The right people in the right place: Australian mining technology in Perak tin-fields—the early years

Khoo Salma Nasution, Vice-President, Penang Heritage Trust

Most historical writing on early tin-mining history in Malaya has largely relied on colonial records and British accounts. The book, Kinta Valley: Pioneering Malaysia’s Modern Development (Khoo, S. N. and Abdur-Razzaq Lubis, 2005), which I co-authored in 2005, was no exception. Soon after its publication, I received a critical email:

The recent book on the Kinta Valley published by Perak Academy is very good although it commits a bit of heresy, possibly because the antecedence of the bucket dredge was not appreciated and so the presence of NZ and Australian dredge-men has not got due glory spot.

This comment came from Damien Hynes, an Australian researcher whose grandfather, born in Waipori in 1876, had worked on the gold dredge in New Zealand (‘NZ’) and then in Ovens Valley, Victoria, Australia, before he joined his classmates in Ipoh by signing up with a tin dredging company in 1925. So began my long but intermittent collaboration with Hynes on the miners in Perak, who came from the land ‘Down Under’. 1

Alluvial mining technology for both gold and tin are highly transferrable, so it is no surprise to find Australian miners venturing into the Malay states’ tin-fields. James Williams, a Victorian miner who became inspector of mines in Selangor, was said, in 1879, to have been prospecting in Perak since 1872. William Scott, a well-known miner from Sandhurst, Bendigo, Victoria, experimented with shafting in the Larut area under Patrick Doyle’s supervision, and later became inspector of mines in Perak (Birch, 1976, pp. 26–27 and Doyle, 1879, pp. 15–16). 2

For hundreds of years, the indigenous people in the Siamese–Malay peninsula have been extracting tin, a metal sought after by Indian traders. Even before British arrival in the region, the local Malay and Siamese chiefs had successfully engaged Chinese headmen to organize labour for the mines. Chinese and Sumatran miners brought or innovated various mechanical water-lifting devices and smelting furnaces. As the British Resident of Perak in 1877–1889, Hugh Low was instrumental in introducing Western technology into the Perak mines in 1878, in the form of the portable steam-powered centrifugal pump.

But did the transfer of modern technology flow only from North to South? Or did it occasionally flow from the South as well? A work on recent conceptualizations of eco-cultural networks states the need to rethink the divisions between cultural and material approaches to the environmental history of the British Empire, to emphasize relational connections in making networks, and to focus anew on questions of agency—in short, the right people in the right place:

The work of James Beattie examines how some nineteenth-century Chinese seized on the opportunities presented by British imperialism to take advantage of resource frontiers opening up in places like Australia and New Zealand. He shows how British military expansion set up the pre-eminence of the colonial entrepôt of Hong Kong, but also connected Chinese migrants with international shipping networks and newly opening British imperial commodity frontiers. His work reveals the porous boundaries of the British Empire and the unexpected connections they fostered (Beattie, Melillo, and O’Gorman, 2014, p. 572).

From the early 19th century, tin mining in Malaya quickly expanded through the agency of Chinese fraternal associations (which the colonial administration called ‘secret societies’), based in the Straits Settlements, where it sourced mercantile capital, mining provisions, and Chinese labour. British colonial expansionism took advantage of local conflicts between Malay chiefs—using the excuse that they were disrupting the Straits interests—to impose political control on the Malay states from 1874. Both British administrators and Chinese mining entrepreneurs had a hand in encouraging early Australian ventures in Perak’s tin mining.

Owing to a general lack of interest from British investors, Hugh Low felt justified in inviting French companies to try their hand at tin exploitation. The French Société des Etains de Kinta, which ran an open-cast mine with labour-intensive methods, became the most successful European company in Kinta, operating for almost a century, from 1886 until 1985. The one large British concern during Low’s term as Resident was the Perak Tin Mining and Smelting Company Limited (of Shanghai), financed mainly by European merchants in Shanghai, which operated unsuccessfully from 1883 until 1890 (Straits Times Weekly Issue, 1884, p. 5 and 1890, p. 2).

Influence of Sir Fredrick Weld

In 1880, Sir Fredrick Weld took up his position as the Governor of the Straits Settlements, after serving as Governor of Western Australia (1869–1874) and Governor of Tasmania (1875–1880). At his instigation, two Australian companies started mining tin in Perak in 1883 (Wong, 1964, p. 137). The Perak Tin Mining Company NL (of Sandhurst), formed in Bendigo, was subsequently superseded by the Sandhurst Tin Mining Company operating the same concession. The Melbourne Tin Mining Company was founded by investors from Melbourne. The two companies lasted 11 and 10 years respectively (Birch, 1976, pp. 28–29).

As British Resident of Perak, Frank Swettenham lamented that all the above companies could not compete with Chinese miners, as they were run along top-down Western lines and spent most of their capital on managerial salaries and expenses, but without bringing the advantages of any superior European methods. Hence, they were short-lived (Swettenham, 1893, p. 341 and Wong, 1965, p. 138). Indeed, a newspaper article on ‘Mining in the Malay Peninsula’ encapsulated the wisdom of the day:

... experience gained has shown that what is true in other parts of the world is equally true in regard to the Malay Peninsula, viz. that alluvial mining will pay Chinese but will not pay Europeans, and that the only kinds of mining that will pay Europeans there, as elsewhere, are either tin lodes or gold-bearing quartz reefs, at least so far as these two metals are concerned (Straits Times Weekly Issue, 1889, p. 4).

However, the assumption that the first Australian companies in Perak met with failure is refuted by Birch (1976). He points out that as far as limited evidence would show, the Australian investors ventured into Malaya when tin prices were high, made a profit, and left when investment prospects were better in Australia (Birch, 1976, pp. 28, 34–35). Birch explains that the reason for their relative success, compared with other European companies of the period, was that Australians miners were used to dealing with the Chinese:

Two-thirds of the labour employed in the tin-mining industry of New South Wales, for instance was Chinese, and there were doubtless many Chinese employed on the Tasmanian mine-fields. Australians were accustomed to employing the Chinese under the tribute system, where the owners of the mine were essentially preferred shareholders, and the labourers were ordinary shareholders. The mine-owner supplied the necessary capital equipment and in return received an agreed proportion of any profit from the sale of the mine’s output. The balance of the profits went first to the gang boss and then to the labourers (Birch, 1976, p. 45).

The first Australian companies brought investment to Perak, but apparently did nothing noteworthy in terms of transferring technology. Rather, these Australian miners secured concessions from the government at low cost and then let them out to Chinese miners to operate on tribute (Birch, 1976).

An early open cast Malayan tin mine

British colonialism created the conditions for transregional movements of capital and labour, and thus enabled the unprecedented expansion of extractive industries across the empire, at the expense of indigenous peoples and the environment. Like the tin-fields in the Malay States, the gold-fields in Victoria, Australia, were a land of opportunity for emigrants from southern China. Chinese business networks operated between Penang and Australia, exchanging business intelligence, contacts, and resources with other overseas Chinese, particularly through their connections in the British colonial outposts of Penang, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

Low Ah Chong was a Penang headman of the Hai San society, which organized mining operations in Perak (Loh et al. 2013, p. 187). His son Lowe Kong Meng (1831–1888), who studied in Penang and Mauritius, arrived in Australia in 1853 during the gold rush in Victoria. He supplied provisions to Chinese miners and invested in gold, silver, and coal mining, becoming one of the richest men in Melbourne. His trading network extended to Calcutta, Singapore, Hong Kong, and London (Macgregor, 2012). Commemorating deep-rooted links to Perak, the Lowe family’s Victorian homestead was called Karep—‘Perak’ written backwards.

Lowe’s business associate Louis Ah Mouy (1826–1918) built mining cottages in Victoria (Ching, 1969). At the turn of the 20th century, he invested in tin mining in Perak, with two Australia-born Chinese, Claude Ley Kum and Wooi Lim Seng; the latter sat on the Perak Chinese Advisory Board with Foo Choo Choon, owner of the Tronoh Mines (Straits Telegraph and Daily Advertiser, 1899, p. 3 and Eastern Daily Mail and Straits Morning Advertiser, 1905, p. 3).

John Addis and the Tronoh Mines

John Addis (1833–1908) was the first Australian mining engineer to introduce Victorian-style deep alluvial shaft mining as well as the first puddling machines in the Federated Malay States (The Straits Times, 1913, p. 9). Born in Olverston, Gloucestershire, in southwest England, Addis migrated with his family to Australia in 1854. He worked in the gold-mines of Ballarat, Daylesford, and Melbourne in Victoria, and operated tin mines at Ringarooma, Tasmania, and Tingha, New South Wales, while ‘twice being declared insolvent and fathering sixteen children through three marriages’ (Haygarth, 2017, p. 75 and Times of Malaya, 1905). In terms of practical methods, Addis can be regarded as ‘a good example of the ability of the gold-miner to easily transfer his skills to tin-mining’ (Birch, 1976, p. 41).

Addis arrived in Perak in 1891 to take up the position of mine manager with the Melbourne Tin Mining Company. After the company was liquidated in 1893, Addis left to start his own concern, a deep alluvial mine at Bukit Mas (literally, Gold Hill), in the Tapah–Bidor area. Here he lived in a ‘plain weatherboard structure with attap roof’. Finding conditions similar to the Mount Morgan mine in Queensland, he tunnelled an inclined shaft into the hill and trucked the alluvial out on a tramline (Mid-Day Herald, 1895, p. 7). As well as using a battery in the mine, Addis engaged a chemist from Australia, who pioneered the Macarthur–Forrest cyanide process for winning gold in Malaya (Mid-day Herald, 1895, p. 3). Running out of capital, Addis then sold his mine and went to work for Foo Choo Choon. By this time, the tin rush in Kinta was in full swing.

Since 1893, the Tronoh Mines were partly owned and partly leased by Foo Choo Choon, who patented a Chinese invention to raise the pay dirt:
… a Chinese water wheel driven by steam, with ledges set along the chain upon which the baskets of wash dirt are placed by the hands in the mine, and which are again removed by hands at the top (Ingham and Bradford, 1960, pp. 156–158, 171–172; Khoo, S. N. and Abdur-Razzaq Lubis, 2005, p. 79).
The ‘Endless Chain Earth Lifter’ proved unsuccessful due to high working costs. The Scottish mining pioneer Grant Mackie, who was also involved in the Tronoh Mines in the initial stage, later confessed that he, too, lacked the methods to work tin alluvial deeper than 40 feet (The Straits Times, 1913, p. 9).

Chang Yin Fatt was the capable overseer of the open-cast mine which employed 1,500 Chinese labourers, puddling with changkol and reducing the pay-dirt by hand. When Addis took charge in July 1897, he requested Mexican$12,000 capital to build puddling machines:
When the Chinese towkays and workmen saw the massive timber works going up to carry the puddlers they told Foo Choon I would ruin him. He told them to mind their own business, that I was spending his money not theirs. In three months, I had the machines working. Then when they saw they were a success, they said that the “orang puteh” [white man] was very clever. And now there are about forty of these machines working here; and the Towkays reckon that one machine is equal to one hundred men (The Straits Times, 1902, p. 3).
Proving the pay-dirt to be 140 feet thick, Addis sank a deep shaft to reach the deep alluvial layer and personally trained 250 workers to work the mines (Straits Times Weekly Issue, 1904, p. 5; Singapore Free Press, 1908, p. 8; Wong, 1965, p. 200). After making a profit of Straits$20,000 per month for three years, the success of the Tronoh Mines attracted the interest of Cornwall stockbroker James Wickett and his son, mining engineer Fred Wickett. Based on Fred’s prospecting report, Tronoh Mines Ltd was floated in December 1901, through his father’s agency, for Straits$1 million, half in cash and half in shares. In 1902, Fred became the manager of the Tronoh Mines (Khoo, S. N. and Abdur-Razzaq Lubis, 2005, p. 106).

Exiting the company, Addis handed over operations to his successors. The new chairman, James Wickett, ignored Addis’s instructions, but chose to blame his predecessor for the mine’s subsequent poor performance. Addis wrote a letter to the newspapers to demand a public apology: he explained that the machines erected on the Tronoh Mines were ‘a Ballarat invention, and have been working in Victoria for more than forty years’, but the only difference was that in Tronoh they were made of wood instead of cast iron, and some modifications had been customized. In defending his reputation, he boasted:
Ballarat, as acknowledged by Americans and all other visitors, is, or was, the leading alluvial goldfield in the world. Its engineers, mechanical and mining, hold their own among the best from other parts of the world; and I must, at the risk of being thought egotistical, inform you that I graduated in practical underground work in the Ballarat deep alluvial leads in the early fifties, and afterwards at the Ballarat School of Mines, from which I hold a certificate (Straits Times Weekly Issue, 1904, p. 5).
Addis, who had earned the moniker ‘father of the Tronoh Mines’, bristled at the lack of respect shown to him by the Cornwall miners. He left Ipoh for Singapore in 1905 and then to Australia for a holiday of about six months:
Mr Addis now wears a magnificent diamond and sapphire ring, which was presented to him on leaving. It is no secret to state that the Towkay has settled a handsome pension on the man who helped so well to build up his enormous fortune (Times of Malaya, 1905).
Instead of retiring, Addis was raising support for his own mining venture at Sungai Raia in Kinta. The Sungei Raia Tin Mines company was formed as a ‘no liability’ company with capital raised from Melbourne investors. Addis was the managing director in Perak, while R. Archbold was chairman and G.E. Robinson legal manager, with offices at 317 Collins Street, Melbourne (The Argus, Melbourne, 1908, p. 10). All the machinery was manufactured in Melbourne, and shipped out in around April 1906 (Sunday Times, Sydney, 1906). The Melbourne businessman Louis Ah Mouy, an original shareholder and board member of the company, visited Perak and on his return insisted on one-tenth of the shares in any formation (Melbourne Punch, 1906, pp. 9–10).

The Sungei Raia Tin Mines occupied 60 acres, already tested by means of bores and shafts. When an inrush of underground water flooded the mines, Addis ordered a ‘complete tin-dredging plant’ from Messrs Thompson and Co., of Castlemaine, Victoria. This was to be driven by two powerful suction gas engines, with a nozzle plant and a gravel-pumping plant erected on a pontoon (Bundarra and Tingha Advocate, 1906). But with all these great plans pending, Addis passed away at his residence in Tambun Road, Ipoh in 1908 (Singapore Free Press, 1908, p. 8). His body was taken to the Batu Gajah cemetery on a gun carriage drawn by a detachment of Sikh police, his coffin covered by a Union Flag (Birch, 1976, pp. 83–84).

In the meantime, the management of Tronoh Mines reverted to deploying Australian mining experts. In August 1907, the manager of Tronoh Mines at the time, Bruce Campbell, was in Ballarat and Maryborough, Queensland, for the purpose of engaging ‘six thoroughly experienced alluvial miners’ as overseers for the Tronoh Mines. The miners would be offered a salary of £300 sterling a year with free furnished quarters (The Straits Times, 1907, p. 7). The land concessions were expanded at various times, and by 1911, the Tronoh Mines were the largest producer of tinstone in the world. Chinese investors held about 90 per cent of the shares. Foo Choo Choon, who stayed on as the only Chinese director of a company floated in Britain before the First World War, made his reputation as ‘the richest Chinaman in the world’ (Khoo, S. N. and Abdur-Razzaq Lubis, 2005, pp. 79–80; Ho, 2009).

Concluding Remarks

As the Malayan tin-fields proved themselves, they began to attract Western capital in a big way through stock exchanges in the United Kingdom and Australia. While the search for less labour-intensive technologies continued, the 1910s would see a second wave of Australian investment in tin mining. Having made a success of hydraulic mining in Perak with the use of gravel pumps and monitors, the legendary firm Osborne & Chappel began to advance suction cutter technology (Palmer and Joll, 2011). But it was the bucket dredge, introduced to Southeast Asia by a Tasmanian entrepreneur in 1906, that trumped all other methods for large-scale tin extraction. British firms in Malaya adopted the bucket dredging technology from 1913 and continued to recruit, among others, Australian and New Zealand mining talent to work in the tin-fields of Malaya.

Tanjung Tualang Tin Dredge No. 5
Further reading:

Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,

Beattie, J., Melillo, E. and O’Gorman, E. 2014. ‘Rethinking the British Empire through Eco-Cultural Networks: Materialist-Cultural Environmental History, Relational Connections and Agency’. Environment and History, vol. 20, pp. 561–575.

Birch, F.D. 1976. ‘Tropical Milestones: Australian Gold and Tin Mining Investments in Malaya and Thailand, 1880–1930’. M.A. Thesis, University of Melbourne.

Bundarra and Tingha Advocate. 1906, 27 October.

Ching, F. Y. 1969. ‘Ah Mouy, Louis (1826–1918)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 13 September 2020. This article was first published in hard copy in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3 (MUP), 1969.

Cowan, C. D. (ed.). 2012. The Economic Development of South-East Asia: Studies in Economic History and Political Economy. London: Routledge.

Doyle, P. 1879. Tin Mining in Larut. London: Spon.

Eastern Daily Mail and Straits Morning Advertiser. 1905, 15 September.

Haygarth, N. 2017. ‘“Cornwall of the antipodes”: the “Cornish” Tin Boom at Mount Heemskirk, Tasmania, 1881–1884’. Journal of Australasian Mining History. 2017. vol. 15, pp. 65–80.

Ho, T. M. 2009. When Tin was King. Ipoh: Perak Academy.

Ingham, F. T. and Bradford, E. F. 1960. The Geology and Mineral Resources of the Kinta Valley, Perak. Kuala Lumpur: Government Printer.

Khoo, S. N. and Abdur-Razzaq Lubis. 2005. Kinta Valley: Pioneering Malaysia’s Modern Development. Ipoh: Perak Academy.

Loh, W. L., Badriyah Haji Salleh, Mahani Musa, Wong, Y.T. and Langdon, M. (eds.). 2013. Biographical Dictionary of Mercantile Personalities of Penang. Penang and Kuala Lumpur: Think City & MBRAS.

Macgregor, P. 2012. ‘Lowe Kong Meng and Chinese Engagement in the International Trade of Colonial Victoria’. Provenance: The Journal of Public Record Office Victoria, No. 11., accessed online 13 September 2020.

‘Lowe Kong Meng (1831–1888)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 13 September 2020. This article was first published in hard copy in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5 (MUP), 1974.

Melbourne Punch. 1906, 9 August.

Mid-day Herald, Singapore. 1895, 8 April.

Palmer, D. and Joll, M. 2011. Tin Mining in Malaysia, 1800–2000: The Osborne & Chappel Story. Gopeng: Muzium Gopeng.

Straits Telegraph and Daily Advertiser. 1899, 12 May.

Straits Times Weekly Issue. 1884, 7 May.

______ 1889, 30 September.

______ 1890, 9 July.

Sunday Times, Sydney. 1906, 25 March.

Swettenham, F. A. 1893. About Perak. Singapore: Straits Times Press.

The Argus, Melbourne. 1908, March 9. The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser. 1895, 5 January.

The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser. 1908, 10 July.

The Straits Times. 1902, 31 July.

The Straits Times. 1904, 15 March.

The Straits Times. 1907, 13 September.

The Straits Times. 1913, 2 June.

Times of Malaya. 1905, 13 September.

Wong, L. K. 1964. ‘Western Enterprise and the Development of the Malayan Tin Industry to 1914’. In The Economic Development of South-East Asia: Studies in Economic History and Political Economy, Cowan, C. D. (ed.). London: Routledge.

Wong, L. K. 1965. The Malayan Tin Industry to 1914. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

1 I would like to acknowledge the support provided by Damien Hynes, now in Melbourne, for this article.

2 In his thesis, Birch questioned conventional interpretations of Australia’s economic development and pointed to ‘an embarrassing richness of examples of Australian mining investment in the mining industries of many other Pacific and Asian countries before the Second World War’. This work has somehow not been adequately incorporated into Malaysian mining history.


c/o Asia-Europe Institute
University of Malaya,
50603 Kuala Lumpur

Install EHM PWA App

Generic Popup