When Frederick Innes Ker died in 1977 at his historic Malahide estate in Port Talbot it had been 25 years since he helmed the Hamilton Spectator as managing editor and publisher. Ker had a distinguished background; born near Montreal, he was the son of John Ker a prominent Anglican clergyman. He studied in the faculty of Arts at McGill before accepting a job with the Grand Trunk Railway. By 1905 he was studying railway engineering at McGill under a scholarship from that company. From 1909 until the First World War, Ker worked for the Grand Trunk on a number of projects including the transcontinental railway and the Montreal Aquaduct Power Canal. When the First World War broke out. he served as part of the Canadian Overseas Railway Construction Corps in 1914-1915 and again in 1918. Immediately following the war he worked on several civil engineering projects and served as the General Manager of the Whalen Pulp and Paper Mills until 1921.
In 1919 Ker married Amy Southam, daughter of F.N. Southam the newspaper owner, which in 1921 led to his accepting the position of Assistant General Manager of the Hamilton Spectator. Pierre Berton wrote a series of articles for Macleans magazine in which he described the Southam family’s predilection for hiring family members and in-laws to operate its various titles across Canada. Ker and Amy lived in Dundas in “Staplehurst” which had been the childhood home of renowned physician Sir William Osler and is still standing. Ker soon became the General Manager of the paper and, in 1930, became editor and publisher where he remained until retirement in 1951. When the second World war broke out he became chairman of the Canadian Publishers War Finance Committee for which he was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1943. During that time he served as the President of the Canadian Daily Newspaper Association from 1931 and served as the Canadian delegate to the Commonwealth Press Union conferences in 1930, 1946, 1950 and 1955, serving as the Canadian Chairman of the organization. He was elected President of Canadian Press in 1946. He also served as an officer of the American Newspaper Publishers Association and on the Audit Bureau of Circulation, which monitored circulation figures claimed by newspapers across North America.
Ker faced family tragedy. His 20-year old son, Frederick Southam Ker was killed while serving in the Canadian Navy on convoy escort duty in 1940. Then less than two years later Ker’s wife Amy Southam Ker died at age 46. She was buried in Monteral after a lavish funeral at Hamilton’s Christ the King Cathedral. Among the pallbearers was the Hon. C.W.G. Gibson who later would join the cabinet of Prime Minister Mackenzie King. Other mourners noted by the Globe and Mail were “representatives of the armed forces, church dignitaries, members of the Provincial and Federal Governments,” city council, as well as “notables in the newspaper world, “adding. “employees of the Spectator filled many pews.”
Ker’s summer home also a had a historical connection. He had purchased “Malahide” in Port Talbot in Elgin County on the shores of Lake Erie. Malahide was the original homestead of Sir Thomas Talbot, who was responsible for the early settlement of much of Southern Ontario. Three years after Ker’s retirement from the Spectator in 1951, he moved into Malahide, where he lived until his death in 1977 at age 92.
As a practical man with an engineer’s education with a lifetime in the journalism field, and the son of a distinguished Anglican prelate, it is hard to square those credentials with the fact that Frederick Ker believed in spiritualism –table rapping, seances, signs and the like. But he did. This side of Frederick Ker’s nature was revealed in a diary entry by William Lyon Mackenzie King, himself a spiritualist.
It was 1934. King was leader of the opposition and gearing up for the election the following year that would put him back in power for an additional 13 years. He had been on a speaking tour in Southern Ontario was on a train heading to Toronto. When King wrote about spiritual matters and other things of a personal nature he had a separate diary. Regarding Ker he wrote, “I was sitting reading in the car from Hamilton to Toronto when a gentleman, with a fine countenance & appearance bowed to me & later came over & spoke—introducing himself as Mr. Ker editor of the Spectator Hamilton. They chatted a bit about world affairs and then Ker “went on to tell me how when he arrived in Venice in 1928 with his wife, he met at the hotel with a man (also) named Ker who had a translation of a book on the Pyramids etc., which he was about to publish that day, full of prophecy about the Pyramids, the depression, etc. (Ker) had been so impressed with what was told to him. That he had sold his stocks (The stock market crash came a year later) & got Harry and William Southam to do the same…He went on to speak of Dr. Bell of Montreal & his belief in these things and in spiritualism. I said I thought we were just on the verge of a new era of thought and discovery of psychic phenomena. We spoke of psychic forces. He told me an intimate thing…when (he was) in Ireland an old Irish woman tried to sell him lace…Then she brought out a shawl and said if you buy that shawl and put it over your wife’s shoulders she will bear you twins. He said that was in May, in January of the following year he said she gave birth to twins.”
When the train got to Toronto. King wrote, “I was very sorry when we reached Toronto and we had to part; but no doubt it is the beginning of another chapter.”
Its worth noting that spiritualism as a phenomena was a largely upper class pastime in King’s day. Newspaper accounts on the subject, especially in the time of King’s youth covered psychic phenomena as regular news stories. There appeared to be a sort of spiritualist underground operating during the period that King and Ker had their chat. King would pop off to Detroit for seances, and closer to home, he would visit Dorothy Fulford, heiress to the Fulford patent medicine fortune and the wife of Senator Arthur Hardy, at their home in Brockville to take part in psychic sessions. The fact that Ker would open such a topic with King on a short train ride suggests he was aware of King’s spiritualist tendencies before they met.