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dave obee Ker family made a difference

By Dave Obee

In digging through Victoria's wonderful history, it's easy to find plenty of material on the most prominent families -- the Douglases and the Dunsmuirs, the Helmckens and the Rithets, and so on.

But our city has been shaped by many other families as well, families that never seemed to grab the limelight to the same extent but were every bit as influential as the others.

Consider, for instance, the Ker family. The Kers were involved in many business and civic activities over the years, and it would be hard to think of Victoria's history without at least a nod to the three generations of Kers that made a difference.

Local historian John Adams tells all about the Kers in his new book, The Ker Family of Victoria, 1859-1976: Pioneer Industrialists in Western Canada. It's an important addition to the library of local history.

The key Kers included Robert, who arrived in Victoria in 1859 and served as attorney general for both colonies, British Columbia and Vancouver Island. He was instrumental in bringing the provincial capital to Victoria, and built a grand estate, Ferniehurst, on the Gorge Waterway.

He died of exposure in 1879 after imbibing in the Four Mile House and trying to walk the three kilometres back to his house. He was buried in Ross Bay Cemetery, close to many of the other pioneers of our community.

David Ker, the son of Robert and Jessie Russell, formed a partnership with Henry Brackman. Together, they built a string of grain elevators and flour mills across Western Canada, with headquarters at Shoal Point. David also lobbied the Canadian Pacific Railway to build a tourist hotel that came to be known as the Empress. He built a house on Yates Street called Kershaugh.

David retired from his company in 1914 because of ill health. He spent much of his time at his house on the beach. And it had a name, too: Arbutus. David died in 1923.

Robert Henry Brackman Ker, the son of David and Agnes Heisterman, was better known as Robbie. He flew with the Royal Flying Corps in France in the First World War, started the Ker and Stephenson real estate and insurance business with his brother Bernard Russell, and served as president of Home Oil and Sick's Breweries.

Robbie had become a Home Oil director when he was just 32 years old. He was well-known among Canada's corporate elite for several decades. In his spare time, he worked as a philanthropist in Victoria. In 1959, he donated a $20,000 wing to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.

In 1971, he was honoured by the B.C. Automobile Association for his 50 years of membership. (Given that his car of choice was a Rolls-Royce, it's safe to say that he enjoyed driving.) His house on Arbutus Road featured a remarkable wattle fence made from 32 bundles of woven hazel hurdles.

The name of his house, you ask? Windover.

Adams started working on this book at the request of members of the Ker family, and made use of an extensive collection of family material that had been gathered over the years. To help set the scene, Adams drew material from the Daily Colonist, the Victoria Daily Times and other newspapers. There are plenty of photos from the Ker family, the B.C. Archives and other sources.

This book is comprehensive, with more than 300 pages and 600 footnotes. It's the definitive work on the Ker family, and a fine example of how fascinating stories can be pulled from the many sources that are available to us these days.

Adams is no stranger to meticulous research. He has written books on Sir James Douglas and his wife Amelia, ghosts and legends of Bastion Square, Christmas in Victoria and, of course, two guides to Ross Bay Cemetery. He also runs historical walking tours of ghostly areas and Chinatown as well as bus tours. This year, to mark the 150th anniversary of the Fraser River gold rush, Adams is leading a tour to historic areas around Lillooet and Ashcroft.

Posted March 9, 2008


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