b. 18/07/1831 Melrose, Scotland. d. 21/05/1919 Folkestone, Kent.
William Alexander Kerr (1831-1919) was born on 18th July 1831 at “The Holmes”, near Melrose, Scotland, the son of Loraine McDowell Kerr and Marianne White, daughter of Admiral White. He was educated at Loretto, near Musselburgh, and joined the 24th Bombay Native Infantry in June 1849. He served throughout the Indian Mutiny from 1857-1859, and his exploits would attract an extraordinary amount of attention.
On the 8th July 1857, the officers of the South Mahratta Horse were stationed at Sattara. Whilst the men including Kerr were discussing the Mutiny, a telegram was delivered that the 27th Bombay Native Infantry had mutinied at Kolapore. It explained that the European officers and residents had taken refuge in the Residency, where they were protected by a small group of native troops. The garrison though, was short of food, and couldn’t hold out for long. Kerr volunteered to lead a rescue attempt to relieve the garrison at Kolapore. Only 50 men could be spared for him to use, and they set off for Kolapore as soon as they could. They had to travel 75 miles across difficult terrain due to the rainy season, traversing several swollen rivers. After 26 hours they reached their destination, and found the Sepoys posted in a fort.
Kerr, who had no guns, decided to attack. He selected 17 of his men for a storming party. The garrison consisted of 34 Sepoys. The entrance was by a succession of large teak doors, six feet high. Kerr decided to use his most trusted man, Gumpunt Rao, and using crowbars, and dodging enemy fire, they made for the door, and made an opening large enough for one man at a time to get through. Kerr, followed by Gumpunt Rao, crept through, and as soon as they appeared, they were shot at by 20 Sepoys. Kerr rushed at the Sepoys armed with his sword, followed by his men. A fierce hand to hand combat ensued, and some of the enemy were killed. Kerr then attacked the inner door of the fort, and drove the enemy into a corner. Kerr was shot at, and bullets struck the chain on his helmet and his sword. Kerr was temporarily blinded by musket fire, and was struck on the head by the butt end of a musket. He was saved from being bayoneted by Gumpunt Rao. Kerr eventually captured the fort, though at a cost. He was wounded, eight of his men were killed, and four died of their wounds.
Kerr was frequently mentioned in despatches, and was awarded the Victoria Cross (London Gazette, 27th April 1858), and he was presented with medal by Major General F.T. Farrell at Belgaum, India on 4th September 1858. Captain Kerr rose to be Second in Command of the Southern Mahratta Horse, but resigned in 1860 on hearing the Southern Mahratta Horse was to be disbanded. On 4th January 1860, he married in Rugby Parish Church, Harriet, daughter of Major James Atty. Following his retirement from the service, he wrote several books on horsemanship. He died on 21st May 1919, aged 87 in Folkestone. He was laid to rest in Cheriton Road Cemetery in Folkestone. His grave was restored in 2011 thanks to a campaign led by Ian Loftus. This also saw the grave of John Commerell VC being restored. Kerr’s Victoria Cross was sold at Sotheby’s on 19th May 2000 for a hammer price of £25,000 and purchased by the Ashcroft Trust. It is displayed in the Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, LONDON.
BURIAL PLACE: CHERITON ROAD CEMETERY, FOLKESTONE, KENT.
William Kerr's VC on display at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum, London
Cemetery Plan courtesy of Kevin Brazier
CONSECRATED SECTION, GRAVE 3911 - A.
Folkestone Cemetery Memorial