Papers of the Ker family

Scope and Content

Papers of various members of the Ker family, the majority of which comprise letters from or to the literary scholar, William Paton Ker (1855-1923). The papers provide an interesting view of a family, their social circle and contemporary events in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Administrative / Biographical History

William Paton Ker was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on 30 August 1855 , the eldest son of William Ker, merchant, by his wife, Caroline Agnes Paton. He was educated at Glasgow Academy and was a student at the University of Glasgow from 1870-1874, when he proceeded with a Snell Exhibition to Balliol College, Oxford. He obtained a first class in classical moderstions (1876) and a second class in Literae Humaniores (1878). He was awarded the Tayloian scholarship in the latter year and was elected to a fellowship at All Souls College in Novemebr 1879. In 1878, he took up the position of assistant to William Young Sellar, Professor of Humanity at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

In 1883, Ker was appointed Professor of English Literature and History in the new University Colege of South Wales, Cardiff. Six years later, in 1889, he succeeded Henry Morley in the Quain Chair of English Language & Literature in University College London. When the University of London was reorganised in 1900, Ker was appointed chairman of the Modern Languages board, and later of the English board, and he took the leading role in moulding English studies throughout the University. He threw himself into the general work of the University, as a member of the Senate, the Academic Council, the Faculty of Arts and the professorial board of his college. He was conservative in politics but his conservatism was combined with a readiness for any development upon sound lines. His eagerness for new adventure was shown by the energy with which, even during the distractions of the European War, he undertook the work of organising Scandinavian Studies in the University of London. He has been teaching Icelandic to his students for years and largely through his initiative, a department of Scandinavian Studies was founded in 1917, of which he became its first director.

Ker retained his fellowship of All Souls for forty-four years until his death. In 1920, he was elected to the Chair of Poetry at the University of Oxford, a post which he held until his death in 1923, along with his directorship of Scandinavian Studies. Ker was slow to publish: he was forty-two when Epic and Romance appeared in 1897. Other works included: In the Dark Ages (1904), English Literature: Medieval (1912) and Collected Essays of W P Ker (1925). He died of heart failure on 17 July 1923. The W P Ker lectureship founded at the University of Glasgow in 1938 in memory of William Paton Ker. The foundation originally provided for a lecture on some branch of literary or linguistic studies and was still being given in 1995.


The material was partially sorted and listed by Nancy Halliday in 1970 (see MS Gen 1300/7/2), before it was deposited.

Access Information

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Acquisition Information

ACCN 4235: Presented by C P Ker during the session 1970-71 although the precise date is not known. (Recorded as a gift in Library Committee report 1970-71.)

ACCN 4916: Purchased from Greater St Louis Book Fair, received 18 December 2007.

ACCN 5062: Received from Anne Morrison, May 2018.

Other Finding Aids

Alternative Form Available

No known copies

Appraisal Information

This material has been appraised in line with standard GB 247 procedures

Custodial History

Not known


None expected

Related Material

Related material in Special Collections: there are letters from and to members of the Ker family in other collections including MS Gen 532 and MS MacColl.

Related material in other repositories: London University, Oxford University, Leeds University, the British Library and the National Library of Scotland all hold material relating to William Paton Ker. (See the National Register of Archives available at