SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: Thomas Keen was a hugely successful Victorian businessman whose name became synonymous with an English staple condiment. DAVID MORGAN looks into the life of this generous benefactor to Croydon
I wonder how many times over the past century and a half that a member of the clergy has stood in the pulpit of Croydon Minster and spoken about the parable of the mustard seed?
As they spoke to the congregation, looking into the light coming through the window over the west door, they might never have realised that this window is dedicated to Thomas Keen, a generous Victorian benefactor who had made his fortune from selling mustard, at one point employing more than a thousand people, operating granaries across the country and running the biggest mustard factory in the world.
This window in the church was dedicated to Thomas Keen after his death, aged 61, in 1862.
Who was this mighty man of mustard?
Thomas Keen was born in Camberwell in 1801, heir to the Keen family who ran the family business which included the first mustard factory to be opened in London.
Their premises were in Garlick Hill, very close to the Mansion House station of today, and were opened in 1742. With five floors, at one point, it was regarded as the biggest as well as the oldest mustard factory in the world.
It was not until the 1720s that mustard had appeared on English dining tables. This condiment was first made by Mrs Clements of Durham, and was therefore known as “Durham Mustard”.
When King George I became one of its devotees, nobody would eat roast beef without mustard.
The Keen family manufactured other spices, oatmeal and ground rice, and made their own tins, filled in the “penny packing room”. Another product in their range was Oxford blue, for laundry, which stained everything, including the workers, so was manufactured in a sealed area of the factory.
The link between Keen’s family and mustard must be a form of nominative determinism: while the link with the expression “as keen as mustard” appears obvious, and was used repeatedly in their advertising, records show that the phrase appeared in print around a century before the company ever existed.
Keen’s family moved to Croydon, and ran the 311-acre Welcomes Farm at Kenley. In 1825 Thomas married Harriett Toulmin, whose family lived at The Elms, 61 High Street, and the couple moved in there in 1831.
This house, which had been built about 1794, was set in a two-acre garden and had a steep drive leading down to the High Street. It was flanked by two breweries, Nalder and Collyer and Crowleys. Nevertheless, in a little book published in 1849, entitled The Beauties of Surrey, the garden of The Elms is described with about 120 other seats of the nobility and gentry.
Thomas was a great benefactor to the whole community. It was said that in him, “the unbefriended’ found a friend, the sorrowful a comforter and the necessitous a generous helper”.
With Croydon’s population growing and not enough spaces in the Parish Church to accommodate all who wanted to worship on a Sunday, in 1857, the first Croydon church with free pews was built, originally described as “St Andrews-Chapel-at-Ease to the Parish Church”, using land in Southbridge Meadows that Keen himself provided. In 1861, it became St Andrew’s Parish church.
After Thomas Keen’s death, on February 17, 1862, The Croydon Chronicle reported of the funeral at Norwood Cemetery, “The arrangements for the funeral of Mr Keen were for those of an English Gentleman.
“The general closing of the shops during the passage of the procession through the town was a spontaneous tribute to a good man’s worth. His benefactions have now ceased.”
Keen’s name is still remembered in Croydon today through the naming of Keens Road, near to St Andrew’s Church off what is now Southbridge Road.
Thomas Keen’s gardener at The Elms was a Mr Mason. In 1893, The Elms was demolished to make way for the building of Edridge Road. The driveway of the house became Mason’s Avenue, named after the gardener.
Both roads can be seen today. Edridge Road is beside the flyover and Mason’s Avenue is a turning off South End.
With Thomas’s death, the Keen business changed. Throughout the 19th Century, Thomas Keen had had various partners, including family members and the owners of other businesses, which had seen them amalgamate and adapt their range of products.
In 1862, Keens merged with Robinson and Belville, a company founded in 1823 that manufactured patented groats and barley – the same Robinsons whose barley waters were for so many years associated with Wimbledon tennis.
Through most of the 1800s, Keens were the world’s biggest mustard manufacturers. But they were not alone, and they had rivals, and in 1903 Keens were bought out by Colmans.
Thomas and Harriett’s son, John Keen, had emigrated to Australia in 1841.
Originally a carpenter, he set up a business in Tasmania making sauces and spices. His company grew quickly. From a small store in Kingston, south of Hobart, he and his second wife Annie set up a bakery, a general store and the building where the condiments were produced for the burgeoning market in the rapidly growing country. Their curry powder proved to be particularly popular.
While Thomas Keen’s life and generosity is memorialised around Croydon in street names and with a large church, what his family intended as a prominent memorial sadly never came to fruition.
The Keen window in Croydon Minster is just plain glass.
The family commissioned a stained glass design from the Paris-based studio of acclaimed artist Gaspard Gsell Laurent. Always wanting the best, the Keen family members selected the French stained glass maker to produce something very special.
But the construction and completion of the window remains a matter of some mystery. No drawings or records of the window exist in the church archive and it is uncertain when the current glass was inserted. One record suggests that the window was to portray a scene of Christ’s Ascension as well as one of St Paul preaching in Athens. These cannot be corroborated from a second source though.
There is an inscription under the window, dating from the 1860s. The wording under the memorial window names Thomas, his wife Harriett, their daughter Ellen and their sons, Thomas and John.
Robert Eberhard, one of the foremost experts on stained glass, was recently at the Minster updating and completing gaps in his knowledge. The Keen window is one of the gaps which he would like to plug.
Mustard in this country, curry powder in Australia, the Keen family made a global impact on culinary delights.
It is a shame that light with a yellow hue doesn’t shine through the west window to make a real visible mark as you enter the church.
Previous articles by David Morgan:
- Hannah and her sisters: faded gravestone gives up its secrets
- Proms composer Demuth’s music is overdue an encore
- The long-lost work of a master craftsman with the Nelson touch
- The church fire that consumed a thousand years of history
- Capturing every step of non-league Dorking’s meteoric rise
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