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Sunday, 8 February 2009

James Lennox Kerr / Peter Dawlish

For years, my wife and I tracked down the books of Peter Dawlish, written throughout the 1930s to 1960s, mostly about boats and the sea. Chance, and the internet, helps us to identify him with James Lennox Kerr, the son in law of the artist Lamorna Birch. You will find my version of his life (checked by his son) on Wikipedia. Ironically my wife and I discovered that we had unknowingly walked past his former house (he died in 1963) every year for 25 years.

Jimmy had run away to sea as a in Glasgow and had recorded many of his adventures in his later fiction, as well as writing three autobiographies, one of a year tramping around America as a hobo (1930), another of a family journey to Scotland in a home-converted boat (1938), the third an account of his life up to the beginning of his writing career (1942). His fiction in the 1930s is for adults, about his home in Scotland, others about Australia. It has a social agenda, with hard-hitting critique. He also in this decade wrote (as Gavin Douglas, a good Scottish name) a series of crime thrillers at sea, most featuring irascible Captain Sampson (who had an officer called Kerr!).

His early children's books were in his own name. The Eye of the North took a young man across America and Canada (much as he had done as a hobo) to find his father, dodging and evil villain who almost does for him. The Blackspit Smugglers tells of a boy foiling a complex smuggling operation, again at risk of his own life. The illustrations are by Rowland Hilder so the early edition is worth having for those along. The third was a 'first tripper' tale, a do-it-yourself how to go to sea. Told as fact ('my first trip') it is in fact fiction. The ship was called Nantewas, the name of a cottage in his home village that he and I have stayed in, indeed the place where his new little son was born. That son went to sea himself, a hydrographer, and we were able to reminisce eating outside the cottage called Nantewas.

Jimmy Kerr took out a new book contract with Oxford University Press, and perhaps to hide the fact from his original publisher Nelson, he used the psuedonym Peter Dawlish. Why that name I do not know. Dawlish is a seafaring town, perhaps. His new irascible captain was called Peg-Leg, who had several adventures at war (pre-second world war, with a fictional enemy), minesweeping and sealing. By the beginning of the war he was a well known writer under each of his three names. His final PegLeg books, published in 1940, give more than a hint that he knew that war was inevitable, and that he would have a role to play. Still a seafarer, he joined up in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserves, to serve on minesweepers, help at Dunkirk, and other such duties. This put an end to publications, if not to writing.

Publications began to flow again after the war in all three names. He is best known for his next series about five boys restoring and sailing a French crabber which they called Dauntless (though other names are used in translations). These are stories of intrepid seafaring by this teenage group, with precise nautical detail and superb illustrations. This in my view is far better work than Arthur Ransome, whose Great Northern (1948) overlapped the series. Other books were used widely in schools - Aztec Gold, Martin Froblisher, Young Drake of Devon, He Sailed with Drake and The Boy Jacko. There were also a number of non fiction books for schools.

His writing for adults included stories (especially as Gavin Douglas), war commemorative books such as Wavy Navy, and biography. He died in 1963.
A complete list of publications is given at

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