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Keene, William (1798–1872)

by D. F. Branagan and T. G. Vallance

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

William Keene (1798-1872), geologist, was born in Bath, England, the sixth son of Thomas Keene, owner of the Bath Journal, and his wife Ann, née Buck. In 1821 he began to study medicine in London but became interested in geology and engineering and helped Goldsworthy Gurney (1793-1875) with chemical science lectures at the Surrey Institution. About 1823 at the British Embassy in Paris Keene married Sarah Charles (1804-1867), née Evans. In 1827 they moved to the Bayonne district in south-west France, where he soon engaged in mining salt and coal. In 1836 he was living at Bordeaux as a civil engineer. He gained wide experience of French coal-mines and oil shale deposits, and farmed on land near Bayonne and St Lon. In 1848 when revolution broke out in France he returned to England with his family. He probably worked in coalfields in Wales and near Manchester and developed a variety of maize for use in England. He also retained a financial interest in the Bath Journal. About 1850 his son William Thomas joined the California gold rush, went to Victoria in 1851 and later moved to New South Wales.

In 1852 Keene and family arrived in Sydney and in 1853 he made an appraisal of the geology around the Fitzroy iron-mines near Mittagong for the government. On 28 December 1854 he was appointed examiner of coalfields. From 1863 he was stationed in the Hunter valley with the additional duties of keeper of mining records. His geological work in Australia was mainly on the coal-bearing rocks of the Sydney basin in the Hunter River valley. In 1866-67 Keene prepared data about oil shale deposits there after development of the Hartley outcrops. Most of his geological work was published as government reports and some in newspapers. Two short papers dealing with aspects of the coal measures in New South Wales appeared in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society in London, of which he was elected a fellow in June 1865.

Keene's geology was practical and largely directed towards the economic exploitation of coal, but he was also involved with water supplies for Newcastle. Some of his broader geological concepts were rather out of date, but in the controversy on the age of the Australian coal measures he contributed data in support of Rev. William Clarke against Professor (Sir) Frederick McCoy. In 1858 Keene opened a display of minerals and rocks that became a focal point for scientists visiting the district. He supplied geological collections for a number of institutions overseas and prepared displays of the colony's mineral wealth for exhibitions in London in 1862, Melbourne in 1866 and Paris in 1867, and won several medals.

Keene was a member of the Hunter River Vineyard Association and its president in 1865-66; his presidential addresses were published in 1867. He judged wine entries at many shows and constantly argued that the southern French treatment for wines was more suited to the New South Wales climate than the German. He also helped to form an association for widows and orphans of clergymen, and for some years was a magistrate. On 2 February 1872 he died aged 74 at his home in Raymond Terrace and was buried in the Anglican cemetery. He was survived by his only son and two of his seven daughters. A memorial window was erected by subscription in the Anglican Church at Raymond Terrace.

Select Bibliography

  • Newcastle Chronicle, 6 Feb 1872
  • Town and Country Journal, 9 Mar 1872
  • private information.

Citation details

D. F. Branagan and T. G. Vallance, 'Keene, William (1798–1872)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/keene-william-3931/text6183, published in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 21 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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