The Keswick Tai-pans

The Jardine Matheson Building on the Bund, Shanghai.
The Jardine Matheson Building on the Bund, Shanghai.
Image source: Virtual Cities Project (Institut d'Asie Orientale) at www.virtualshanghai.net.

William Keswick and his son, Henry, were successively Members of Parliament for Epsom from 1899 to 1918: William was the great-nephew of the childless Dr William Jardine, co-founder of Jardine Matheson, and became the patriarch of a formidable business dynasty which is still going strong today. We need to have a preliminary look at Jardine Matheson because it was the entity that shaped the Keswicks and became the source of their wealth and influence. Today Jardine Matheson Holdings is a conglomerate that trades principally in Asia, with a market capitalisation reading like a stratospheric telephone number (i.e. in the region of US $40 billion).

Enterprises like Jardine Matheson grew out of the decline in influence of the East India Company, whereby others saw and grasped opportunities in Asia to trade the commodities produced there. China was a fertile ground and a dangerous one, for, unlike India, it was not part of Britain's empire and did not have either the British infrastructure or military machine on hand. At that time China was still under its own Imperial rule (it did not become a republic until 1912), so it was a brave foreigner who set up a business there and the man who interests us was perhaps an unlikely candidate for the role, superficially at least.

William Jardine

Dr William Jardine by George Chinnery.
Dr William Jardine by George Chinnery.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

William Jardine was born on a farm in Dumfriesshire: he was not quite a rags to riches story but the family did not have huge resources as the patriarch, Andrew Jardine, had died when the boy was nine. William's older brother paid for his schooling and at the age of sixteen he commenced studies at the University of Edinburgh Medical School. Having graduated in 1802 he signed on as a surgeon's mate with the East India Company. Employees of the Company were allowed to trade on their own account and William did so, gaining valuable experience for his future; he also met two men who were to play a significant part in his life later on - Thomas Weeding and Charles Magniac.

The East India Company traded in many places and many things, but, reprehensible as it seems nowadays, one of the main commodities was opium, which was imported into China from India. Jardine left the Company in 1817 and went into business with fellow surgeon Weeding. In 1824 he was taken into partnership by Hollingworth Magniac (brother of the aforementioned Charles) and they invited James Matheson (later Sir James Nicolas Sutherland Matheson) to join the firm of Magniac & Co. Jardine, known as 'the iron-headed old rat', was noted for his business acumen and in 1832, along with Matheson, Magniac and others, he formed Jardine Matheson & Co, based in Canton, China. In 1842 the headquarters moved to Hong Kong.

Opium ships at Lintin, China 1824.
Opium ships at Lintin, China 1824.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

By 1841 Jardines had nineteen intercontinental clippers and a large fleet of smaller vessels for smuggling opium from India into China. Politics had interfered with this trade, since the Chinese Government was unhappy that the value of opium imports (which were illegal) was not being matched by that of the tea and silk being exported, and Matheson went to England to lobby for war with China; he returned to Canton in 1836 to take over the firm, as Jardine was intending to retire.

Jardine came back to Britain in 1839 but did not retire altogether: retirement had never been his real intention. He too set about lobbying for war, which broke out that same year, technically at China's instigation, and in 1840 Britain sent ships and troops. The First Opium War was ended by the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, one effect of which was that Hong Kong was ceded to the British. Jardine was the MP for Ashburton in Devon from 1841 to 1843 and died on 27 February 1843, one of the richest and most powerful men in Britain, leaving his share of the business to siblings and nephews.

The storming of the forts of Amoy
The storming of the forts of Amoy (now Xiamen) 1841 by Michael Angelo Hayes.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Jardine Matheson building in Hong Kong
1846 painting of the original Jardine Matheson building in Hong Kong, viewed from Causeway Bay.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Having set the scene we can fast-forward through several head men (tai-pans) of Jardine Matheson, all relatives of the founders, to the Keswicks.

William Keswick

William Keswick
William Keswick
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

William's father, Thomas, had married a niece of William Jardine. Some sources say that William was born in 1834 in Dumfriesshire but in censuses his birthplace was always given as New Brunswick, Canada (the town of Richibucto). He worked for Jardines in China and Hong Kong from 1855. In 1859 he established an office in Yokohama, Japan and became a partner in the firm, based in Hong Kong, in 1862. The business withdrew from the opium trade in 1870, diversifying into other areas, such as shipping and property development.

William became the tai-pan (Cantonese for 'big shot' or 'top class') of Jardines in 1874, leaving in 1886 to become a senior director with Matheson & Co (established 1848, now a subsidiary of Jardine Matheson Holdings). He was on the Legislative and Executive Councils of Hong Kong at various times between 1868 and 1887, was a director of the Hudson's Bay Company, had oil interests in Peru (the London and Pacific Petroleum Company) and was involved with railway companies and banks; he was also a magistrate and Deputy Lieutenant for Surrey. On 23 January 1899, now residing at Eastwick Park, Great Bookham, Surrey, he was returned unopposed as Conservative MP for Epsom. He had become High Sheriff for Surrey in 1897 and was involved with local politics for years before that, being one of the people who nominated Thomas Townsend Bucknill as Conservative candidate for Epsom in 1892.

Eastwick Park, Great Bookham
Eastwick Park, Great Bookham, 1841.
Image courtesy of the Friends of Leatherhead Museum via Leatherhead and District Local History Society

In 1870 William had married Amelie Sophie Dubeux in Hong Kong and they had five surviving children, as shown below. Amelie died on 5 April 1883, aged only 36.

Henry Born 1870 Shanghai, died 29 November 1928 London (lived Dumfriesshire); married Ida Wynifred Johnston.
Amy Sophie Born c.1874 Lochmaben, Dumfriesshire, died 4 April 1957 Dorset (lived Wiltshire); married Frank Bruce Eastwood.
Margaret Johnstone Born c. 1876 Shanghai, died 25 April 1929 Southampton (lived France); unmarried.
David Johnstone Born 1877 Yokohama, Japan, died 7 March 1900 Rietfontein, South Africa; unmarried.
Mary Muriel Born c.1879 Hong Kong, died 5 December 1938 Hampshire (lived Southampton); unmarried.

Grave of Amelie Keswick
Grave of Amelie Keswick at St Nicolas, Great Bookham.
Image courtesy of Gravestone Photographic Resource

In 1898 William married Alice Henrietta Barrington, who was 40 years his junior (born Dublin 1874), and there were three more children, as follows.

Alice Ivy Henrietta Born 1899 Surrey, died 1984 Scarborough, Yorkshire; married Guy Roger Coles.
Nancy Barrington Born and died London 1901.
Helen Kathleen Born 1903 London, died 1997 West Surrey; unmarried.

William seems to have settled into life as a 'country squire' (he also had an estate at Beechgrove, Dumfriesshire) and ran a farm from Eastwick Park. In 1911 he and his farm steward were accused at Epsom Magistrates' Court of selling milk from which 7% of the natural fat had been abstracted: they pleaded that the milk was exactly as it came from the cows and were acquitted.

Grave of William Keswick
Grave of William Keswick.
Image courtesy of Gravestone Photographic Resource

William died on 9 March 1912 and was also buried at St Nicolas, Great Bookham. His widow married Cyril Cameron Pyke OBE (c.1873-1951) of the Colonial Service on 4 September 1915 and they lived at Capel Leyse, Holmwood, Dorking. Alice died in 1966.

William left personal effects of £500,000 (nearly £50m in today's money) and Alice put Eastwick Park on the market in 1915, when she became engaged to Cyril Pyke.

William Keswick was very highly regarded, as the following extract from a local newspaper obituary demonstrates.

In Mr Keswick there passes away a fine, old political type. Strong in his own convictions, nevertheless he studiously avoided discourtesy to his opponents, either in word or deed, and on many occasions he has gone out of his way to pay a compliment to one or other Minister of the present administration when he thought it was deserved. His chief political successes lay in committee work, where his sound common sense, especially when applied to the subtle ramifications of commerce, was of inestimable value. In such work he was persona grata. In the broader arena of the House in debate he seldom figured, other than as a close follower of every argument. His temperament in all probability would not have been attuned to the hurly-burly of the floor of the House of Commons, the cut and thrust of a Parliamentary discussion.

He was a lovable character, upon which a steady devotion to duty and an old-world courtesy had set their seal. All shades of political opinion conceded to him transparent honesty of purpose, and however much some might have disagreed with his views none could deny that in him burnt the sacred fire of patriotism. His speeches were always pitched in a patriotic key and although he was perhaps one of the oldest members in the House of Commons he was in the forefront of the modern Imperialist school. As a speaker he was solid rather than brilliant and by his own supporters would undoubtedly be regarded as eminently safe.


Poignantly, on the day of his death William was to have received an oil portrait of himself, subscribed for by constituents. His widow subsequently wrote the following letter to The Surrey Comet.

Newspaper Cutting from The Surrey Comet
Newspaper Cutting from The Surrey Comet

I shall momentarily interrupt the saga of the tai-pans, which continues with Henry, to deal with three of the other children.

In 1895 Amy Sophie Keswick married colonial produce broker Frank Bruce Eastwood (born 1866 Surbiton, Surrey): he was the son of brick merchant John Fisher Eastwood, who lived at Esher Lodge, Esher and was High Sheriff for Surrey in 1891. The couple lived at High Clandon, Surrey for some time but later moved to Woodyates, near Salisbury. Frank died in 1949.

David Johnstone Keswick was a Lieutenant in the 12th Royal Lancers and was killed at the Battle of Poplar Grove, Orange Free State during the 2nd Boer War. The Boer forces that remained after the relief of Kimberley were defeated in this engagement. On 7 March 1900, the day that David died, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Forces, Lord Roberts, wrote from Poplar Grove, 'We have had a very successful day and completely routed the enemy, who are in full retreat. The position they occupied was extremely strong, and cunningly arranged with a second line of entrenchments, which would have caused us heavy loss had a direct attack been made. The turning movement was necessarily wide owing to the nature of the ground, and the cavalry and horse-artillery horses are much done up. The fighting was practically confined to the cavalry division, which, as usual, did exceedingly well, and French reports that the horse-artillery batteries did a great deal of execution amongst the enemy. Our casualties number about fifty. I regret to say that Lieutenant Keswick, 12th Lancers, was killed, and Lieutenant Bailey, of the same regiment, severely wounded. Lieutenant De Crespigny, 2nd Life Guards, also severely wounded.'

David's sister Amy donated windows to the Church of St Thomas of Canterbury, East Clandon and there is a wall plaque reading 'In loving memory of David Johnstone Keswick Lieutenant X11 Royal Lancers who was killed in battle at Poplar Grove in the Orange Free State on the 7th of March MDCCCC aged 23. These windows are dedicated by his sister Amy Sophie Eastwood. The eternal God is thy refuge.' There is also a wall plaque to John Fisher Eastwood, erected by Frank.

Alice Ivy Henrietta Keswick, the eldest child of William's second marriage, married Guy Roger Coles (born 1894 Caterham, Surrey) in 1923. Guy was a manufacturer in the rubber trade and his family ran the India Rubber Mills at Barking, Essex. The mills had originally been in Tottenham and were founded by William Warne & Company in 1837. Alice and Guy had three children, the eldest of whom, David James Keswick Coles (born 1926), was High Sheriff for Surrey in 1986. Having served as an officer in the 30th Lancers during the Great War, Guy became a Captain in the Royal Artillery during the Second World War; he died in Thailand on 5 September 1944 and was buried at Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. Kanchanaburi was the site of the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai, where many thousands of Allied prisoners and up to 100,000 civilians died building the Burma Railway.

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery
Kanchanaburi War Cemetery.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Henry Keswick

Henry Keswick
Henry Keswick
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

Henry was educated in Dumfriesshire, at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating with a BA in 1892. He served in the South African War as a Lieutenant in the Kings Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB) and then joined Jardines, firstly in New York and subsequently Hong Kong. He became tai-pan but returned to England in 1911 to represent Hong Kong at the coronation of King George V. He was still in England when his father died and succeeded him as the MP for Epsom at a by-election in 1912. He was again with the KOSB during the Great War and also belonged to the Royal Company of Archers, a ceremonial unit that serves as the sovereign's bodyguard in Scotland. He gave up the Epsom seat in 1918.

Henry married Ida Wynifred Johnston (born c.1880) in 1900. I get the impression that Henry had no great bond with Surrey and he seems to have spent much of his time at the Johnston estate in Scotland - Cowhill, Holywood, Dumfriesshire. The children were as shown below.

David Johnston Born 1902 Yokohama, died 1976; married Nony Barbara Pease
William Johnston 'Tony' Born 1903 Yokohama, died 16 February 1990 London; married Mary Etheldreda Lindley
John Henry Born 1906 Dumfriesshire, died 1982 Dumfriesshire; married Clare Mary Alice Elwes

Henry died on 29 November 1928, his residence at that point being Cowhill.

David Johnston Keswick

David was fundamentally a merchant banker with Samuel Montagu & Co but during World War II he became a Colonel on the General Staff at the War Office and was appointed CMG.

Sir William Johnston 'Tony' Keswick

Tony was one of the two men who perpetuated the Keswick dynasty at Jardines; he went to the Far East in 1936 and ran the Shanghai office from 1935 until 1941, when he was shot in the arm by a Japanese national during a municipal election meeting. He then served in British Intelligence in London as a Brigadier, heading the branch of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) dealing with China. Subsequently he took over as Managing Director of Matheson & Co in London. I will come to his three sons in a moment.

Sir John Henry Keswick

John took over in Shanghai after his brother had been shot but was forced to escape to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) when the Japanese took the city. He then served on the staff of Admiral Mountbatten. After the War he returned to Shanghai but operations in mainland China gradually came to an end after the Communist takeover. John then went to Hong Kong as tai-pan.

Tony Keswick's descendants

Two of Tony's three sons are currently involved with 'the family firm'. The middle son, Sir Chippendale 'Chips' Lindley Keswick (born 1940) is a former Director of the Bank of England and was Chairman of Hambros Bank; he is currently on the board of Arsenal FC.

Sir Henry Neville Lindley Keswick (born 1938) is the present Chairman of Jardine Matheson Holdings. Simon Lindley Keswick (born 1942) is a director of Matheson & Co. Simon's son, Ben, and Adam, son of Chips, are also senior executives of Jardine Matheson companies. Further information on the current business is at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jardine_Matheson.

Causeway Bay area in Hong Kong, showing Keswick Street
Modern photo of the Causeway Bay area in Hong Kong, showing Keswick Street.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons



Linda Jackson
March 2013



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