The Ker Family of Victoria, 1859- 1976: Pioneer Industrialists in Western Canada
November 4, 2013
Review By Jamie Morton
Approached by David Nation Ker to document the history of his family in British Columbia since Robert Ker’s arrival in 1859, John Adams has produced an engaging narrative, principally focused on the lives and careers of Robert (1824–79), his son David (1862–1923), and his grandson Robbie (1895–1976). Inherent to such a study is the need to balance two considerations: the expectations of the family (or client) and the opportunity to examine larger historical themes. Family expectations often encourage an “inside,” family-centred perspective, recording and celebrating the actions and interactions of individual family members. On the other hand, by locating family members and their actions within a broader structural context, larger historical themes, such as the economic and social development of British Columbia, can be illustrated. Overall, this book seems to privilege the first approach, providing a close look at the personal and business lives of these members of the Ker family. Adams does invoke some of the larger structural themes – including gold rush immigration, the political evolution of British Columbia, and the socio-economic impacts of the second Industrial Revolution and the Prairie wheat boom – but primarily to frame the actions of family members rather than to explain them.
The narrative is supported by a wealth of sources, beginning with two substantial collections of Ker family papers donated to the BC Archives in the 1970s. These are augmented by a variety of other materials, including newspaper articles, documents in the family’s possession, and interviews with family members. The availability and richness of sources and access to the family provide a high level of specific detail, a primary strength of the book. At times this high level of family-specific detail works against locating the “inside” narrative within the larger historical context – the trees obscuring the forest. For example, the first chapter deals at greater length with the “illustrious past” of the Ker family in Scotland than with Robert’s life leading up to his emigration. While the family’s antecedents are of genealogical interest, particularly to descendants, of more interest to the study of British Columbia is what factors precipitated Robert’s emigration. How did the intersection of his family background, social position, and training and vocation as a merchant contribute to this decision?
Chapters 4 to 8 describe the life and career of Robert’s son David, who was primarily associated with the grain milling firm of Brackman and Ker. Adams offers a detailed description of David’s personal and professional life, although at times the reader may wish for more contextual information. Although the linkages within the Victoria commercial community are mentioned, it is not made clear how these, combined with structural factors such as the pre-First World War economic boom, contributed to the formation and success of B&K. This emphasis on the individual rather than on the historical context or structures continues in Chapter 8, which discusses pre-First World War civic boosterism in Victoria. Rather than locating David Ker as one member of an active promotional group among the commercial elite of Victoria, Adams presents his involvement in the Board of Trade, and in the Empress Hotel and Royal Theatre projects, in a way that particularizes his actions.
Chapters 9 to 14 deal mostly with David’s son Robbie Ker, with a detailed description of his life and career. The story is an engaging one, with the young Robbie sent off to school in England, then joining the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War before starting his own successful business career. As biography, the story is effective, and in places it raises opportunities to develop some of the larger themes. How representative was Robbie’s experience, at school, at war, and in business, compared to that of other sons of wealthy BC families of his generation?
Evaluated as it seems to be intended – as a family-initiated collective biography – the book succeeds in presenting the story of the BC branch of the Ker family over the last 150 years, with particular attention on Robert, David, and Robbie Ker. It is clearly organized, well documented, accurate, and readable, although at times the level of detail can challenge the clarity of the narrative. With its strong sources and high level of detail, the book should prove a useful guide to some linkages between members of the commercial and social elites of British Columbia: many names familiar in BC history appear as business and social associates of the Ker family.
To meet the apparent mandate of the book, Adams has focused on the “inside” stories specific to the Ker family, emphasizing the agency of individual members – how they shaped themselves and the family. The history of British Columbia over the past 150 years provides a framing device for this narrative rather than serving as a central explanatory factor. For the reader, the specific detail makes for an engaging and useful microstudy of the family, although at times one might wish for a broader perspective, locating the “inside” story more explicitly in the larger narrative of Victoria and British Columbia. For the student of BC history, more emphasis on context may have made for a more powerful study by acknowledging and incorporating the ways in which distinctive structural factors found in the province acted to shape the Ker family.