Sir James Kemnal

Sir James Kemnal 1920James Hermann Rosenthal (1864-1927) was British Managing Director of Babcock & Wilcox, and said to be instrumental in making the company successful internationally. He died in February 1927 at the age of 62. He was born in Rotherhithe, London. His father, David Ferdinand Rosenthal, was not English, but adopted British Nationality. According to James' birth certificate (provided by Jill Parkinson, a second cousin of James), his father was a Glass and China Merchant. His mother, Elizabeth, nee Marshall, was born in Poplar Middlesex. James was educated in Cologne, and worked as an engineering apprentice in Belgium in the State Railway Company. Shortly after his return to the UK he became involved in the opening of the UK branch of Babcock & Wilcox, a US company, and at the age of 20 was appointed manager of the UK branch.

James married a cousin, Amelia Marshall in 1889, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1903, and there are no indications that there were any children from the marriage. In 1905 James married Lady Linda Larita Kemnal, and they had a son, Stuart, who was born in 1915.

Much of the activity of the UK branch was in Renfrew, and during this time James will have lived in Scotland, which is why he became associated with the Royal Society in Edinburgh.

The branch was successful and in 1891 a UK company was formed. James Rosenthal became sole Managing Director of UK operations, which became the focus for the overseas activities of the group, and he oversaw the rapid growth of the business in the UK, Europe and beyond, making Babcock & Wilcox the global company it still is today. The key development he oversaw was the introduction of the Babcock & Wilcox boiler, much resisted by British boiler-makers, which accelerated the development of steam-generating plant, and enabled it to be used for electric power stations. The boiler was adopted as the hallmark by the British Government and was fitted to Royal Navy battleships including the Dreadnought.

During the Great War the UK operations were diverted towards assisting the war effort, and it was as a result of this that he was knighted in 1920. In 1915 he had changed his name as so many people with German-sounding names did at that time, especially following the outcry over the sinking of the Lusitania. James adopted the name of his Estate as his new surname.

One of his obituaries noted that Babcock & Wilcox was one of the few companies able to carry on during the coal strike of 1921 without suffering severe loss, largely because “he displayed remarkable business capacity, ability, and power of application, and knew how to secure the help of able subordinates”.

He had been interviewed by the editor of Modern Business, a magazine of that time. The article noted: “In engineering circles Sir James Kemnal is probably as well known as the First Sea Lord in the Admiralty, while the firm of Babock & Wilcox has influenced engineering in every corner of the world where an engine is used.....Talking to Sir James, a quiet, decided man of action, in the prime of life, who speaks deliberately and slowly in a secluded City Office, one might forget the dramatic significance of his life and work. It is difficult to realise in such surroundings that this very modern City man directs a staff of engineers and associated workers numbering from 5,000 to 6,000 men, and that by his work battleships are made more effective instruments of protection, steamboats more and more capable servants of the distributor, and that mines and mills, and all the productive forces of machinery, in large measure move as a consequence of his energies in the most out-of-the-way corners of the earth”.

Knighted by King George V

In addition to his duties at Babcock & Wilcox he was appointed to a number of public positions, including:

Sir James had been unwell for some time, before his death in February 1927. He was buried at Shirley in Surrey at the church of St John the Evangelist, and a few days later there was a memorial service held at St.Sepulchre’s Church at Holburn Viaduct in London, at which many of his business associates were present.

These two photographs of Sir James Kemnal were taken at the time of his knighthood. They show him posing in his court dress, and with King George V and Queen Mary