Bert Kerr, Scottish International

Bertie Kerr, always remembered (Photo: courtesy of Billy Gibbs)

by Charlie Ellis

Born on Tuesday 4th April 1933, Bertie Kerr, one of the greats of the Scottish games passed away on Sunday 7th June. He was 87 years old.

A multiple Scottish internationalist Kerr was five times national singles champion and a protégé, sparring partner and life-long friend of two time doubles world champion Helen Elliot. After Helen, he was the Edinburgh and Lothians Table Tennis League’s most outstanding player.

He was a central figure within Gambit Table Tennis Club, one of Scotland’s most successful clubs, until its untimely demise in 1989. He subsequently played on in the ELTTL until knee troubles brought his playing days to an end in the early 90s. He spent much of his later years building up a reputation as a skillful golfer.

Bert grew up in Dunbar and then Edinburgh (Parkhead Drive, Sighthill) and went to Boroughmuir High School before (at 15 years of age) going to the Edinburgh School of Building, starting work at 16 with the building firm Colin McAndrew & Partners. An able sportsman from an early age he was ‘a more than useful footballer’ and was signed as a schoolboy by Hearts  (eventually deemed too short to make it in the professional game).

He was inspired to take up the game when his father and uncle (who played for the Scotsman table tennis team) took him along to an exhibition match in 1947 involving Gambit players. An older schoolmate Gerry Cooper, who played for Gambit, encouraged him to join his club and took him along to a practice session.

He began playing for Gambit when just 14 years of age in the 1948-49 season (debut versus Leith 12th Boys’ Brigade on 11th November 1948), gaining 20 wins out of 27 in his first season. He was swiftly promoted to Gambit’s first team the next season where he played alongside Helen Elliot and Johnny Miller. Combined with the contingent of strong Polish and English players recruited during the war, they helped Gambit become the dominant force within Scottish table tennis, winning the Scottish Team Cup a record 24 times.

They won the Edinburgh and District League 31 times (once shared with close rivals Inverleith) between 1944 and 1981. In their run of nine straight league victories between 1965 and 1974, Bert was beaten just once! Gambit’s greatest achievement was providing all five of Scotland’s team for the 1957 World Championships (Stockholm) – Tommy McMichael, Bert Kerr, Ian Barclay, Helen Elliot and Helen Houliston. They remained the strongest club in Scotland until supplanted by Central YMCA (with players such as Euan Walker & John Broe) in the 1980s. Such was their dominance of the Edinburgh and District top division that –when a new league trophy was requested by the new sponsors of the league – Gambit were given the old trophy. Bert proudly accepted this on behalf of his club. He gifted the trophy back to the ELTTL in 2017.

Among the players Kerr helped develop at Gambit were Billy Gibbs and Eric Sutherland. Gibbs described Kerr ‘a great influence’ on his table tennis as well as ‘an absolute lovely guy…very kind and generous’. Eric Sutherland relates that in table tennis terms ‘I owe everything to Bert, a great guy-I would never have played to the level I did without him’. Sutherland was  ‘very lucky’ that Bert was a teacher at his school (Portobello High) and introduced him to the game: ‘Bert showed us what good was and how to become good’. Perhaps more than the technical side of the game what Bert instilled in those he coached was, as Sutherland put it, ‘real self-belief..the idea that you really could win any match’. His competitive spirit was ever present and ‘anyone who played against Bert knew they were in a match!’

Bert had a long association with Helen Elliot: together they formed a formidable mixed doubles partnership. Together they won the Scottish Open mixed doubles title five successive times. While on National Service (at RAF Wildenrath) Bert played two seasons for RSV (Rheydter Spielverein), then one of West Germany’s strongest clubs. He played no. 4 in a team with ‘some very strong players’ including the Schöler brothers Karlheinz and Reinhard (Eberhard Schöler’s older brothers) in the German Oberliga West (the predecessor of the Bundesliga).

He was allowed time off by the RAF to play- ‘it was political from the Air Force’s point of view’-promoting ‘good relations’. Though the drift towards sponge bats was gaining pace, he had to play with a pimpled hard bat, as Germany was one of the countries whose association opposed the introduction of sponge (England and Wales were amongst the others). As Eric Sutherland put it, ‘Bert played in an era in which equipment and techniques changed quite a bit’ which Bert had to adjust to having started out playing a ‘Johnny Leach style game’.

Under RSV’s influence he developed the defensive elements of his game (in his youth he was noted for his FH-dominated attacking play: ‘originally I was a forehand hitter’). At Gambit- he was taught to play an all-round game but at RSV ‘they could see I could defend well.. my orders from the team captain were mainly to defend and just hit the odd ball’. ‘I stuck to defending after most people-influenced by the Japanese- became offensive players and hitters’: ‘many people didnae have a clue how to play against chop & float..until the loop came into play…it was devastating for choppers’.

According to Charles Brown, ‘Bert was the best defender in Scotland over a period of 40 years. He was equally good and consistent on both wings. He was able to adapt when someone was beating him-he could come in and change to topspin and break up the attacker’s rhythm’. As a character he was ‘highly competitive but always fair’. According to Ian Stokes, ‘he loved nothing better than having a great tussle on the table, but off the table he was very complimentary and was encouraging to me as a young TT player from the West’.

Among his many tournament victories, Kerr won the Men’s singles at the Scottish Nationals on five occasions (also winning the Veterans’ singles 5 times: 1975-80. His 1st International cap was gained (alongside fellow debutant Eddie Still) in February 1953 (versus Ireland). During an international career of twenty years he received 166 Scottish caps and played in five World Championships (1954, 1955, 1957, 1963, 1965). His wife Pat (who he met via TT-they married in 1960) played to a fairly high level and also went to a couple of world championships as a reserve. As a veteran Kerr became Scotland’s first competitor in the Jubilee Cup.

After a long period as a cabinet maker, Kerr became a school teacher and taught at Portobello High School (from 1963) and was later head of the technical department at Ainslie Park School, where he also introduced many pupils to table tennis. In his spare time he built musical instruments, violins, lutes, classical guitars etc with consummate skill. He also carried out several commissions, including building two wooden doors at Holyrood Palace, though he was characteristically self-effacing about these: ‘only the Queen and a few tourists will see them’.

Kerr took over from Eddie Still as STTA Director of Coaching in September 1967, setting up a school league during his tenure. In the early Eighties Bert (along with Billy Gibbs, Lindsay Muir and Mike MacLaren) set up the Edinburgh Development squad (at Moray House) including young internationals led by Keith Rodgers, Norrie Lovie, Anwar Majid and David Campbell who Eric Sutherland who had taken to a high standard just prior to Moray House taking off. As Gibbs outlines, ‘Bert was one of the lead coaches and his great stroke play was on view for the players to copy. It was a very strong and fruitful period in Edinburgh table tennis’.

Kerr was the first recipient of the ELTTL Kirkwood Trophy (for outstanding services to table tennis) in 1976 (Pat Kerr received it in 1979) and the STTA appointed him honorary life member in 2002. He was also made an honorary member by the Scottish Veteran  TTA.

Due to the rising costs of hiring the hall (St. Margaret’s Church, Easter Road) he (as club Chairman) wound up Gambit just prior the 1989-90 ELTTL season. He subsequently played for Edinburgh University & Lasswade, remaining towards the top of the Division 1 averages, before knee troubles forced him to retire. Greig McDonell, president of Penicuik TTC, relates that ‘latterly in Bert’s TT Career, I had the pleasure of playing with him at Lasswade – all of us at the club learned from his never give up attitude’.

After his dear wife Pat died in 2000, Bert continued to lead a full life. Bert continued to teach-at Stevenson College and in Adult Education- till his final years. In his final decades he channelled his competitive instincts into golf and spent much of his time at Baberton Golf Club. He was captain from 1994 to 1996 and won the Lothians Seniors Handicap Championship in 1993 and was part of the Barberton team that won the Lothians senior team championship in 2006. Current Baberton Captain Alex Anderson described Kerr as ‘a true ambassador for Baberton Golf Club…who will be sadly missed by myself, by his many friends at Baberton and by all who knew him’. One of Bert’s great treats was attending the Masters at Augusta National in Georgia, which he did on a number of occasions with his friend Gordon Davidson.

Only last year Bert was seen with a table tennis bat in hand, chopping away at the ‘Pop in & Play’ venue at Gyle Shopping Centre. He was playing golf till very recently and even during the early stages of the Covid-19 lockdown was going for long walks around his local area (Corstorphine). After three weeks in hospital Bert died of cancer. He is survived by his three children, Susan, David and Robert – as well as his many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.