Mark Ralph George Kerr (1817-1900) was born at Newbattle Abbey in Scotland. He was the tenth child and fourth son of William Kerr 6th Marquess of Lothian by his second wife Harriet Montagu-Scott, daughter of the 3rd Duke of Buccleugh. Lord Mark set his sights on a career in the army, and purchased an ensigncy in the 20th East Devonshire Regiment in 1835. The photo below is of his Journals which he had printed in small numbers in 1891.
As you can see he spared no expense. Having rubbished the books I have to sell in J for Jackson, I thought I’d blow my own trumpet for a change. This is an outstanding copy of an outstanding book. It is illustrated with zincographs
and was very definitely not available for sale. This copy was presented by Kerr to the depot of the Somerset Light Infantry, the regiment he commanded from 1854 to 1862 and of which he was appointed Regimental Colonel from 1880 until his death.
More about Blickling, Kerr’s house in the country, later.
Kerr purchased his way from ensign in 1835 to lieutenant colonel in 1853. In doing so he was using the purchase system as it was intended to be used. In return for accelerated promotion, he participated in several chains which enabled the holder of the commission at the top of each chain to sell out, obtaining what we would call a lump sum to fund his retirement. Theoretically, a commission had to be sold for the official price, and had to be offered first to the longest serving officer in the same regiment who held the rank beneath the commission being sold. Kerr seems to have observed this largely unwritten code of conduct. He became a lieutenant in 1838, a captain in 1840, a major in 1851 and a lieutenant colonel in 1853, serving in each rank long enough to obtain useful experience. Since Kerr remained in the 20th throughout, it’s reasonable to suppose he accomplished his climb without stepping on any toes.
Below is the War Office announcement of Kerr’s captaincy. Captain Vivian (who didn’t want to sell out) exchanged from the 20th into the 11th Light Dragoons (almost certainly because he didn’t fancy the idea of going to Jamaica with the 20th). That left a vacancy which was filled (on paper) by recalling Doyne (who did want to sell out) from half pay. Lieutenant Lord Kerr was then able to buy Doyne’s captaincy which left Kerr free to sell his lieutenancy to Masterton who in turn sold his ensigncy to Williams. All entirely according to the regulations.
By way of contrast, I’ll illustrate how the system could be abused. James Thomas Brudenell later 7th Earl of Cardigan (for whom see D for Duberly) purchased a lieutenancy in January 1825, a captaincy in June 1826, a majority in August 1830, and a lieutenant colonelcy in December 1830. As a lieutenant colonel, he was on half pay until 1832 when he purchased command of the 15th Hussars for £35,000. Cardigan achieved all this by rapid movements from regiment to regiment and the expenditure of colossal sums of money. The commander in chief, Lord Hill, was powerless to intervene despite thinking that Cardigan was “constitutionally unfit for command.”
Apart from purchase, promotion could be had by merit or by seniority. Promotion by merit (except in wartime) was rare. Promotion by seniority was slow since impecunious officers looking for high rank were always likely to be leapfrogged by richer officers.
Kerr kept a journal whenever he was overseas. They mirror his career. As you’ll see he spent much of his leisure time pursuing military activities.
- 1841-1846 Jamaica (with the 20th)
- 1847-1849 Canada (with the 20th – photo thanks to Wiki Commons)
- 1850 Mexico (a private trip)
- 1853 Russian and Austrian Manoeuvres
- 1854 French Manoeuvres
- 1854-1856 The Crimea (as lieutenant colonel commanding 13th Light Infantry)
- 1857 Grahamstown to India
- 1857 to 1860 Indian Mutiny and home overland
- 1861 to 1864 India (during which time he was promoted Brigadier General, a rank not open to purchase)
- 1864 From Delhi to Baghdad
- 1869 Channel Squadron (he was promoted Major General by seniority in 1868)
- 1870 Travels in Europe
- 1871 Paris
- 1871 Delhi Manoeuvres
- 1872 Autumn Manoeuvres
- 1874 Carthage
- 1874 Leaving England for Command at Poona (Poona Division, Indian Army)
- 1879 From Bombay Home (he was promoted Lieutenant General in 1876 by seniority and General in 1878 when he retired from the army)
- Unveiling a Regimental Memorial at Taunton (undated but 1888 when he was Regimental Colonel of the 13th)
Kerr had his foibles. As Lord Wolseley, who met him during the Indian Mutiny, remarks in The Story of a Soldier’s Life “He was eccentric by nature, and wished the world to remark upon his eccentricities. He was a very well read man, full of talent, and had his regiment in first-rate order, though he ruled it as an absolute monarch, and was consequently often in ‘hot water’ with the military authorities.” Major General Sir Henry Hallam-Parr was commissioned into the 13th as an ensign in 1865 right at the end of Kerr’s command. In his Recollections and Correspondence edited by Sir Charles Fortescue-Brickdale there is more about Kerr’s impatience with the regulations and “his open warfare with the authorities.” However, Hallam-Parr, like Wolseley, came to admire him. “He certainly took more interest in the men’s food and well-being generally than was common in those days, and in matters sanitary was much in advance of his time.”
By the time Hallam-Parr met Kerr he was a seasoned veteran. In the Crimean War, the 13th Light Infantry had arrived too late to take part in any of the major battles, instead enduring many months in the siegeworks round Sebastopol. However, despite his own best efforts, Kerr got his chance for active service in the Indian Mutiny, and did well. In his diary he admits to a degree of imprudence in his dealings with Colin Campbell who, he believed, was keeping the 13th out of action. “I see Sir Colin looking at me with a smile on his face, but I pass him without looking, and touch my cap to Lord Canning; he shakes hands. Sir Colin then comes up and begins to talk about Indian affairs, but I say ‘yes’ and ‘no’, most imprudent of me.” As to what followed, I can’t do better than give you the section headings for chapter 2 in the last volume of G R Malleson’s History of the Indian Mutiny:
- Lord Canning, hearing of Milman’s disaster, sends Lord Mark Kerr to relieve him
- Character and antecedents of Lord Mark Kerr
- Lord Mark sets out with four hundred and forty four men
- He encounters the enemy, four thousand strong, near Azumgarh
- Desperate contest, and the resolute persistence of Lord Mark Kerr, who beats the rebels, and relieves Azumgarh
- Great credit due on every ground to Lord Mark Kerr
- His victory probably saved Banaras from the Clutches of Kunwar Singh
- Fatal Error in Kunwar Singh’s tactics
They don’t write military history like that any more. Still, there’s no doubt Kerr broke through to relieve Azimgarh where he remained. And by doing so he distracted Kunwar Singh who was one of the best of the rebel leaders.
Hallam-Parr has a final recollection of meeting Lord Mark Kerr in Piccadilly after his retirement. “Feet out of the stirrups, Lord Mark was riding a young horse which had no shoes on (such was Lord Mark’s fancy riding in London), and on the greasy wood pavement the horse had as much as he could do to keep on his legs. Not that Lord Mark was paying much attention to this, as he was fully occupied in carrying on a lively altercation with a growler on one side and a bus on the other, both of whom he accused of closing in on him.”
On the face of it Kerr’s was a life of privilege that would be impossible to day. Certainly no junior officer would get away with the cavalier disregard Kerr routinely showed to higher authority. There aren’t any captains posted anywhere who could expect to meet a Governor General socially. Nor could even a full general expect to retire to Blickling Hall.
Then again, there were differences, then and now. Travel was less luxurious. Wealth was less ostentatious. But connections helped if you wanted to see the ruins of ancient Carthage. “Ancram appears, to my great joy and relief, come over from Syracuse in a gun-boat, having missed the Tunis boat which were to have gone by this morning! He left Syracuse that same night and walked to Catania, fifty-six miles, in his shirt-sleeves, and with his gun in his hand, and returned by train to Syracuse, when I believe he put his coat on, which he carried on his arm before, and he was offered a passage in this gunboat. We dine with the Admiral, Sir James Drummond.”
No need for a private yacht. Anyway the enormous yachts owned by Russian oligarchs and vulgarians like Sir Philip Green were quite unknown. Even Lord Cardigan’s cutter yacht Dryad, in which he slept most nights in The Crimea, was a mere 85 tons and would have been sneered at by the likes of Sir Philip.
It’s Blickling Hall I want to end with since the unmarried Lord Mark Kerr retired there. His father, the 6th Marquess of Lothian, married twice. His first wife, Harriet, was the older daughter of John Hobart 2nd Earl of Buckinghamshire. Harriet had displeased her father by divorcing and remarrying, and on his death without a male heir, he left his estates to his second daughter Caroline. Caroline lived on until 1850 by which time both the 6th Marquess of Lothian and his son the 7th Marquess, Lord Mark Kerr’s older brother, were dead. Thus Blickling passed into the hands of the 8th Marquess of Lothian, Lord Mark Kerr’s nephew, and from him in 1870 to the 9th Marquess, his brother Schomberg. Schomberg, known in his lifetime as Lothian, had no interest in Blickling. When he wasn’t at his London house, he lived in Scotland, sometimes at Newbattle Abbey, more frequently at Monteviot. He was probably pleased that his uncle, General Lord Mark Kerr KGCB, as he now was, chose to take up residence at Blickling.
Blickling is one of the grandest houses in the United Kingdom. It’s extraordinary that the Kerrs should have owned a second house comparable with it. I live in an enclave cut from the grounds of Mount Edgcumbe House when the army built Fort Picklecombe as a coastal battery to defend Plymouth. The Earls of Mount Edgcumbe, too, were spoiled for choice. Cotehele, which they also owned, ties only with Haddon Hall for beauty.
And yet the Edgcumbes chose to live at Mount Edgcumbe. The picture below is of the house as it was restored by the 6th Earl. The original house, bombed by the Germans in 1941, was bigger.