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Lavinia Keene

Articles > People > E-K


John Blake
Chairman: Barking & District Historical Society

Last year I joined a Friends of Valence House visit to St. Patrick’s Church in Blake Avenue, Barking where we were given an excellent tour of the grade II listed building by Bill Law, a long term member of our own society. We were told about Lavinia Keene, a wealthy lady who had given £11,000 for the church to be built, and I became very curious as to who she was and how she came to be involved with the area.

Born Lavinia Clarissa Stevens at Mile End in 1864, she was the daughter of George and Eliza Stevens. George was a printer employing 14 men and 8 boys; he would have been a man of substantial wealth.

In 1888 Lavina married John Henry Keene (born Stepney); John was a one-time secretary (1892 –1914) then director (1914–1931) of Pearl Assurance ; his father John had been one of the founders of the company. They lived in Leyton and then Carlton House, Beehive Lane, Galleywood.

This Galleywood connection led me to discover that Lavinia had also financed buildings in Great Baddow, where, by chance, Dorothy Lockwood, one of our vice-presidents, was now living. Dorothy kindly did some research of her own and discovered that the Galleywood Centre had material on the Keene family in their archives and duly arranged for Bill George and I to accompany her on a visit to the centre; we spent a very interesting couple of hours discovering a little more about this enigmatic character Lavinia Keene and her philanthropy.

John died at Carlton House on 20th September 1931- he left £1,144,201.


After John’s death she erected numerous buildings in his memory including 26 homes in Broomfield Road, Chelmsford, for elderly “deserving” people who have lived in the area for at least three years.

The village hall in Galleywood  is called Keene Hall in her memory. There is also a Keene Way in Galleywood.

John Henry Keene 1864-1931

As previously stated Lavinia also funded the building of St. Patrick’s Church, Blake Avenue, Barking.  The foundation stone was laid in 1940; the stone reads:

To the Glory of God
This stone was laid by Mrs Lavinia Keene
Generous benefactor of this church
July 13th 1940

Sadly, this was not the case as Lavinia was not well enough to attend the unveiling and her sister Clara (later Mrs William Adams) performed the ceremony instead.

The church, designed by Arthur Eric Wiseman to seat 300, was consecrated later in the year. As work had already started on the church when the war broke out the building work was allowed to continue, and it was the one and only church to be built in the country during World War II and cost £10,500.

Lavinia Keene centre of photograph with her architect A.E. Wiseman

This is the only known photograph of Lavinia

We discovered at Galleywood that she had also funded (£10,000) the building of the Church of St. John the Divine in Goresbrook Road, Dagenham , which was consecrated in 1935 in the presence of Lavinia and a host of local church and civic dignitaries including Town Clerk  S.A.Jewers, founder of our society. We also discovered that she had financed a Spitfire aircraft for the Royal Air Force in 1939!

When childless Lavinia died aged 86 on 24th May 1949 after having lived in Galleywood for 48 years,  she left an estate of £1,347,000 (most of it in Pearl Assurance shares!), but death duties came to a staggering £937,663 so a lot of her legacies could not be met. Carlton House was put up for sale and the sale catalogue is preserved at the Essex Record Office in Chelmsford.

The Essex Chronicle recorded her death thus: So the lady bountiful from the large house at Galleywood has gone. But she left behind happiness for many people, a headache for her Solicitors and a fortune for the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

She was buried in square 197, plot 55345 at the City of London Cemetery at Manor Park, where her husband was also buried. The grave has a stone recording that Lavinia and John Keene were laid to rest with Temple Theodore Cowell (1854-1908). Who  was he? This mystery was soon resolved. Temple Cowell, a Railway Engineer, of Dovedale, Chelmsford, was born in Totness, Devon, and died on 24th December 1908 at the Ocean Hotel,  Sandown, Isle of Wight – leaving an estate valued at £17,008. He had married Clara Elizabeth Stevens, Lavinia’s sister, at West Ham, in the spring of 1888, shortly before Lavinia and John had tied the knot.

Although she never forgot her East London roots, I was hoping to discover that she had some connection to our own area; the fact is she financed numerous building throughout Essex and London all to the memory of her beloved husband John.  

Acknowledgements:  Many thanks to Wendy Cummin, Curator at the Galleywood Heritage Centre for her invaluable help. Finally, thanks to Bill George for the excellent photographs.

Grave of John & Lavinia Keene
City of London Cemetery, Manor Park
Square 197 55345

Inscriptions to Temple Theodore Cowell & John Henry Keene

Inscription to Lavinia Keene

Foundation Stone
St. Patrick's Church, Blake Avenue, Barking
at base of tower

St. Patrick's Church, Blake Avenue, Barking

John Blake March 2013 (updated October 2014)

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