|Description||In 1742, Thomas Keen established a mustard-manufacturing business, Keen & Son, at Garlick Hill in the City of London. First recorded by name in the ninth century, Garlick Hill had long provided a route by which to transport goods such as garlic from the harbour at Queenhithe to the important market street of Cheapside. The company took as their trademark the scallop shell, both a symbol of pilgrimage and a practical implement for scooping spices. Keen & Son was the first commercial producer of mustard powder in London (previously Durham and Tewkesbury had been the main centres for mustard production, in the form of flower of mustard and mustard balls, respectively). The main mustard shop was on the ground floor of the Garlick Hill premises, while the factory was situated at the back with the living quarters on the upper floors. |
Mustard became an increasingly popular condiment during the eighteenth century due to the ease with which mustard powder could be used compared with non-ground mustard seed, as well as a growing demand for foodstuffs that could be kept for long periods of time and used on sea voyages to liven up meals. This is where the phrase 'as keen as mustard' originated, although by the mid-nineteenth century Keens were also renowned for their laundry blue, oatmeal, ground rice and spices such as ginger.
In 1862, the year that Thomas Keen died, the company amalgamated with Robinson & Belville, manufacturers of patented barley and groats since 1823 and official suppliers of the latter to both William IV and Queen Victoria. Patent barley, the trade name for barley flour made by milling pearl barley, was a popular remedy for fevers and kidney problems throughout the nineteenth century. Along with patent groats, it was also one of the leading foods for infants at the time, marketed as a milk modifier (i.e. it allowed young children to digest cow's milk more easily). Both foodstuffs had been sent by Robinson & Bellville to "help to sustain our gallant army" during the Crimean War. Victorian packaging for cereal products was adorned with the Royal Warrant, as well as the signature of Matthias Robinson.
Laundry blue was manufactured in a separate wing at the Garlick Hill site. Joseph Hatton, who visited the factory in 1892, wrote of the pervasiveness of the blue colour in these rooms:
Everything is blue. The light is blue, for it mingles with an azure atmosphere. The workers are blue, not only as to clothes but faces [. . .] This powdered blue, a dazzling ultramarine, is of such a volatile character, that every other room and staircase in the miscellaneous factory has to be double boarded and sealed against it.
Due to the continuing success of the newly enlarged company, Keen Robinson & Co. Ltd. had purchased additional factory premises in Denmark Street in the 1880s. There was also a printing works and tin factory at Kennet Wharf Lane, and a large granary on Jubilee Wharf where sacks of oats, barley and mustard seed were delivered by cargo vessel. Several medals were awarded to the company for the quality of their products at international exhibitions.
In 1903 Keen Robinson & Co. was acquired by J.&J. Colman Ltd. of Norwich, primarily to negate the effects of competition in the mustard, spice and laundry blue trade. This formed the basis of Colman's later soft drinks and baby foods businesses. Production of barley and groats continued at Denmark Street until 1925, when it was transferred to the Carrow works.
In 1928 the character of the genial gentleman 'Old Hethers' was introduced to promote barley water. A further promotional opportunity came in the early thirties, when Mr Eric Smedley-Hodgson, a Colman's medical representative, supplied the dressing rooms at Wimbledon with a drink made of Robinson's Patent Barley, fresh lemon juice, ice and sugar. From 1934, all competitors in the Championships were given the ready-to-drink bottled product, Robinson's Lemon Barley Water, an association that continues to this day.
During the 1920s groats and barley were packed in round 1lb and oblong ½ lb tins bearing paper labels (yellow for groats, blue for barley, both with the scallop shell trademark). Printed tins were introduced in 1928, some featuring a windmill and corn-stacks design in blue or red and yellow. These were replaced in 1953 by sealed cartons. Tins for exported products continued to be produced until around 1965.
The barley trade dwindled following the introduction of subsidised dried milk for infants during the food shortages of the First World War. The Ministry of Food and other municipal authorities issued contracts for Glaxo, a product made by treating milk at high temperatures, ensuring this became a popular brand with consumers after the war. Partly to counteract this competition, Keen Robinson & Co introduced Almata, a nutritious soluble milk substitute, in 1924. This product had been developed after extensive research on the subject of infant feeding and digestion by a team of Colman's chemists led by Leslie Harris, formerly of the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge
Almata's name comes from the literal meaning of Alma Mater, 'gentle mother'. The product's main ingredients were New Zealand butter, Chinese egg powder, sugar, malt, lemon juice, whey powder and casein. The packaging consisted of tins with celluloid inner lids which were billed as 'airproof, waterproof, fireproof, germproof, odourless, tasteless' and which featured a cutting device allowing for its removal without leaving a jagged edge. Within the tin was a small measuring cup wrapped in greaseproof paper. In 1927 a specific division within the company was created to send circulars in handwritten envelopes asking for the names and addresses of expectant mothers, nursing mothers and invalids so they could be sent free samples of the product.
During the 1950s the roller drying process was adopted to produce dehydrated flaked baby food and the company started using fully automated packing machines. In 1949 Robinson's had launched a ready-cooked mixed cereal called Robrex, followed by pre-cooked groats in 1953. Pre-cooked cereals aimed at children during the fifties and sixties each featured a different cuddly toy (sometimes accompanied by a child), designated as follows:
Groats - an elephant
Baby Rice - a teddy bear
Mixed Cereal - a panda
Protein Cereal - a squirrel
Barley Cereal - a donkey
Sweet Corn Cereal - rabbit
Despite a rebranding of these products as 'Baby Cereals', sales had declined dramatically by 1966 and production stopped altogether in 1970.
Both Robsoups and Robsweets were powdered foodstuffs designed with infants in mind that required the addition of boiled and cooled water. The original Robsoup variety, launched in 1951, was 'Bone & Vegetable'. The price of one tin was 1/6; this made around ten feeds. Later flavours included Pea & Ham, Mixed Vegetables & Beef, Mixed Vegetable & Liver, and Chicken. Standard Robsweets flavours were Chocolate, Apple, Strawberry and Banana.
Robinson's Instant Baby Foods
In 1964, Robinson's Instant Baby Foods (Stage I) superseded Robfoods as a brand. The original eleven varieties were Vegetables & Chicken, Bone & Vegetables, Vegetables & Liver, Carrot, Vegetables & Beef, Pea & Ham, Chocolate Cereal, Apple Cereal, Banana Cereal, Strawberry, and Orange, Egg & Honey Cereal. Later additions included Vegetables & Lamb Hotpot, Steak & Kidney Casserole, Tomato, Cheese & Egg Noodles, Apricots & Rice Dessert, Fruit Salad & Custard, Strawberries & Custard, Orange & Rice Dessert, and Blackcurrants & Custard. The packaging for savoury products featured a young boy feeding himself, while the puddings had a picture of Jack and Jill. By 1970 there were no fewer than twenty-six varieties available.
Robinson's Instant Baby Foods (Stage II), launched in 1972, were designed to feed babies too old for strained food but still not ready for solids. The design of the savoury packs showed a baby boy wearing blue, while the sweet desserts had a baby girl in pink.
Due to low sales, the whole range was re-launched in 1974 with new colourful designs by Mabel Lucie Attwell. New varieties included Cauliflower Cheese Savoury, Savoury Chicken with Rice, Cheese & Tomato Savoury, Braised Beef Dinner, Pears & Creamed Rice, Egg Custard, Apple Fool, Strawberry Fool, and Orange & Lemon.
Robinson's Baby Syrups
Robinson's line of syrups aimed at babies were made from fruit juice and sugar, with added Vitamin C. These had been test marketed in East Amglia, Yorkshire and Wales from 1966 but were not officially launched nationwide until 1971. The syrups were produced in five flavours (raspberry, strawberry, orange, blackcurrant and rosehip) and packaged in glass bottles with a picture of the relevant fruit. In 1974, a new design by Mabel Lucie Attwell showing a child drinking from a mug accompanied by a squirrel, a teddy, a mouse and a bird was used on the bottles instead.
Robinson's Baby Foods: Partial Timeline of Launch Dates
1823 - Patent Barley and Patent Groats
1924 - Almata (dried milk substitute)
1949 - Robrex (mixed cereal)
1951 - Robsoup & Robsweet
1953 - Ready Cooked Groats
1955 - Baby Rice
 - Triple Pack (contained baby rice, groats and mixed cereal, while the Blue Triple Pack consisted of baby rice, protein cereal and sweet corn cereal).
1961 - High Protein Cereal (a fortified blend of eggs, cheese and milk proteins with low-starch wheat barley and rice).
1963 - Barley Cereal
1964 - Instant Baby Foods
1971 - Relaunch
1972 - Stage II Baby Foods
1974 - Relaunch Stages I & II
The Robinson's baby food business was sold to Cow & Gate in 1994, and in 1995 the soft drinks business was sold to Britvic, a subsidiary of Bass plc. In the same year Colman's was bought by Unilever, and became part of the Van den Bergh Food Group. The Keen's brand was purchased by the Australian company McCormick & Co. in 1998.