KERR, Hon. William (bef.1682-1741).

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1715 - 1722
3 Apr. - 25 Oct. 1722
7 May 1723 - 1727

Family and Education

b. bef. 1682, 3rd but 2nd surv. s. of Robert Kerr, 3rd Earl of Roxburghe [S], by Lady Margaret, da. of John Hay, 1st Mq. of Tweeddale [S].  educ. travelled abroad (Holland, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Austria) 1704–5.  unm.1

Offices Held

Col. Drag. 1709–d. [Princess of Wales’s R. Drag. from 1715, later 7 Hussars]; groom of bedchamber 1714–27; gov. Blackness Castle 1723–d.; brig.-gen. 1727; maj.-gen. 1735; lt.-gen. 1739.2


The younger brother of the Earl (later Duke) of Roxburghe, ‘Billy Carr’ was a professional soldier. As a young man he had badgered his mother for permission either to travel abroad or to join the army, but she viewed both options with disquiet, not least because her eldest son had died abroad. Although convinced that her youngest son’s constitution was ‘a little too delicate to bear the extremes of heat and cold’, she relented on the question of foreign travel in preference to conceding the alternative of a military career. Prior to his departure Kerr was introduced to London society by his brother, but was disappointed to report that ‘upsitting and drinking’ was out of fashion, in emulation of the habits of Marlborough (John Churchill†) and Godolphin (Sidney†). He was, nevertheless, very taken with English hospitality, developing an abiding love of ‘sweet England’ by which he principally meant London during the season. Great care was taken to reassure Kerr’s mother that his travelling companions would be suitable, but her wish that he be prevented from visiting Italy was impracticable. After spending six months in Rome, he returned via Austria and Germany, making ‘the great tour by the courts’ but resolving ‘not to make long stays’. He relished the social life of the grand tour, remaining an Anglophile, despite occasional snubs.

We are ill treated by the English who I still love so much that I can hardly condemn them for anything, but the respect that one has, or at least ought to have for their country overcomes everything . . . I’m afraid they have but too good reason to undervalue us, by this I mean that we are very inconsiderable in respect to them.

Arriving back in London in September 1705, he made his court at Windsor, informing his mother that the Queen had spoken to him, ‘so I shall be a great man’. His brother reported, ‘I find he has got his fill of travelling.’ Kerr now desired a small estate in Roxburghshire, having ‘nothing now in my head as frugality and Scotland’. Such property would also be politically useful, since it would qualify him for election to the Scottish parliament, where Roxburghe intended to return him at the next election. The Union intervening, however, this did not take place, but a parliamentary career at Westminster soon came within view.3

Kerr took a keen interest in the proceedings of the first Parliament of Great Britain, socializing with those Squadrone Members who had been selected from the last Scottish parliament. He remarked favourably upon the parliamentary performances of William Bennet, George Baillie and John Cockburn, the last being a particular friend. He rejoiced at the abolition of the Scottish privy council, remarking that ‘we shall be a free people and not obliged to meet, or convoy, great men . . . Our folks have behaved very handsomely upon all occasions, and have got a great deal of credit, as our enemies have lost what they had’. By January 1708 it was decided that Kerr should stand for Roxburghshire, and Bennet, who had formerly represented the county in the Scottish parliament, readily gave way. Roxburghe viewed his brother’s candidacy as an insurance against his own defeat in the peerage elections, as he explained to his mother: ‘now that I find [it] will be impossible for me to be in the next Parliament, I must beg your ladyship would be pleased to do all that’s possible to secure my brother’s being elected . . . and [in] this I believe your ladyship cannot but think both his honour and mine much concerned.’ Steps were taken to ensure that he fulfilled the qualifications of a freeholder, but he himself was slow off the mark, not departing from London until the beginning of March. Nor was his behaviour, once in Scotland, particularly adroit. Roxburghe had sent him a draft loyal address on the defeat of the recent Jacobite invasion to be circulated in the county, but was shocked to learn that some of his political friends refused to sign, which he attributed to the fact that his brother ‘had not sounded them before he showed them that draft that I sent down, and people don’t like to swallow chewed meat’.4

At the election Kerr was defeated by Sir Gilbert Eliott, 3rd Bt., but the margin was sufficiently narrow to make a petition worthwhile. This was not considered by the House until January 1710, by which time Kerr had already achieved his ambition of a military career, having purchased a regiment of dragoons from the ailing Lord Polwarth in October 1709, at a cost of 5,000 guineas. His mother remained hostile, but Roxburghe was convinced that this was necessary for ‘his family’s honour, as much as his own satisfaction’. After visiting his regiment in Scotland, he returned to London in December, and was dismayed to find that he had lost touch with the latest trends, ‘for to be two months out makes one country, and I believe I shall look so for some days yet, but after the holidays is [sic] over I shall be a man in fashion’. He appeared at Westminster for the proceedings on his petition, but withdrew after a series of reverses, as Lord Yester reported to the Marquess of Tweeddale on 21 Jan.: ‘Mr Kerr . . . yesterday thought fit to give up his pretensions. The whole Court was against him and 33 [the Junto] did not support him only 61 [Lord Halifax (Charles Montagu*)] friends, neither was T[ories] entirely for him, and the large half of the Scots against him.’ Kerr’s lack of success, and the efforts of Eliott to press home his victory, had created considerable acrimony; at one stage in the proceedings George Baillie was nearly brought to the bar, and on another Kerr and Eliott came close to fighting a duel. This latter altercation was subsequently reported to Bennet.

Though Colonel Kerr does not care to have the story of him and Sir Gilbert much talked of, I believe I need not be afraid to write it to you. After Mr Kerr had given up the case, Sir Gilbert said he ought to have a vote of the House declaring that Mr Kerr had no just pretensions. Mr Kerr, being by, said he ought to have no such vote for it was false, at which Sir Gilbert seemed to be sensible that Mr Kerr took it ill and said with all respect to him he meant no affront to him by it, but afterwards . . . he followed Mr Kerr to the door and in the crowd asked him twice if he had anything to say to him, upon which Mr Kerr took him aside and asked him what he meant. He told him he had said what a gentleman ought to say to one another [sic], Mr Kerr made him a bow and told him he knew his meaning very well. All Mr Kerr’s friends came and told him if he sent Sir Gilbert a challenge he would certainly be broke, but since he had given Sir Gilbert the affront, if he challenged him there was no danger, but behold Sir Gilbert sent none.

Kerr adopted a flippant tone in reporting the failure of his petition to his mother, pointing out that it was Roxburghe’s political ‘iniquities’ as one of the heads of the Squadrone which had caused the defeat, whereas he himself had received ‘many civilities’ from the Court, ‘for I believe they think me a practicable man enough and ready to go into their villainies, and I only suffer for my brother’s too much obstinate honesty’. He also took the view that it was not, in any case, a good time for an army officer to be a Member, giving as his reason the vote of 25 Jan. 1710 for leave to bring in a place bill limiting the number of army officers in Parliament. He interpreted this as a vote ‘that no officer in the army should sit in the House’, but predicted that ‘after all it will come to nothing, and I hope to sit there next session, though not for the shire of Roxburgh’. He found reason to be cynical about the motives behind this place bill: ‘all the Tories were for it, and the Whigs were all against it, for Tories are now Whigs, and the Whigs are Whigs but when out of court.’ The bill itself he thought to be ‘so reasonable that if I had been a Member I should have been for it, but this I dare not own to a great many’. He remained in London for the trial of Dr Sacheverell, but found attendance somewhat gruelling, having ‘stood for ten days from nine in the morning [till] five at night’. As for its outcome, he expected ‘heat in the Lords about the punishment they will inflict upon him, that is if he is to be punished at all’. His regiment was soon afterwards posted abroad, and as he reported from Flanders in May, he was mindful ‘how much my credit in the world depended on my coming over at this time’.5

Kerr did not canvass in person during the 1710 election, deeming absence a more respectable way for an officer to be chosen, but he was confident, nevertheless, about his return for the border town of Berwick-upon-Tweed. Roxburghe’s agent William Jamisone and Sir William Kerr, 3rd Bt.*, took responsibility for his campaign, and success was confidently predicted in early June on account of the Whiggish inclination of the borough and the desire ‘to have a North Briton for one of their Members’, together with ‘the interest . . . he has at home, and at court, which they expect will be employed for the service of Berwick’. Meanwhile, in letters home, Kerr did his best to persuade his mother to use her influence to support the candidacies of John Cockburn* for Haddingtonshire and William Bennet* for Roxburghshire, returning to Scotland to vote himself for the latter in November. Having been elected at Berwick without a contest, he was classified as ‘doubtful’ in the ‘Hanover list’, but this verdict was simply owing to ignorance of his identity.6

Upon returning to London for the session, Kerr rented a house in Berkeley Street near Devonshire House, defending this expense to his mother as ‘good husbandry’, promising ‘to live at home by myself’. He complained on 23 Dec. that London was very dull, but he could not conceal his glee a week later that the town had ‘turned very gay all of a sudden’. Parliamentary attendance does figure in his letters home, but only such topics as the inconvenience of late sittings or the importance of keeping opera days free. His most revealing comment is perhaps that concerning the convenience of a letter-writing room adjacent to the chamber (complete with free House of Commons paper), ‘for sometimes at home one has not time to write’. Although interested in politics, he had no ambitions as a parliamentarian. He was aggrieved at the virulence of party animosities, which did not accord with his sociable nature. On 16 Jan. 1711 he vowed that he would support Richard Halford* in the controverted election for Rutland, ‘though a Tory, let the Whigs take it ever so ill’. On the 25th he explained the reaction which this had caused: ‘parties are more violent than ever, for my voting t’other night at an election for a friend of my Lord Nottingham’s [Daniel Finch†] I am called a Tory, but pray don’t speak of it . . . for perhaps too my corporation would be angry at me for it’. Kerr’s conduct on this occasion is probably attributable to a friendship with Nottingham, as a consequence of Roxburghe’s marriage to one of his daughters. On larger issues, such as the war, Kerr was equally determined to vote according to conscience, though he recognized that the ‘army is a little awed by what has happened’. Sensibly he kept his opinions largely to himself, nevertheless intending to do ‘what I think is both for my honour and credit, by that I mean voting in the House of Commons as I think right’. His inclusion therefore in the list of ‘worthy patriots’ who detected the mismanagements of the previous administration is not therefore as unusual as might be assumed from his otherwise Whiggish connexions.7

Before his return to England Kerr had expressed the view that in order ‘to make a lasting peace, we must go on vigorously with the war’, but by the end of December 1710 he had come to believe that ‘what has happened in Spain just now [Brihuega] will rather bring peace than war’. He was willing to serve wherever posted, but was relieved, for the sake of his men, that this proved to be in the Low Countries rather than Spain. On 30 Jan. 1711 he informed his mother that he had been ordered to prepare his regiment for embarkation in March. On 1 Mar. he reported that all officers were to depart in 12 days’ time, but resolved not to leave until after his own had embarked, and he was relieved to report on the 15th that the departure of all regiments had been countermanded except his own ‘which makes everybody conclude that I am in favour’. He remained in London during most of April, only to find himself pestered to distraction by letters from Berwick, declaring that ‘to be a colonel and to represent a borough is horrid’. By June his regiment was on active service and he had joined them by July, writing home from Ghent that the regime in a garrison was less pleasant than in camp, but that he was keeping himself entertained by riding the ramparts and organizing dances with ‘my foot boys’. He was anxious to take the field and in August was wounded during the siege of Bouchain, receiving a ‘contusion’ in the leg ‘by a cannon ball from the town’. Knowing his mother would naturally assume the worst, he dispatched a letter home stating that rumours of an imminent amputation were unfounded. He did not return immediately to England and was therefore able to attend the death-bed of his lieutenant-colonel, Sir John Johnstone*, who had been wounded at Tournai. He was back in London by early November, paid his respects at Hampton Court, and then travelled to Bath in early December, glad to be away from ‘the noise of the town, and factions, and parties’. He had almost fully recovered from his wound (having ‘no pain in his leg, no impediment in his walking’), so his departure was politically rather than medically necessary. As he explained in a letter to his mother, on 15 Dec., he was anxious to be away from Westminster at the time of the ‘No Peace without Spain’ motion: ‘I know your ladyship seldom reads the Votes but I dare say no more, but I was obliged to write to my incorporation that I was sorry I was obliged to go to Bath, but that I would return so soon as my leg would give me leave. If you don’t now understand I can’t help it.’ His brother soon informed him from London that because of his absence he was ‘called a trimmer’.8

Kerr returned to London after the Christmas recess, expecting ‘hot work’ in Parliament, where he intended to ‘be on the weak side, however much I have reason to be otherwise, but I own . . . it conscience and honour that guides me for I respect and love a great many of the present ministry’. In general he acted with the Squadrone, but remained capable of understanding English prejudice against the Scots, commenting on the controversial Hamilton peerage case that this was ‘not to be spoken or mentioned by a Scotsman, though I believe if I had been an English peer I should have done the same’. His peculiar circumstance of being a Scot but sitting for an English seat meant that he was not included on the known division lists of Scottish MPs in this Parliament, but his political attitudes are revealed in his continuing correspondence with his mother, who wished him not to damage his prospects by opposition since he ‘was not obliged to the Whigs’. He acknowledged the truth of this assessment, but was convinced that ‘the ministry won’t make me suffer for what I have done, they being very civil to me’. On 23 Feb. 1712 he reported that ‘I might be very well with this Court, if I pleased, but I prefer going into what I think right, to the being a favourite, and besides I should heartily regret to be of a different party from my brother’. He could not foresee how the war would end, declaring nevertheless that ‘a good peace I am for, but shall ever be against a bad one, for I am for humbling France and am persuaded all honest men are so’. On the question of the Scottish Toleration Act, his voting is not directly known, but he can be safely assumed to have opposed it. On 29 Mar. he informed his mother that ‘the bill for restoring [lay] patronages was committed yesterday, but being a Presbyterian I voted against it, but since it passed there is no help for it’.9

Before the session was over Kerr returned to the Continent, despite being ‘not very fond of going over’ and convinced that there would be little campaigning, since ‘we shall have a peace’. In July he wrote from Château Cambrai that he would be home in a few days, but a month later his brother reported that he was at Ghent ‘in good health, but longing to be over’. Complaining of idleness, but happy to report that he was ‘much in company upon parties of pleasure’ with the Duke of Ormond, he was forced to wait until November before returning in company with him. He now thought peace inevitable, for ‘the French to my sorrow have made too good a campaign’. His only known vote in this third session was on 18 June 1713 against the French commerce bill, when he was also noted as a Whig. On 24 June his regiment was officially unmounted, confirming the practical decision taken prior to its return home of allocating the horses elsewhere; it was also decided to place the regiment on the Irish establishment. Both of these circumstances necessitated petitions for redress from Kerr and his officers; he therefore remained in London until the end of the year and did not stand at the general election.10

In March 1714 Kerr learnt that his regiment was to be broken, which decision was confirmed in April, though with the promise of compensation for the previous loss of horses. His family took an active role in attempting to avert or reverse this decision, but without success. The Hanoverian succession, however, restored both Roxburghe and Kerr to favour, the latter being given a Household place worth £500 p.a., with the additional honour of being one of the first to be rewarded after the King’s arrival. His regiment was also reconstituted and named the Princess of Wales’s Own Royal Dragoons, and all pay was back-dated to the King’s accession. Shortly afterwards Kerr’s debts were noted by his brother’s agent as £18,615 in personal loans and £2,418 in rent arrears. In 1715 he was elected for Dysart Burghs on the interest of Lord Rothes, and was listed as a Whig both in the Worsley list and in a printed list of the old and new Parliaments. He was ordered to Scotland to counter the Jacobite rebellion in September 1715 and was wounded at the battle of Sheriffmuir on 13 Nov., having his horse shot from under him on two separate occasions. At the 1722 election he was initially returned for Aberdeen Burghs, but after being unseated on petition came in for Berwick at a by-election the following year. His military career prospered under the Hanoverian regime and he attained the rank of lieutenant-general before his death on 7 Jan. 1741.11

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: David Wilkinson


  • 1. Scots Peerage ed. Paul, vii. 349–50.
  • 2. Cal. Treas. Bks. xxix. 499.
  • 3. Scots Peerage, 349–50; Wentworth Pprs. 419; Roxburghe mss at Floors Castle, bdle. 738, Countess of Teviotdale to Countess of Roxburghe, 29 Dec. 1701, Roxburghe to mother, 11 Mar. 1703–4, Kerr to same, 11 Nov. 1704, 5 Feb. 1705; bdle. 750, Countess of Roxburghe to [–], draft [1704], Kerr to mother, 10 Aug. 1704; bdle. 1067, same to same, 14 Mar. 1703, 6 Sept. 1704, 2 May 1705; bdle. 784, same to same, 14 June, 28 July N.S., 1 Aug. 1705; bdle. 775, Roxburghe to same, 6 Apr. 1704; bdle. 1065, Kerr to same, 30 Jan., 12 Sept. 1705; bdle. 802, Roxburghe to same, 19 Sept. 1705; bdle. 1063, Kerr to same, 15 Oct. 1705; bdle. 783, Roxburghe to same, 12 Nov., 1 Dec. 1705.
  • 4. Roxburghe mss, bdle. 1067, Kerr to mother, 4, 13 Dec. 1707 [Dec. 1707], 15 Jan. 1708; bdle. 739, William Jamisone to Countess of Roxburghe, 15 Jan. 1708; bdle. 800, same to same, 28 Feb. 1708; bdle. 755, Roxburghe to mother, 13 Dec. 1707, 24 Jan., 27 Mar. 1708; bdle. 726, same to same, 3 Apr. 1708; SRO, Ogilvy of Inverquharity mss GD 205/36/6, [–] to Bennet, 26 Jan. 1708, W. Rutherford to same, 3 Feb. 1708.
  • 5. Atholl mss at Blair Atholl, box 45, bdle. 8, no. 125, John Douglas to Atholl, 30 Nov. 1709; Roxburghe mss, bdle. 777, Roxburghe to mother, 18 Oct. 1709; bdle. 1068, Kerr to same, 10 Nov. 1709; bdle. 1074, same to same, 27 Dec. 1709; bdle. 797, same to same, 7 Feb. 1710; bdle. 795, same to same, 26 Jan., 31 Jan., 16 Feb. 1710; bdle. 796, same to same, 4 Mar., 11 Mar. 1710; bdle. 1067, same to same, 22 May 1710 N.S.; NLS, ms 7021, f. 191; Ogilvy mss GD 205/35/5/1/1, Robert Wood to Bennet, 21 Mar. 1709–10.
  • 6. Roxburghe mss, bdle. 1068, Kerr to mother, 14 Sept. 1710 N.S.; bdle. 1074, same to same, 11 Aug. 1710; Ogilvy mss GD 205/33/3/10/42, William Jamisone to Bennet, 6 June 1710; NLS, ms. 13356, f. 1.
  • 7. Roxburghe mss, bdle. 749, Kerr to mother, n.d., 16, 23, 30 Dec. 1710, 13, 16 Jan. 1710–11, 25 Jan. 1710[–11].
  • 8. Ibid. bdle. 1068, Kerr to mother, 1 Sept. 1710 N.S., 1 Mar., 15 Mar. 1710[–11], 7 Apr., 23 Apr. 1711; bdle. 749, same to same, 30 Dec. 1710, 30 Jan. 1710[–11]; bdle. 785, same to same, 22 Aug. 1711; bdle. 1075, same to same, 19 Oct. 1711; bdle. 1076, same to same, 6, 17 Nov. 1711; bdle. 1066, same to same, 10 Dec. 1711; bdle. 1064, same to same, 15 Dec. 1711; bdle. 1063, same to same, 24 Dec. 1711; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxv. 162; HMC 14th Rep. III, 52; Marlborough Dispatches ed. Murray, v. 395, 451.
  • 9. Roxburghe mss, bdle. 1066, Kerr to mother, 15 Jan. 1711–12; bdle. 1068, same to same, 19 Jan. 1711–12; 1079, same to same, 5, 23 Feb., 1711–12; bdle. 1077, same to same, 29 Mar. 1712.
  • 10. Ibid. bdle. 1077, Kerr to mother, 16 May, 13 July 1712; bdle. 767, same to same, 30 Oct., 3 Nov. 1712; bdle. 1064, same to same, 11 Sept. 1712; bdle. 1068, same to same, 28 Oct. 1712; bdle. 756, Roxburghe to mother, 31 Dec. 1713; bdle. 1063, Kerr to same, 24 Dec. 1713; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxvii, 266–7, 393, 423, 437; xxviii. 4, 41, 105, 242, 333.
  • 11. Cal. Treas. Bks. xxviii. 240; xxix. 499, 743; Roxburghe mss, bdle. 756, Roxburghe to mother, 11 Mar. 1713–14; bdle. 726, same to same, 11 Mar., 20 Mar. 1713–14; bdle. 1072, Jamisone to Countess of Roxburghe, 10 May 1715; Wentworth Pprs. 419; HMC Ogilvy mss GD 205/35/5/2/1, Robert Wood to Bennet, 21 Sept. 1714; Scots Peerage, 349–50.