operational from Mill Street, West Ward, the forerunner to Douglas Foundry in Blinshall Street. The original Douglas Foundry started business in Blinshall Street around 1834 - the beginning being on a very small scale and giving employment to only a few men. Kerr's partner, William Umpherston, died in 1846. Thereafter, John Kerr, around 1848, formed a partnership with his brother, William, and also Mr William G Thomson, who had been in his employ. Their firm, styled 'John Kerr & Co,' carried on a most extensive business. Their business at Douglas Foundry manufactured machinery for various industries, including the jute trade. They continued, unabated, until 1866 when the Messrs Kerr retired and left the undertaking to Mr W G Thomson, who took his brother into the company with him.
John Kerr was the son of William Kerr, currier and shoemaker, and his wife, Isabel Coathill/Cuthill. Little is known about John Kerr’s personal life other than his marriage to Helen Enverdale on 4 October 1832 and that the couple had two daughters, Helen, who died in infancy and Isabella.
Kerr and his family seemed to have lived quietly but daughter Isabel’s marriage in October 1863, to Middleton Rettie, her second cousin and an advocate in Edinburgh, was cause for a big celebration. Workmen decorated the factory with two floral arches, one at the main gate together with flags, including the Union Jack, hung from every window. All of ‘John Kerr & Co’s’ factory workers (three hundred men) were invited to supper at the Corn Exchange in Dundee, to celebrate the wedding. Tables were laden with food, wines and spirits and the firm’s junior partner, W.G. Thomson, raised toasts. The evening’s entertainment included Scotch airs played by the Dundee Quadrille Band and songs, recitals and tunes from the workmen themselves.
As previously stated, John Kerr’s embarkation in establishing his own business, began on a very small scale. It was claimed that –
‘By perseverance on the part of the then proprietor, Mr John Kerr, an engineer of great ability, the concern prospered and extensions were gradually made until all the departments of a general engineer and founder’s business were included.’
‘John Kerr & Co.’ at Douglas Foundry manufactured different types of machinery needed for the many mills operating in Dundee, ranging from power looms and spinning machines to turbines and hydraulic presses.
Long standing manufacturing firms were well recognised for their flax spinning and weaving machinery. However, ‘John Kerr & Co,’ a much newer firm, became a strong competitor in the field with their calendering machinery. The firm was so successful they exhibited a five roller calender, for finishing cloth, in section seven of the International Exhibition in 1862.
‘Messrs John Kerr & Co., Engineers, Douglas Foundry, have forwarded for the Exhibition, an improved finishing machine (for flattening, glossing and finishing linen cloth) of remarkable compactness and power. The Messrs Kerr have long been famous for their machines and the one now to be exhibited in London, containing, as it does, all their most recent improvements in the form and adaptation of the parts, will greatly interest all persons who have a taste for mechanical science.’
A man of great skill in his profession, his opinions on engineering questions were received with much deference. Apparently, he was ‘much consulted on engineering and mechanical matters and was frequently retained as valuator and arbiter.’
The estate of Dunearn, near Burntisland, was purchased in 1865, at auction, ‘under articles of Roup, from the trustees of the late Joseph Young,’ by John Kerr, for the sum of £7,500. Providing a commanding view over the Firth of Forth towards Edinburgh, John Kerr spent his short retirement enjoying the pleasures of Dunearn. He had enjoyed a lengthy, professional career and was reported to have held an ‘honourable position in this town (Dundee) and the respect and esteem in which he was held, not only in this neighbourhood but throughout 6 or 7 counties,’ identified him as having been an upright citizen.
John Kerr died at Dunearn, Fife, on 10 September 1868. He was buried at Grange Cemetery in the City of Edinburgh with his family and the Rettie family, as the grand gravestone pictured depicts.
- Old Parish Registers. Montrose. Births. (1796). 312/ 50 159. ScotlandsPeople website.
- Kerr, John. Gravestone, Grange Cemetery. Findagrave.com website.
- Census Returns. Dundee. 1st District. (1861). 282/1 19/ 1. ScotlandsPeople website.
- Old Parish Registers. Dundee. Marriages. (1832). 282/220 90. ScotlandsPeople website.
- Legal Records. Wills and Testaments. Cupar Sheriff Court. (1868). SC20/50/40. ScotlandsPeople website.
- Dundee Directory, 1842-43. p.42. Dundee Central Library, Local Studies.
- Dundee Directory, 1850. p.116. Dundee Central Library, Local Studies.
- Valuation Rolls. Dundee. (1865). VR009800015-/290. ScotlandsPeople website.
- Fife Herald. 7 September 1865. p.3. British Newspaper Archive website.
- Statutory Registers. Deaths. (1868). 411/ 52. ScotlandsPeople website.
- Dundee Choral Society Honorary Members. Friends of Dundee City Archives website.
- Montrose, Arbroath & Brechin Review. 18 September 1868. p.7. British Newspaper Archive website.
- Dundee Directory, 1861-62. p.160. Dundee Central Library, Local Studies.
- Dundee Directory, 1837-38. p.83. Dundee Central Library, Local Studies.
- Dundee Directory, 1842-43. p.84. Dundee Central Library, Local Studies.
- Dundee Evening Post. 22 January 1904. p.5. British Newspaper Archive website.
- Dundee, Perth & Cupar Advertiser. 22 May 1846. p.3. British Newspaper Archive website.
- Grace's Guide to British Industrial History Website. https://gracesguide.co.uk website.
- Dundee Advertiser, 23 October 1863, p.3. British Newspaper Archive website.
- Warden, Alexander Johnston. The Linen Trade Ancient and Modern (Second Edition). (1864). London. Longman. p.754.
- The International Exhibition of 1862, p.10, Boston Public Library website.
- Dundee Advertiser. 11 April 1862. p.4. British Newspaper Archive website.
- Dundee Courier. 23 October 1863. p.3. British Newspaper Archive.
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