Walter Talbot Kerr

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Lord Walter Kerr, First Naval Lord of the Admiralty, in the study of his Cromwell Road residence in 1901.
Photograph: Navy & Army Illustrated.

Admiral of the Fleet THE RIGHT HONOURABLE Lord Walter Talbot Kerr, G.C.B. (28 September, 1839 – 12 May, 1927) was an officer of the Royal Navy.

Early Life & Career

Lord Walter Talbot Kerr was born on 28 September, 1839, at Newbattle Abbey, Midlothian, the fourth son of John Robert William Kerr, Seventh Marquess of Lothian, by Cecil Chetwynd Talbot, the Marchioness of Midlothian. His father died in 1841. From 1851 to 1853 Kerr was educated at Radley School in Oxfordshire. On 10 August, 1853, he joined the Royal Navy as a Naval Cadet in the Prince Regent. He was appointed to the Neptune on 7 March, 1854, and to the Cornwallis on 1 May, 1855. Both ships served in the Baltic Campaign of the Crimean War, and Kerr received the Baltic Medal. He was rated Midshipman on 10 August, 1855. On 14 August, 1856, he was appointed to the Shannon.

Kerr wrote to his mother from Cawnpore, dated "3rd December, 1857, in Camp, Cawnpore:"

We proceeded up to Lucknow, and joined General Grant's force at Alumbagh, about five miles from Lucknow. We halted there for two of three days, when we were joined by Sir Colin Campbell and staff, Captain Peel with some of the Naval Brigade and four heavy guns; and a large reinforcement joined afterwards in the shape of 23rd and 53rd, and some sappers and miners, and artillery with a lot of guns and mortars. Two days afterwards we stowed all our tents in Alumbagh and proceeded on a flank march on Lucknow. This was the first day of our fighting; the advanced guard, Cavalry, and Horse Artillery were skirmishing all day. About 1 p.m. we heard a great deal of firing TBC.[1]

Kerr was one of three officers later to achieve high rank in the Navy to be awarded the India 1857-1858 campaign medal with the "Relief of Lucknow" clasp, the other two being Nowell Salmon and Edmund J. Church. He was appointed Mate on 28 September, 1858.

Kerr was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant on 5 September, 1859.[2]

Kerr was promoted to the rank of Commander on 3 April, 1868.[3]

In 1870, Kerr was awarded the Royal Humane Society's Silver Medal for saving life from drowning.[4]


On 30 November, 1872 he was promoted to the rank of Captain.[5] He went on Half Pay until 1 October, 1874, when he was appointed in command of the Agincourt as Flag Captain to Rear-Admiral F. Beauchamp P. Seymour, Senior Officer in Command of the Channel Squadron. He took command of the Minotaur in the same capacity on 6 August, 1875. Seymour, by now Vice-Admiral Sir Beauchamp Seymour, hauled down his flag on 9 November, 1877, and was superseded by Rear-Admiral Lord John Hay. Kerr was superseded on the same day by Captain Harry H. Rawson, and went on Half Pay. In 1878 he was appointed to the Committee on Signal Books.

On 5 February, 1880, Kerr was again appointed Flag Captain to Seymour, now Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean, first in the Inconstant, and then in the Alexandra on 12 March.

On 17 December, 1881, he was appointed to Pembroke for command of the Medway Steam Reserve, joining on 2 January, 1882. He was appointed to the Devastation on 30 April, 1885, before being discharged on 26 June.

Kerr was invited by Lord George Hamilton, Conservative First Lord of the Admiralty, to be his Private Secretary, to which position Kerr was appointed on 3 July. When the Liberal government took office, Kerr was reappointed as Private Secretary to the Marquess of Ripon, First Lord from February to August, 1886. Lord George Hamilton returned as First Lord on 6 August, and Kerr remained in post.

Flag Rank

Admiral Lord Walter Kerr and staff on board H.M.S. Majestic in 1896.
Photograph: Navy & Army Illustrated.

Lord George Hamilton, First Lord of the Admiralty from 1886 to 1892, later wrote of Kerr:

Kerr was the embodiment of accuracy, moderation and reliability. During the latter part of his career, when at the top of his profession, his decision or ruling upon any disputed question, either personal, disciplinary or administrative, was accepted without cavil by the whole Service. Cautious in making changes or reforms, he never went back upon his work nor stultified his previous utterance by pyrotechnic capitulations. For five years he was my head Naval Secretary and a rock upon whom to rest. He was as good afloat as he was in Council, a splendid specimen of disinterested loyalty and devotion to the highest demands of duty.[6]

Kerr was promoted to the rank of Vice-Admiral on 20 February, 1895, vice Hunt-Grubbe,[7] and in May, 1895 he was appointed Vice-admiral commanding the channel squadron, with his flag in the Majestic, for two years.

On the occasion of the Queen's birthday he was appointed an Ordinary Member of the Second Class, or Knight Commander, in the Military Division of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath (K.C.B.) on 20 May, 1896.[8]

First Naval Lord

On 19 August, 1899 Kerr succeeded Sir Frederick Richards as Senior Naval Lord.[9] He was promoted to the rank of Admiral on 21 March, 1900, vice Fairfax.[10]

In a 1901 letter to Arnold-Forster, Lord Selborne stated that he believed Kerr's views on current strategy to be, "quite as good as Fisher's and Beresford's."[11]

Kerr was appointed an Ordinary Member of the First Class, or Knight Grand Cross, in the Military Division of the Order of the Bath (G.C.B.) on 26 June, 1902.[12]

On 16 June, 1904, Kerr was promoted to the rank of Admiral of the Fleet by Order in Council, "in recognition of his distinguished services."[13]

In 1905, Selborne informed the Prime Minister that he placed Kerr "in the same flight" as Fisher, Wilson and Beresford.[14]


In March, 1900, Kerr wrote, "The matter of submarine boats cannot be ignored and must be taken up by us. Our first want is a design."[15] He recognised the limited potential of the early submarines and the inherent difficulty in obtaining funds for such an unknown quantity. He minuted on 26 October that the submarine had "a very limited sphere of usefulness", and suggested that they be used "for any purpose to which they can be adapted" and that "it is desirable to word the letter to give the impression that the sphere of usefulness of these vessels may be very wide if found to be a success."[16]

On 20 January, 1901, Kerr minuted:

In doing this I think that we have not only adopted the best course that was open to us, but also done all that we can prudently do … While we are bound to follow up the development of the submarine boats and thus have at our disposal whatever advantages they may possess, it is not desirable to plunge too heavily as it must first be in the dark, nor until experience points us in the direction in which we should work.[17]

Taking note of the French exercises in which submarines were pitted against forces representing a British close blockade, Kerr went on to write that the French submarines, "have achieved considerable success and a blockade must in consequence be maintained at a greater distance from their ports than formerly, thus affording greater facilities for their ships to evade an enemy."[17]

On 5 July, 1902 Kerr vetoed Captain Bacon's request that his submarines be named, noting that, "The names … suggested by Captain Bacon are rather formidable." The Hollands were to be named Discosaurus, Piscosaurus, Nothosaurus, Pleisiosaurus and Somosaurus. A1 was to be called Icthyosaurus.[18]

In 1904, Kerr put forward the case that the submarine was no longer an instrument of coast defence, writing on 6 January, "In no case can the submarine, in my opinion, be classified as 'fixed defences'. They are free to move, up to the extent of their limitations."[19]


After Fisher was announced as Kerr's successor, Cyprian Bridge wrote to Gerard Noel, "I look with dismay upon the loss of W. Kerr's honesty and straightforwardness in a place where both are much wanted."[20]

Soon after Kerr entered the navy his widowed mother became, with her younger children, Roman Catholic, and Kerr was thenceforth a devoted Catholic. Fisher claimed in 1901 that Kerr was "a slave to the Roman Catholic hierarchy" and because of it would "not be allowed to leave the Admiralty, however much he may wish it." To Arnold White he wrote that Kerr "is a pervert and has all the antagonism of the pervert to the faith he has left! … In the Navy [the Roman Catholics'] one mainstay is Walter Kerr and they will make him die at his post!"[21] He was president of the Catholic Union of Great Britain from 1917 to 1921. After his retirement Kerr resided at Melbourne Hall, Derby, and died there on 12 May 1927. A funeral service was held on 17 May at St David's, Dalkeith. In his Who's Who entry for 1907 his recreations are listed as cycling, photography and botany.[22]


  • "Admiral of the Fleet Lord Walter Kerr" (Obituaries). The Times. Friday, 13 May, 1927. Issue 44580, col A, p. 11.
  • Verney, Edmund Hope (1862). The Shannon's Brigade in India: Being Some Account of Sir William Peel's Naval Brigade in the Indian Campaign of 1857—1858. London: Saunders, Otley, and Co.


Service Records

Naval Appointments
Preceded by
Lewis A. Beaumont
Private Secretary to the First Lord of the Admiralty
3 Jul, 1885[23]
Succeeded by
Alfred T. Dale
Preceded by
New Appointment
Second-in-Command, Mediterranean Station
2 Apr, 1890[24]
Succeeded by
Albert H. Markham
Preceded by
Frederick G. D. Bedford
Junior Naval Lord
25 Aug, 1892
Succeeded by
Gerard H. U. Noel
Preceded by
Sir Frederick W. Richards
Second Naval Lord
1 Nov, 1893[25]
Succeeded by
Sir Frederick G. D. Bedford
Preceded by
Sir Robert O'B. FitzRoy
Senior Officer in Command, Channel Squadron
27 May, 1895[26]
Succeeded by
Sir Henry F. Stephenson
Preceded by
Sir Frederick G. D. Bedford
Second Naval Lord
1 May, 1899[27]
Succeeded by
Archibald L. Douglas
Preceded by
Sir Frederick W. Richards
First Naval Lord
14 Aug, 1899[28]
Succeeded by
The Rt. Hon. The Lord Fisher
as First Sea Lord


  1. Navy & Army Illustrated. XII. pp. 281-282.
  2. Clowes. VII. p. 579.
  3. The London Gazette: no. 23368. p. 2106. 7 April, 1868.
  4. The Navy List. (October, 1878). p. 577.
  5. The London Gazette: no. 23925. p. 6104. 3 December, 1872.
  6. Hamilton. p. 132.
  7. The London Gazette: no. 26601. p. 1067. 22 February, 1895.
  8. The London Gazette: no. 26741. p. 3053. 20 May, 1896.
  9. "The First Naval Lord of the Admiralty" (News). The Times. Monday, 21 August, 1899. Issue 35913, col F, p. 4.
  10. The London Gazette: no. 27178. p. 2131. 30 March, 1900.
  11. Letter of 26 June, 1901. British Library. Arnold-Forster Papers. Add. MSS. 50288. Quoted in Mackay. Fisher of Kilverstone. p. 277.
  12. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 27448. p. 4189. 26 June, 1902.
  13. The London Gazette: no. 27692. p. 4259. 5 July, 1904.
  14. Letter of 16 January, 1905. British Library. Balfour Papers. Add. MSS. 49708. Quoted in Mackay. Fisher of Kilverstone. p. 277.
  15. Kerr Minute of 22 May, 1900. The National Archives. ADM 1/7462.
  16. Kerr Minute. The National Archives. ADM 1/7515.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Kerr Memorandum. The National Archives. ADM 1/7515.
  18. Kerr Minute. The National Archives. ADM 138/180B.
  19. Kerr Minute. The National Archives. ADM 1/7717.
  20. Letter of 20 August, 1905. National Maritime Museum. Noel Papers. NOE 5. Quoted in Mackay. p. 310.
  21. Quoted in Hough. p. 132
  22. Who's Who (1907). p. 979.
  23. Kerr Service Record. The National Archives. ADM 196/36. f. 734.
  24. The Navy List. (December, 1891). p. 191.
  25. The Naval Staff of the Admiralty. p. 119.
  26. Clowes. The Royal Navy. Vol. VII. p. 89.
  27. The Naval Staff of the Admiralty. p. 119.
  28. The Naval Staff of the Admiralty. p. 118.