In May 1917 the Miyazaki Maru, a Japanese liner bound from Yokahama to London, was spotted by a German submarine when about 150 miles west of the Isles of Scilly. At that time, as Japan was allied with Britain, the vessel was regarded as fair game by Walter Schwieger, captain of Unterseeboot 88. Schwieger had previously sunk the Lusitania and it was not long before the Miyazaki Maru too disappeared below the waves.

It appears the wreck of the Japanese vessel remained undisturbed for the best part of a century and then, when an attempt was made at salvage, remaining elements of the cargo floated free and were washed up where ocean currents took them. After reports that blocks of a rubber-like substance, stamped with the letters TJIPETIR, had been found as far apart as the coasts of Norway and Spain, the British government’s Receiver of Wreck intimated they probably came from the hold of the Miyazaki Maru. This put paid to speculation the flotsam may have been released from the last resting place of the Titanic. Further investigation discovered Tjipetir was the name of a village on the Indonesian island of Lingga where, until a few years ago, a plantation of gutta percha trees produced a kind of latex gum. Such gum, when processed, became widely used in Victorian Britain but the product is now almost forgotten - except by a certain profession. The gum extracted in Tjipetir had been moulded into blocks for easy transport.

It appears gutta percha was first imported into England in the middle of the C17th. However, it would hardly have been in quantity and in fact there is record of only a single piece. During the early part of the century John Tradescant, a well known gardener and botanist, acquired all kinds natural curiosities and created a collection, which he called The Ark, at his home in Lambeth. After his death The Ark was maintained by his son, also called John, who in 1656 published a catalogue of the contents entitled Musaeum Tradescantianum where reference was made to 'plyable mazer wood'. Quite how this material came into the hands of the Tradenscants is unclear but both had extensive connections with other gardeners and were always on the look out for anything unusual, which plyable mazer wood certainly was. Anyone delving into the catalogue may have been intrigued to read that after being warmed in water the substance would work to any form. In fact, it was the latex gum of a particular kind of tree that could be fashioned like that. After emerging through a bark fissure the gum coagulated, becoming quite solid when exposed to air. However, it could be softened again if plunged into water at just below boiling point and once treated in this way the solid became pulpy. It could then be shaped to make all kinds of items that, as the material cooled, became rigid again.  Despite its unusual qualities, this novelty of The Ark remained overlooked in Britain for almost two hundred years. Then, when it re-appeared, gutta percha replaced the name plyable mazer wood.

The person usually given most credit for drawing attention to gutta percha in early Victorian Britain was a Scottish doctor. After being sent to Singapore in the early 1820s William Montgomerie, an employee of the East India Company, became intrigued on hearing about an obscure and unusual material, although he said he never actually set eyes on any and was unable to obtain anything made from it before being redeployed to India. Montgomerie did not return to live in Singapore for some years but once he re-established himself on the island he again tried to seek out the elusive substance. Finally, in 1842, he was able to purchase a Malay parang (a kind of fusion of knife and machete) with a gutta percha (or gutta tuban as it was also called) handle. After conducting experiments Montgomerie decided the material might be useful in surgery and so of interest to the Medical Board in Calcutta, which subsequently made a positive appraisal and asked the doctor to obtain as much as he could. Arrangements were also made to send samples London.

At this stage Montgomerie may well have been in contact with José d’Almeida, another prominent resident of Singapore. D’Almeida was a well known and wealthy Portuguese trader who, like Montgomerie, had a medical background. He was also a landowner with horticultural interests in a Singapore that was continuing to expand as a commercial hub, greatly benefiting from the growing export trade. As d’Almeida had twenty children, there would have been no problem in staffing D’Almeida and Sons, his successful family trading company.

Given their mutual interests perhaps the two doctors discussed the potential uses of gutta percha. D’Almeida also collected samples, although evidently as curiosities rather than as a base for commercial or medical development, and when visiting London in early 1843 gave a lecture about the material at the Royal Asiatic Society. Of course, as success has many fathers, it was probably inevitable others would also claim responsibility for the discovery. A book entitled Gutta Percha, its discovery, history and manifold uses, written anonymously but published by Benjamin L. Green of Paternoster Row, which was the centre of the London publishing trade, cited Thomas Lobb as someone who might be considered for the accolade. Lobb was a widely travelled plant collector who left for Java and China in early 1843 on Captain Belcher’s  H.M.S. Samarang. This was, according to an item in several newspapers, on account of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. However, Lobb, who also acted as an agent for an Exeter plant company, did not himself lay claim to anything beyond identifying and then collecting samples of the tree producing gutta percha, a link which had not been previously proved by Montgomerie.

No matter who was credited with raising the profile, the commercial opportunities inherent in exploiting gutta percha soon spurred a desire amongst entrepreneurs in Great Britain and Ireland to obtain samples for experimentation. These investigations were not simply to see how the gum might be used but also to explore the possibility of mixing it with other substances to find a compound that would support flexibility without detriment to other positive qualities. If successful, such trials might facilitate patent registrations for practical applications. As patents could guarantee a steady income they were jealously guarded and any infringement often led to a court case. Inevitably, such an opportunity to make money stimulated action to be ahead of the field and the first person to find success with a gutta percha patent was Charles Hancock, the son of a Marlborough cabinet maker. Hancock had made a name for himself as a noted painter of thoroughbred horses but also developed a skill in chemical analysis that was put to good use when he came across gutta percha. He immediately saw the wealth generating potential of this product of south-east Asia.

On to Chapter 2

Return to introduction

When London Became An Island

Gutta Percha comes to the Metropolis

Chapter 1 - Blocks from the deep

Commanders and clippers

The Miyazaki Maru

The gutta percha plant

Musaeum Tradescantianum