James Keir & Company

In 1780, James Keir, a leading chemist and chemical manufacturer founded James Keir & Company at Bloomfield. The firm manufactured alkali, soap, and lead compounds for the Stourbridge glass industry. One of James’s inventions was a gold coloured metal, a compound of copper, zinc and iron, used for metal window sashes, some of which were installed in Windsor Castle. Factory Road was originally called Soap Factory Road after the business.

James Keir was born in Stirlingshire, Scotland, in 1735 and attended the Royal High School, Edinburgh. He then studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, where he met and formed a lasting friendship with Erasmus Darwin. Keir joined the army at the age of 22 and took a commission with the 61st Regiment. He was stationed in the West Indies during the Seven Years' War and rose to the rank of Lieutenant on the 31st March, 1759. He became Captain on the 23rd June, 1766. Two years later he resigned from the army and soon settled at Hill Top, West Bromwich where he devoted himself to chemistry and geology.

Around 1771 he married Susanna Harvey, of Birmingham and in 1772, with two partners, he leased an old glassworks called Holloway End Glasshouse at Amblecote and became friends with one of their customers, Matthew Boulton, to whom they supplied window glass, decanters, wineglasses and chemical wares. In 1778 he left the glassworks and took charge of Boulton and Watt’s Soho factory while the two were away. He was offered a partnership in the business but thought it was too risky. In 1779 Kier took out a patent for his alloy of copper, zinc, and iron, which could be forged hot or cold, and in 1780 he established the soap factory at Tipton with Alexander Blair, on the former site of Bloomsmithy Mill. Also in 1780 he began to collaborate with Joseph Priestley during his time at Birmingham.

James Keir was a member of the Lunar Society and a Fellow of the Royal Society. In about 1790 he moved to Finchpath Hall, Hill Top, opposite Hawkes Lane. The house was later divided into two, called The Poplars and The Woodlands, which have now been replaced by a row of shops.

Keir was also head of the firm of Kier, Blair, and Playfair, who purchased Tividale Colliery in 1794. The colliery supplied coal to the soap works and also geological specimens for Keir to study.

He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society on the 8th December, 1785. James and Susanna Keir had two children, a son, Francis who died in infancy and a daughter Amelia. Susanna died suddenly at the age of 55 on the 20th November, 1802 and is buried at West Bromwich church. After her death, James Keir wore her wedding ring suspended from his neck for the rest of his life.

The Soap Works at Tipton were known as "The Factory" and were later acquired by the Stevenson family. The business thrived and was greatly helped by the cheap and convenient transport offered by the local canal. The firm’s soap was transported to Hull, Liverpool, Bristol, and London etc. The ingredients included alkalis that were produced in the factory using many imported materials.

Another product was white lead, manufactured by a process invented by James Keir. It was mainly used by potters for glazing their wares. Red lead was also produced, mainly for the manufacture of flint glass, which was carried out in Dudley, Stourbridge, and Birmingham.

Decorative metal sashes for windows were also produced, which were both light and strong. They were either made of James Keir’s gold-coloured metal or wrought iron and were painted or japanned. The gold-coloured metal, which could be forged or shaped in a rolling mill, was used in many famous buildings including Windsor Castle and Carleton House.

On 19th December, 1807 there was a fire at Keir’s house at Hill Top. He was away at the time but luckily most of his books and papers were saved. James Keir died peacefully in his sleep on the 11th October, 1820 at the age of 85, after a long period of illness. He is buried at All Saints Church, West Bromwich.

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