Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ker, John (1673-1726)

KER, JOHN (1673–1726), of Kersland, Ayrshire, government spy, eldest son of Alexander Crawfurd of Fergushill, second son of John Crawfurd, seventeenth laird of Crawfurdland, by Elizabeth, daughter of John Maxwell of Southburn, was born, according to the preface to his ‘Memoirs,’ in the family house of Crawfurdland on 8 Aug. 1673. In 1693 he married Anna, the younger of two daughters of the deceased Robert Ker of Kersland. On the death of their only brother, Major Daniel Ker of the Cameronians, at the battle of Steinkirk in 1692, the estate had been settled on the elder sister Jean, married to Major William Borthwick of Johnstonburn, but in 1697 she sold it to her sister's husband, who thereupon assumed the title and arms of Ker of Kersland. Between 1689 and 1704 Ker became so overloaded with debts that he found it necessary to grant irredeemable feu charters to sundry mortgages to the extent of half the property. His impecuniosity was probably the cause of his shameless abuse of his position as the recognised leader of the Cameronians. The support of this sect being claimed both by the government and the Jacobites, he set his wits to discover how best he could prey upon both parties, or, failing this, which party he could prey upon to most advantage. Lockhart states that he tried to gain credit with the Jacobites by opposing the union (Papers, i. 302). Ker's version is that the Jacobites concealed their own intentions in favour of the Pretender, and tried to persuade the Cameronians to a rising against the union by arguments suited to the principles of the sect (Memoirs, 1726, pt. i. p. 28). He moreover affirms that against his own conviction he was so beguiled by ‘the rhetorical’ (a gloss for pecuniary) ‘arguments’ of the Duke of Queensberry, that he cajoled the Cameronians into peace (ib. pp. 30–4). He professes deeply to regret his action in favour of the union (ib. p. 37). At the same time he naïvely confesses that his main motive was an assurance of the queen's favour from the duke.

Immediately after the union he says that he was sounded by some Jacobite agents as to his ‘terms.’ Feigning to take the bait, he endeavoured to gain their confidence in order to betray them. That he was simply a government spy may be held as proved, if we accept as genuine the royal license of 7 July 1707 (printed as a frontispiece to his Memoirs), permitting him to associate with disaffected persons. He boasts that he had spies and agents in all parts of the country. Lockhart affirms that, as ‘Ker was known to be a person highly immoral and guilty of several base actions, such as forgery and the like, no person of the least note would have the least intercourse with him’ (Papers, i. 302). This is partly confirmed by the Hooke ‘Correspondence,’ as is also the statement that ‘his chief correspondence was with the Duchess of Gordon and some catholic priests.’ He figures in the ‘Correspondence’ under the names of Thomas Trustie, Wilks, Wicks, and the ‘Cameronian mealmonger.’ On 20 April 1707 Mr. Strachan, a catholic gentleman, treated with him as representing the Cameronians of five shires. Ker in their name offered thirteen thousand men for the king's service, and volunteered to go to France and remain there as a hostage for the fidelity of his party (Hooke, p. 309). Strachan also gave Hooke a ‘memoir’ from Ker on the disposition of the presbyterians (printed ib. pp. 370–371); but on 18 Nov. the Duchess of Gordon wrote that ‘Mr. Wicks is turned a knave’ (ib. p. 517). The probability is that before his treachery was discovered he had wormed himself into some Jacobite secrets, and there is reason to suppose that he helped to frustrate a plot to seize Edinburgh Castle in 1707. In the latter end of March 1709 he came to London, and according to his own account the lord treasurer upon his arrival paid all accounts due to himself, but would do nothing ‘in the matter of the Cameronian arrears’ (Memoirs, p. 65). Lockhart, however, prints a copy of a letter of Ker to the Duke of Roxburgh, dated 4 May (Papers, i. 302–6), simply asking to be repaid the expenses he had incurred in ‘managing of these people.’ This letter, according to Lockhart, was shown to certain Jacobites by a kept mistress of Ker's, who allowed them to make a copy. Lockhart states that Ker obtained in all from the government about 500l. or 600l., and finding that Godolphin ‘would give no more,’ he ‘tacked about to the whigs and tories,’ and, on the promise to give evidence of Godolphin's connection with the Jacobites, obtained at least two thousand guineas from the leaders of both parties unknown to one another (ib. p. 308).

In 1713 Ker was, according to his own testimony, sent on a private mission to the emperor of Austria in connection with a scheme for employing buccaneers to harass the trade of France and Spain (Memoirs, p. 75). On his arrival in Vienna in January 1713–14, he told his ‘story’ to Leibnitz, who privately arranged with the emperor an interview between Ker and the emperor's secretary. The enterprise being unfavourably received, Ker thereupon ‘drops’ it, to ‘inform posterity that I employed my spare hours at Vienna in sending to the Electress Sophia all the light I got.’ For the ill-success of his mission he was consoled by a present of ‘the emperor's picture in gold set round with diamonds’ (ib. p. 87). He arrived in Hanover in July 1714, and thus, according to his own account, was useful in securing the Hanoverian succession (ib. p. 92), besides giving good advice to the elector as to the method of ruling the English nation. He asked the government of the Bermudas as a reward, but, as he scorned to bribe officials, it was bestowed on another. He professes also to have given important information against the Jacobites in 1715, but no notice was taken of his communications. Being ‘disappointed’ of all his ‘endeavours to prevent the rebellion,’ he embarked for Holland, but returned to London, where Leibnitz told him that his presence would be ‘very necessary,’ in March 1715 (ib. p. 110). His offers of service were declined, and he only received ‘a hundred dollars from the king.’ He now offered his services to the East India Company, to arrange matters between them and the emperor of Austria; but disappointed here also, he in 1721 directed his efforts ‘to form a scheme and charter for erecting a new company of commerce in the Austrian Netherlands.’ The affair came to nothing, and henceforth ill-luck continued to dog his footsteps till his death, which took place in the King's Bench debtors' prison on 8 July 1726. He was buried in St. George's churchyard, Southwark. On his return from abroad in 1718 he sold the estate of Fergushill to John Asgill [q. v.] and Robert Hackett for 3,800l., and in 1721 Hackett conveyed his moiety of the estate to Asgill, which moiety Asgill afterwards mortgaged to Ker for 2,600l., ‘which remained at his death’ (ib. pt. iii. pp. 63–4). During his absence on the continent his wife had been obliged to impropriate the plate and furniture of Kersland to three friends who undertook to support her. After Ker's death she tried to save the estate from creditors by producing a forged deed in the name of her elder sister Jean. Ultimately the property, with the superiority of the barony, was sold in 1788. Ker left three daughters: Elizabeth, married to John Campbell of Ellangieg, Argyllshire, and Anna and Jean, of whom nothing further is known.

The ‘Memoirs of John Ker of Kersland, part i., published by himself,’ appeared in 1726, and parts ii. and iii. also in the same year. The publisher of all the three parts was Edmund Curll [q. v.] Part ii. was published by Ker's ‘express direction,’ and though part iii. was published posthumously, it claimed to be ‘faithfully printed from the original manuscript of the said John Ker, Esq.; and other authorities serving to illustrate the said work,’ and also to be ‘prepared for the press under his express direction.’ Part iii. contained ‘Maxims of Trade,’ and there was also added by Curll the indictment for publishing part i. For publishing the ‘Memoirs,’ which contained professed revelations reflecting on the government, and for other similar offences, Curll was fined twenty marks, and had to stand in the pillory an hour at Charing Cross (State Trials, xvii. 160; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. iii. 143–4). A third edition of part i. appeared at London in 1727 (Catalogue of Advocates' Library, Edinburgh), and another edition of part ii. in the same year (ib.) ‘Castrations of the Memoirs of John Ker of Kersland’ also appeared in 1727. (There is a copy in the Grenville Library in the British Museum.) His ‘Memoirs’ were translated into French under the title, ‘Mémoires contenant des réflexions intéressantes sur le commerce et une histoire abrégée de l'île de Majorque,’ Rotterdam, 1726–8, 3 vols. Ker's portrait by Hammond is prefixed to part i. of his ‘Memoirs.’

[Lockhart Papers; Ker's Memoirs, and preface to part i.; Nathaniel Hooke's Correspondence (Abbotsford Club); Political State of Great Britain, 1826, xxxii. 97; Paterson's Hist. of the County of Ayr, i. 425–6.]

T. F. H.