Deborah Kerr: The Helensburgh girl and English rose actress is being claimed by Glasgow

Actress Deborah Kerr in a scene from the movie "The King and I" (Photo by Donaldson Collection/Getty Images)
Deborah Kerr played the governess Anna in the 1956 film version of Rogers and Hammerstein’s The King and I

By Pauline McLean
BBC Scotland arts correspondent

Deborah Kerr was billed as Hollywood’s English rose and even her stage name was anglicised to be pronounced Carr – to rhyme with star.

But the famous actress was Scottish, born in a maternity home in the west end of Glasgow on 30 September 1921.

Her parents, Captain Arthur Charles Kerr Trimmer and his wife Kathleen, spent three years living in Helensburgh with his parents, where it was generally assumed that Deborah was born.

Local people speculated whether she was part of the Kerr family who owned the famous furniture shop in James Street, Helensburgh, but in the end they were wrong.

Now, a group of performing arts students from Glasgow’s Clyde College have confirmed that she was actually born in Glasgow, 100 years ago today, in a maternity home in what was then St James Terrace.

Today, it’s Ruskin Terrace, and residents at number 7, where the home was, were happy to back the students’ campaign to have a blue plaque sited outside their door in her honour.

Lecturer James McIvor outside the house where Deborah Kerr was born
Lecturer James McIvor outside the house where Deborah Kerr was born

“I know she’s always thought of as an English rose but we want to reclaim her as a Scottish thistle,” says lecturer James McIvor.

“We were making a documentary about Deborah Kerr, and we were focused on Helensburgh but when we asked for her birth certificate, we realised she was actually born in Glasgow.”

“This has been a long term project, and the more we found out, the more we felt it was important to mark where she was from.”

Deborah Kerr holds a candle in a scene from the film 'Black Narcissus', 1947. (Photo by Universal Pictures/Getty Images)
             Deborah Kerr holds a candle in a scene from the film ‘Black Narcissus’, 1947.

After moving south with her parents when she was just a few years old, Kerr was educated in Bristol and Weston-Super-Mare.

Another plaque was unveiled earlier this month by her grandsons, outside the family home there.

She originally trained as a ballet dancer at Sadler’s Wells but switched to acting.

Her first lead role in the UK was in Love on the Dole, and she won critical acclaim for playing three women in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

It was her role as a troubled nun in another Powell and Pressburger film, Black Narcissus, which brought her to the attention of Hollywood.

MGM offered her a contract in 1947 – where she became known for playing cool, reserved English ladies – with one exception, the 1953 film From Here to Eternity, in which she famously romped in the sea with Burt Lancaster.

A scene in From Here to Eternity, in which she famously romped in the sea with Burt Lancaster.A scene in From Here to Eternity, in which she romped in the sea with Burt Lancaster.

It earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, as did another iconic role, as the governess Anna in the 1956 film version of Rogers and Hammerstein’s The King and I.

It’s that moment which is recreated outside Number 7 Ruskin Terrace this morning, as performing arts students from Clyde College, sweep across the street outside to the sound of “Shall we Dance”.

Most of the neighbourhood seem to have come outside to watch.

blue plaque

Laura and Mark live at number 7. They’re relative newcomers to the terrace and didn’t know about the connection until the students told them.

“It’s quite exciting, and nice to find out about the history of the building,” says Laura.

“We’ve put up film posters in the shared hallway, and we’re looking forward to meeting any fans who call round.”

Wendy has lived in the neighbourhood for 40 years, and was surprised and delighted by plans for the plaque.

“It’s such a lovely connection. After the rotten time we’ve had over the last 18 months, it’s really cheered people up,” she said.

Deborah Kerr on a visit to Glasgow in 1990
Deborah Kerr with Glasgow Film Theatre chairman David Bruce on a visit to the city of her birth in 1990

“I’ve already noticed people stopping for a look, although I suppose not everyone will know who she is.”

Try telling that to acting students Niamh Blane, Jennifer Smith, Mark Grant and Lee Hughs.  Oh yes, I love the King and I, it’s a wonderful musical,” says Niamh.

“And to know Deborah Kerr was born here, in Glasgow is amazing. If she can do this, there is hope for all of us.”

“My mum is a huge fan, and she was so excited to hear I was involved in this celebration today,” says Mark.

“She’s definitely an inspiration to Glasgow.”

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