During the summer and autumn of 1845 the first adverts for products manufactured from gutta percha were published and press articles referring to the new material often offered information about where it came from and how it differed from caoutchouc. In November the Railway Bell and Advertiser gave details of the way in which fabric made from flexible gutta percha could be manufactured. According to the article in the short-lived periodical, a machine would force pulp through small holes to make a continuous thread as strong as catgut, which was made from the fibre found in animal intestines. This gum based thread could then be woven into a fabric that, if covered with a layer of unwoven gutta percha, would become completely waterproof. Those interested in buying items produced in this way may have been cheered on hearing a cargo ship, the Queen, had arrived from Singapore carrying two tons of gutta percha belonging to Wilkinson and Jewsbury. This would have been part fulfilment of the indigo broker’s initial order for five tons.

Singapore had been established as trading trading port in 1819 under a treaty negotiated with the Sultanate of Johor by Stamford Raffles. It had quickly become successful as trade rapidly increased but, even so, we may imagine the surprise in the sweltering offices of Ker, Rawson and Co. when the order from London had arrived. It was, after all, almost two years since the first gutta percha samples had appeared at the Society of Arts and anyone anticipating an immediate increase in demand would have been disappointed. Consequently, there would almost certainly not have been enough blocks in stock to send the five tons ordered by the indigo brokers, the Queen departing with all that could be collected. But if the Singapore office staff were surprised at the size of the first order they would have been incredulous when a second arrived around a month later. Perhaps, as the rainy season downpours pounded on the roof, the document was passed from hand to hand to confirm there had been no misreading, but there was no mistake. An additional fifty tons was wanted! As experienced dealers in commodities Wilkinson and Jewsbury would, of course, have surely been aware the problem in Singapore would be one of fulfilment but nothing could be done about that. It would be up to the agent to do their best and send what they could when they could. The word soon spread that much more was needed.

Before the efforts of Montgomerie and d'Almeida generated interest in London there would have been little reason for anyone producing gutta percha in Singapore to imagine an increase in demand was in the offing as the market was virtually non-existent. Generally, gutta percha trees, which could easily be confused with the fruit bearing durian, could be found in the deep, rich, alluvial soil found along the foot of a hill. Here they thrived in the sun. According to contemporary sources the average tree was between 60 and 70 feet high and had a 2 to 3 foot girth. The wood could be used for making furniture and planks and in the lighter aspects of construction but from 1845 it was the latex gum rather than timber for building which forest workers usually wanted.

Experts are divided over the origins of the name gutta percha. One view has it that ‘percha’ might be derived from an old name given to Sumatra, and ‘gutta’ from the Malay word ‘getah’, which could be translated as latex - but this is not the only etymological theory. When a rubber tree was tapped latex would drip out and sometimes keep dripping for a couple of hours. The gutta percha tree was different. As the latex emerged it would coagulate, not drip or run, so harvesting usually meant the tree would be cut down and girdled. Once the bark was removed the latex could then be scraped from the revealed surface. After being heated and kneaded to remove any impurities the resulting malleable lump would be amalgamated with the gum of other trees to make a block. Such transportable units could weigh anything up to 100lbs but even a very large tree would only produce, at a maximum, 20lbs of latex and the smallest much less. The blocks were nothing like those which floated free from the Miyazaki Maru, they were of all shapes and sizes and sometimes modelled to represent various creatures. However, when they started to be bought for eventual export no extra was given for artistic merit, payment being made on the basis of weight alone.

Understandably, as there had previously been no export demand, information about where, beyond Singapore, the gutta percha tree grew had been hazy or none existent. As time went by the blank spaces on the map were filled in. There were certainly many trees in Johor and on the small islands in the Straits of Malacca. Sir James Brooke, the White Rajah of Sarawak, sent word that there were plenty on the east coast of Borneo and also in Sarawak itself, although he noted the inhabitants did not use the gum. Sumatra was also well stocked and it gradually became clear there were gutta percha trees all the way up the west coast of the Malay Peninsula towards Penang, which, along with Malacca and Singapore, was one of the three British Straits Settlements. Commercial agents based in George Town, the main town of the Penang settlement, initially knew nothing of this and, at first, sent down to Singapore for supplies when they began to receive shipping orders.

As the demand for exports increased so the price in Singapore increased too, rising threefold within two years, To meet the demand gutta percha trees were soon being felled and girdled wherever they could be found, which was a sure way of killing the goose that lay the golden egg. One commentator said the jungles of Johor;

were the scene of the earliest gatherings and they were ransacked in every direction by parties of Malays and Chinese, while the indigenous population gave themselves up to the search with an unanimity and zeal only to be equalled by the way in which the railway world agitated England about the same time.

The extent of the clearance to meet the growing demand was huge, an authoritative voice of the time estimating around 2,300 trees a month were cut down between January 1845 and June 1847. In the opinion of the author of Green’s publication, there was little fear of the supply becoming exhausted. However, even by 1851 there must have been concerns for by that time there were no longer any large gutta percha trees left standing on Singapore island.

The extracted gum of the gutta percha trees would be bought on the basis of weight, recorded in catties and piculs. These units were widely used in East Asia and the word picul is believed to come from the Malay word ‘pikul’, which meant the weight that could be carried on a shoulder. There were 100 catties in a picul but conversion to Imperial measures, as those used in Britain were called, was more problematic. One picul was rated as weighing 133lbs. As one hundredweight was actually 112 lbs, one picul weighed 1cwt and 21 lbs. All the weight conversions would have to be done by hard pressed clerks in trading company offices working without the benefit of electronic calculators. This must have been an exacting task as the total recorded weight of blocks exported to England rose from approximately 200 lbs in 1844 to 1,700,000 lbs in 1848.

The results of this ‘Gutta Percha mania’ were seen both on the increasing number of ships leaving Singapore with gutta percha on their manifest and in the denuded forests they left behind. Nearly all of the gutta percha consignments went to Britain, Wilkinson and Jewsbury receiving six in 1846, with the main one for 50 tons arriving on the Isabella in November.

Despite its importance, particularly to the Gutta Percha Company, the cargo of the Isabella was unloaded without fanfare as public focus remained on railways. The warning of the danger of speculation in railway shares published in the Wilkinson and Jewsbury circular was taken up and cited by a number of newspapers, although this probably had little or no impact on the submission of railway bills. As darkness fell on November 30th 1845 crowds watched as cabs, carrying the hopes of tens of thousands of railway project subscribers, raced to the government office where plans had to be deposited. December 1st would miss the deadline and any projects arriving on that day would not be considered in the next parliamentary session. Perhaps shareholders in the Regents Canal Company were buoyed up by the enthusiasm, hoping it would ensure they would be able to sell their shares at a good profit if the prospective Regents Canal Railway Company was successfully launched. Alas for them the clamour did not stretch to supporting that proposed railway. The subscription target for the new company was not reached and the project was declared void early in 1846.  

A few days after the late November stampede the Illustrated London News published an article linking railways with gutta percha. It concerned a railway propulsion system for which a patent had recently been granted to Nickels and Keene. This included an ingenious system under which compressed air, fed along a pipe that ran between the rails, was forced into two flexible tubes made of gutta percha. On inflation the tubes pressed against small wooden wheels fixed to a carriage and forced it forwards.

Quite when Nickels and Keene decided to develop their idea is unclear but the second talk at the March Society of Arts event had been about Pilbrow’s Atmospheric Railway, an innovation already well advanced and for which investors were clamouring for shares. If successful, the use of gutta percha in what the Illustrated London News called ‘Nickel’s New System of Railway Locomotion’ could help solve the problems of making mechanical devices both water and air tight. We might reflect on whether gutta percha seals may have made Congreve’s lock at Camden a success and so saved a great deal of money for the Regents Canal Company. The issue of the problem of making seals watertight might, or might not, have been apparent in the scale model of the lock shown to the directors in 1813 but it seems this was not displayed in a public place. Those produced for both the Nickels and the Pilbrow railway systems certainly were.

In the cold days of February 1846, Londoners seeking entertainment could make their way to the Royal Adelaide Gallery in the Lowther Arcade off the Strand. Here there was always plenty to enjoy and we can imagine granddad, once a midshipman at Trafalgar who had seen so many almost unbelievable changes in society since Napoleon’s final defeat, ushering his grandchildren through the door. Adverts said there would be models of the latest railway innovation and sure enough there were two, one powered by atmospheric pressure and another by compressed air. The children no doubt took these in their stride but the retired officer, barely used to steam locomotives, may have reflected on how difficult it was to keep up with technological changes which seemed to appear every day. Why, he had been convinced by his own daughter to go to the Royal Polytechnic Institution in Regent Street to have a Daguerreotype portrait made. Though feeling rather embarrassed on trying to pronounce the French word he had to admit the resulting little picture was a splendid likeness and showed he still cut a fine figure, although he secretly thought he would have looked finer still had he been allowed to wear his old naval uniform. As for the new material mentioned in the Illustrated London News about the Nickel’s railway, well he could, at least, be satisfied he had played a small part in ensuring the sea lanes from the Straits Settlements to Britain were securely in the hands of the most powerful navy in the world. This security was important as the amount of gutta percha to be exported might soon rise and importers needed to know it would not be intercepted on the way to British ports.

Back to Chapter 4    On to Chapter 6

Return to introduction

When London Became An Island

Gutta Percha comes to the Metropolis

Chapter 5  Killing the goose

Commanders and clippers

Tapping a rubber tree. Cambodia, C21st

Girdling a gutta percha tree. Sarawak, C19th

Gutta percha distribution on the Malay Peninsula