Keen as mustard: Keen Robinson

Keen & Co was perhaps the largest mustard manufacturer in the world before it was overtaken by Colman’s in the 1860s.


Thomas Keen established a mustard factory at Garlick Hill in the City of London in 1742. Keen & Co was the first commercial producer of mustard powder in the capital (the main production centres at the time being Durham and Tewkesbury).

Mustard became an increasingly popular condiment throughout the eighteenth century.

By 1794 the business traded as Sutton, Keen & Smith. In 1806 the entire factory was destroyed by fire.

By 1818 the company traded as Keen, Son & Co.

In 1824 a Joseph Teale exited the partnership, leaving John Keen, John Henry Keen and James Keen (1780 – 1849).

John Keen retired in 1828, leaving Thomas (1800 – 1862) and James Keen.

The business was known as Keens & Welch by 1841. James Keen left the partnership in 1849, leaving Thomas Keen and John Welch (1805 – 1856).

Thomas Keen kept nine servants in his household in 1851.

In 1862 Thomas Keen died, and Thomas Keen & Son was merged with Robinson & Bellville of Holborn, manufacturers of patent barley. The merged firm traded as Keen Robinson Bellville & Co.

By 1868 Keen’s mustard was described as “world famous” in the Morning Post.

By 1876 William John Bellville (1829 – 1891) was sole proprietor of the firm.

By 1881 Keen operated the largest mustard factory in London, and it was supposedly the oldest mustard factory in the world. Additional factory premises were acquired at Denmark Street, London, in the 1880s.

William John Bellville died in 1891 with an estate valued at £638,000. The firm was inherited by his wife, Emma Bellville (born 1847).

By 1892 the Garlick Hill premises was said to the oldest factory in the City of London. It sprawled across five floors. Most mustard seed was grown in the East of England, although some was imported from the Netherlands. There were extensive granaries in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire and Boston, Lincolnshire. The firm employed over 1,000 people, and was notable for not employing women, except for sack mending.

The firm was registered in 1893 and changed its name to Keen Robinson. It had capital of £300,000.

Keen Robinson was acquired by J & J Colman of Norwich, a rival mustard manufacturer, in 1903. Frank Ashton Bellville (1870 – 1937) joined the Colman’s board of directors.

In 1911 Emma Bellville and her son, William John Bellville (1868 – 1937) had 13 servants between them at their home at Stoughton Grange, Leicester.

Production was centralised at the Carrow Works in Norwich, the site of Colman’s production, from 1925.

The two brothers and heirs to the Keen Robinson fortune both died in 1937. Frank Ashston Bellville left an estate valued at £394,397, and William John Bellville left an estate valued at £393,709.

In 1995 Colman sold its condiments arm to Unilever.

The Australian rights to the Keen’s brand, where it remains popular, were acquired by McCormick & Co in 1998.

Keen’s mustard also remains available in the Canadian market.

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