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Arthur Keen

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Arthur Keen (1835-1915) was a British entrepreneur, the Keen in engineering firm of GKN.

1835 January 23rd. Born in Cheshire, perhaps near Northwich, on 23 January 1835, the son of Thomas Keen (1792/3–1867), a yeoman farmer and innkeeper. His early years are uncertain. His early education seems to have been meagre before he joined the London and North Western Railway at Crewe [1].

c.1855 appointed a goods agent for the railway and relocated to Smethwick where his job led to a network of industrial contacts including Thomas Astbury (1810-1862) who introduced him to Francis Watkins.

1858 Keen married Astbury's daughter, Hannah. The couple were to go on to parent ten children in half a century of family life in Edgbaston.

Watkins was trying to market his patent nut-making machine in England and Keen saw the potential of the business. The firm of Watkins and Keen was established with capital from Astbury.

1864 Watkins and Keen was floated as a limited company as the Patent Nut and Bolt Co, Watkins retiring a few years later. Keen continued to expand the business through a series of astute mergers and acquisitions. Keen's objective was to establish himself as the market leader in fasteners through aggressive pricing and economies of scale.

1864 Keen merged with Weston and Grice of Stour Works, West Bromwich, and their associate, the Cwmbran Iron Co of Monmouthshire

Though he modelled his approach on that of another Birmingham firm, Nettlefold and Chamberlain, he achieved less success, possibly being less ruthless and embedded in a more complicated market segment

1900 Keen bought the Dowlais Ironworks and Guest and Co for £1.5 million from Ivor Bertie Guest, 1st Baron Wimborne, forming Guest, Keen and Co. At this point, Keen's facility for takeover seems to have faltered with a series of aborted mergers, including one proposed with United States Steel Corporation.

1902 he completed a merger with the neighbouring business of Nettlefolds Limited to create Guest, Keen and Nettlefold (GKN)

GKN was an enormously profitable business and Keen was held in high regard. Much of the business's profitability stemmed from a successful policy of price maintenance through the Birmingham Alliance that he forged with trade unionist Richard Juggins and which was realised in the midland iron and steel wages board.

He became a director of the Birmingham and Midland Bank in 1880 and led the series of mergers that established it as the London, City, and Midland Bank.

1915 February 8th. Died unexpectedly at his home, Sandyford, 33 Augustus Road, Edgbaston, on 8 February 1915, aged eighty. [2]


1915 Obituary [3]

ARTHUR KEEN was born in Cheshire on 23rd January 1835.

He commenced his business career on the London and North Western Railway, being promoted in a short time to be goods agent at Smethwick. Whilst holding this position he entered into partnership with Mr. Watkins, the inventor of a nut-making machine. This venture proved entirely successful, and in 1864 the original firm of Messrs. Watkins and Keen was converted into the Patent Nut and Bolt Co.

In 1900 this Company purchased the Dowlais Iron Co., including their works and mines, and, amalgamating with Messrs. Guest and Co., colliery owners and iron and steel manufacturers, became Messrs. Guest, Keen and Co., of which Mr. Keen was Chairman and Managing Director.

This new concern soon acquired the business of Messrs. Crawshay Brothers, Cyfarthfa, Ltd., iron and steel makers and colliery owners, and almost at the same time amalgamated with the firm of Messrs. Nettlefolds, the title of the firm becoming Messrs. Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds, Ltd., of which Mr. Keen was Chairman.

Together with this duty he performed that of Director to Messrs. Bolckow, Vaughan and Co., while he was also Chairman of the New Cransley Iron and Steel Co., Director of the Loddington Ironstone Co., and Chairman and Director at successive periods of Muntz's Metal Co. His connexion with the last two firms eventually ceased on his finding that his time was fully occupied with the firm of Messrs. Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds.

About 1880 he became a Director of the Birmingham and Midland Bank, and it was largely as a result of his efforts that this bank was converted into the London and Midland Bank in 1891, and amalgamated with the City Bank in 1898, becoming the London, City and Midland Bank. In this year Mr. Keen was elected Chairman of the Bank, which office he held until 1908, when he retired on account of his health.

His death took place at his residence at Edgbaston, Birmingham, on 8th February 1915, at the age of eighty.

On the occasion of the Jubilee Meeting of this Institution being held in Birmingham in 1897, Mr. Keen acted as Chairman of the Reception Committee, which ensured the success of the Meeting. He took an active part in public work, and was a Justice of the Peace for Staffordshire and a Governor of the University of Birmingham.

He was elected a Member of this Institution in 1869, a Member of Council from 1891 to 1897, and from that date to 1911, when he resigned, he held the office of Vice-President. He was also a Vice-President of the Iron and Steel Institute.


1915 Obituary [4]

ARTHUR KEEN, Vice-President of the Iron and Steel Institute, died at his residence at Edgbaston, Birmingham, on February 8, 1915. He was born on January 23, 1835, and, after a comparatively brief schooling, he commenced his business career in the service of the London and North-Western Railway Company at Crewe. His energy in the service of the company led to his appointment as goods agent at Smethwick, where he resided for some years, and where he married the daughter of a wealthy iron-founder, Mr. Astbury. Soon after his marriage, and with his father-in-law's assistance, he entered into partnership with Mr. Watkins, who held the British rights of an.

American patent for the manufacture of nuts and bolts, which constituted a considerable improvement upon the practice at that time prevailing. In partnership with Mr. Watkins, a small works was started in Smethwick. In 1864 Mr. Keen was able to purchase his partner's interest, and continued the management of the undertaking.

Subsequently it was converted into the Patent Nut and Bolt Company, with which was amalgamated an older business, that of the then well-known firm of Weston & Grice. The capital of the new company was £400,000, and the London Works, Smethwick, where the business was carried on, were considerably enlarged. On the death of Sir Joseph Weston, Mr. Keen was appointed chairman of the company, and by 1885 the success of the concern had been such as to embolden Mr. Keen to acquire other undertakings. In 1900 he purchased the works of the Dowlais Iron Company, and negotiations having been entered into with Guest & Company, iron and steel manufacturers and colliery proprietors, a new company amalgamating the three existing concerns, and with a capital of £2,000,000, was formed. Of this new firm, Guest, Keen & Company, Mr. Keen became chairman and managing director, the other managing directors being the late Mr. E. P. Martin and Messrs. A. T. and F. W. Keen. The success of the new enterprise may be gauged from the fact that at the first annual meeting of the company a net profit of £387,000 was declared. Two years later the business of Crawshay Brothers, Limited, iron and steel manufacturers and colliery proprietors, Cyfarthfa, was bought by the company, together with the screw manufacturing business of Nettlefolds, Limited, the combined undertakings being fused into a new Company, under the name of Guest, Keen & Nettlefolds, Limited, with a capital of £3,000,000. Mr. Arthur Keen was again chairman, and the managing directors were Messrs. E. Nettlefolds, A. T. Keen, F. W. Keen, Charles Steer and Edward Steer. Simultaneously with the conduct of these enterprises Mr. Keen became a director of the Birmingham and Midland Bank, the large local business of which Mr. Keen decided to extend by allying it with the Sheffield Union Bank and the Yorkshire Banking Company.

In 1891 the concern was converted into the London and Midland Bank, and in 1898 it was amalgamated with the City Bank, under the title of the London, City and Midland Bank. He resigned his chairmanship at the beginning of 1908.

In addition to the undertakings in the creation of which he was more directly concerned, he was for some time chairman of the Hunts Metal Company, chairman of the New Cransley Iron and Steel Company, Limited, and a director of Messrs. Bolckow, Vaughan & Company, Limited, and of the Loddington Ironstone Company, Limited. He also found time to devote much of his leisure to public work, and was for twenty-five years a member of the old Local Board at Smethwick, during fifteen years of which he acted as chairman. The growth of Smethwick during this period was largely due to Mr. Keen's connection with the town. New public buildings were erected, municipal gas supplies provided, parks laid out, and baths and free libraries built. His benefactions were not, however, confined to Smethwick, and he was a generous supporter of the Birmingham University, of which he was a Life Governor.

In politics he was a Liberal-Unionist and a strong supporter of Tariff Reform, but, although many opportunities were afforded him of entering Parliament, he always declined to do so on the score of his numerous business engagements. He took a deep interest in labour questions, and was for many years a member of the Midland Iron and Steel Wages Board.

He was a Vice-President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, but resigned that office in 1911. He was elected a member of the Iron and Steel Institute in 1885, and in 1891 became a Member of Council. In 1895, on the occasion of the visit of the Institute to Birmingham, he was a member of the Local Reception Committee, and contributed largely to the success of the meeting. It was in this year that he was elected a Vice-President, an office he retained to the time of his death.


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. The Times, Wednesday, Oct 02, 1912
  2. The Times, Tuesday, Feb 09, 1915
  3. 1915 Institution of Mechanical Engineers: Obituaries
  4. 1915 Iron and Steel Institute: Obituaries