Shaw, H (1992). Thomas Keen, Bull Croydon Nat Hist Sci Soc, 93: 3.

Thomas Keen

It was not until the 1720s that mustard appeared on English tables. This condiment was first made by Mrs Clements of Durham, and so known as 'Durham Mustard'. When George I became one of its devotees nobody would eat beef without mustard.

The first mustard factory in London was opened by Messrs Keen & Sons at Garlick Hill in 1742, and in the 1890s the chimes of the Royal Exchange, set to the well known song 'The Roast Beef of Old England', could be heard, during a lull in the traffic, at Keens factory. Part of the factory was sealed off for manufacture of washing blue, because everything, including the workers bore a shade of blue. Mustard tins too were made, and there was a penny tin packing room.

Thomas Keen was born in Camberwell in 1801, but the family subsequently moved to Croydon, and ran the 311 acre Welcomes Farm at Coulsdon. In 1825 Thomas married Harriett Toulmin, whose family lived at The Elms, 61 High Street, and the couple moved in 1831.

This house, 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 & 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. There was one acre of kitchen gardens, and cucumbers, melons and vines were grown in heated glasshouses. Camelias, cyclamens, and other exotic plants made a fine show, but the chief glory of the garden was its collection of roses, which when in flower transformed it into a 'Persian Paradise'. All this beauty was created by the head gardener, Mr Mason with his three assistants.

Thomas was a great benefactor to the whole community. It was said of him that in him the unbefriended found a friend, the sorrowful a comforter and the necessitous a generous helper. In 1857 the first Croydon church with free pews was built, St Andrews-Chapel-at-Ease to the Parish Church, on land Thomas gave in Southbridge Meadows. In 1861 it became St Andrews Parish church.

A year later he died, on 17th February 1862, at the age of 61. 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.'

After his death the Edridge family took over The Elms and maintained the garden. In 1893, when the house was demolished to make way for Edridge Road, archaeological finds were made during demolition which put Saxon Croydon on the map. An open work disc from the finds has been adopted as this Society's emblem. The drive became Masons Avenue, which remembers the man responsible for making The Elms garden one of the Beauties of Surrey.

Thomas Keen is remembered with the naming of Keens Road on his former Southbridge Meadows near to St Andrews Church. The family is remembered by the phrase 'as keen as mustard' going back to the mustard business pioneered just 250 years ago in the London of Old London Bridge, Dr Johnson, and sedan chairs.

In 1862, the year Thomas died, Keens amalgamated with Robinson & Belville, founded in 1823, who were manufacturers of patented groats and barley. Their lofty factory was across the churchyard of St Georges-in-the-East, its machinery being run by a powerful beam engine from another building. Belville had died by 1903, the year Colman's of Norwich acquired the business of Keen & Robinson.

Colman's still use the name 'Keen' outside the U.K., and Muriel and I, when visiting Canada, were pleasantly surprised to see tins of Keens Mustard in a Montreal supermarket. Though costing a little more than the Garlick Hill 'penny a tin', we bought a tin back with us for the Society's museum.

Herbert Shaw

With acknowledgements to Colman's for the article 'On a Grain of Mustard Seed' by Joseph Hatton (1892).

The Society Library has on its shelves 'The Beauties of Surrey' by W.A. Keane (1849).

Comment by F H G Percy can be found in Issue 94 of the Bulletin.


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