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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Keen, Joseph (1819–1892)

by Lynn Davies

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Joseph Keen (1819-1892), curry-powder maker, was born on 11 January 1819 at Reading, Berkshire, England, eldest child of Joseph Keen and his wife Sarah, née Clement. Young Joseph married Johannah Sergent, a dressmaker from London, and in October 1841 they sailed for Australia. A bounty passenger, Joseph was engaged as a carpenter upon reaching Sydney early in 1842. Johannah died in April 1843 and was buried in the Congregational burying grounds. Joseph then left for Van Diemen's Land, arriving in Hobart Town on 21 December. On 20 March 1847 at St John's Church, New Town, describing himself as a cabinet-maker, he married 19-year-old Annie (Nancy) Burrows (Borrows) (1828-1915), a cook from Barnsley, England, who had arrived in the colony with her parents in 1842. The Keens were to have nine daughters and seven sons.

Joseph and Annie settled at Browns River, Kingston, south of Hobart, where they established a general store and a small manufacturing outlet. From their store, Joseph also worked as the district's postmaster from 1853. In addition, he and Annie ran a bakery, which their fourth son Walter helped to manage, and a grocery, where the sauces and condiments that were made on the premises were sold. Within a decade Keen had produced award-winning sauces and condiments and was advertising his curry powder throughout the colony. He received a medal for his spice mix at the 1866 Inter-Colonial Exhibition in Melbourne and in 1879 a spicy sauce of his received an honourable mention at the Sydney International Exhibition.

Joseph died on 30 March 1892 at Sandy Bay, Hobart. Annie continued manufacturing the products and working as a storekeeper until about 1903, also taking over her husband's role as postmaster for a further two years. She died on 18 December 1915 at Margate and was buried with Joseph in St Clement's Anglican cemetery, Kingston.

Many of their children had married and settled at Kingston, close to their parents. Their sixth daughter Louisa and her husband Horace Watson took over the curry-powder business. Horace purchased land in the foothills of Mount Wellington, overlooking Hobart, and in 1905 transformed it into a large advertising sign. Heavy stones were collected from the site, painted white and used to form the words 'Keen's Curry' in letters some fifty feet (15 m) high. Public uproar resulted, but Horace won the right to use it as an advertising sign. In June 1926 the familiar landmark briefly changed to read 'Hell's Curse' as a university prank, and students altered it again in 1962 to promote a theatre production. In 1994 the landmark read 'No Cable Car' as a protest against a proposed development. After every change the sign was restored and in 2005 was still in place.

Joseph's product, Keen's Curry Powder, well known in Tasmania for more than a century, became an Australian household name after 1954, when the formula and rights were sold to the company Reckitt & Colman Australia Ltd, which had long been the manufacturers of a different product, Keen's mustard.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Edwards, Out of the Blue (Syd, 1982)
  • Zeehan & Dundas Herald, 20 July 1905, p 4
  • Illustrated Tasmanian Mail, 23 June 1926, p 36
  • Mercury (Hobart), 27 Jan 1984, p 2, 23 Mar 1992, p 1, 24 Apr 1995, p 6, 11 Dec 1998, p 7
  • Sunday Tasmanian, 6 Jul 2003, p 3
  • private information.

Citation details

Lynn Davies, 'Keen, Joseph (1819–1892)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 23 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

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