Richard Wheen – Deptford soap manufacturer.
By Neil Rhind
Richard Wheen (1808-1885) soap manufacturer of Deptford lived at Colonnade House, 7 South Row Blackheath 1853 -1863
Wheen was probably one of the most typical of the successful Blackheath families of his time obvious time in that he was involved in the manufacturing process of his business, clearly successful and philanthropic and able to accommodate a large family in the relatively prosperous and rural suburb of Blackheath.
Nevertheless he rode to work on his horse each day. Also his sons entered the family business and learned the technology and marketing systems which kept the business prosperous. It flourished in Deptford from 1849 until 1955.
He had been in partnership with brother John from the 1830s with a soap factory on Ratcliffe Highway. The factory had been founded in 1769 and was eventually owned by Joseph Moate. Moate was Richard Wheen’s uncle and the boy married Moate’s daughter (also his cousin) Anna Maria eventually siring 13 children. He encouraged his brother John Frith Wheen (1816- 1903) to join the business. By 1837 they were manufacturing 645 ton of soap. In 1838 the figure had risen to 715 tons, worth then over £10,000. But after a few years they decided it was not profitable enough to support two families and they parted company but without rancor. Richard moved to Creek Road, Deptford, taking over a pin factory on the water’s edge and once the Ravensbourne Wood Mill. He pioneered a number of techniques of soap manufacture including the first use of soap coppers boiled by steam and not direct heat.
Before taking Colonnade House Richard Wheen had lived at York Terrace, Regents Park. The move was clearly necessary. Over the 10 years the Wheens lived in Blackheath the family grew and Richard and Maria were blessed with 11 children at Blackheath and employed no less than seven resident servants – including a butler, footman and coachman - the largest number in any house in the district even Rangers House, then occupied by HRH Prince Arthur, later Duke of Connaught.
The Wheens moved in 1863 to Hayes Place, Keston, then to Lancaster Gate. His retirement was spent enjoying sporting activities with shooting in Scotland. Mr. and Mrs. Wheen finally retired to Courtlands at Tunbridge Wells where Richard died in November 1885. He left £50,000 as well as property and a prosperous business. Marie Wheen had died in 1881 aged 63.
The business past to the control of three of his sons Richard (1838-1910) Francis (1850-1925) and CharlesWheen. It was floated as a public company in 1898 but remained with the Wheen descendants until competition from the big names led to an agreement with Lever Brothers and its closure. from the early Deptford days and until recently the company and family had turned for legal advice to solicitor Griffiths Thomas and his descendant partners in the practice now known as Clifford Chance Thomas has resident at 6 The Paragon from 1851 to 1860
During his time at Blackheath Richard Wheen had been an active member of the Blackheath Improvement Association; the eldest son, Richard, was educated at the Blackheath Propriety School from 1852 to 1854. Children at Colonnade House were Richard, Maria, Diana, Helen, Anne, Francis, Mary, Emma, Louisa, Edward and Charles in 1861 Wheen extended and altered the house perhaps to the form it retained until 1941. The works were substantial costing nearly £1,500 and requiring the services of architect Francis Freeman Thorne then at No101 Dacre Park
This article first appeared in the GIHS newsletter for December 1998. Copyright Neil Rhind.