For the descendents of Richard Dearie and his son John Russell


A Short history of the firm Messrs. J. A. Russell & Co. Ltd. and the Russell Family compiled in 1954 by the remaining survior – Donald Russell

Although the Company was not formed until the year 1904, its founder’s connection with Malaya dates back 64 years when four brothers arrived from England in Kuala Lumpur.

It may be of interest to present residents to have some idea of conditions as they were in these far off days. There was no rail or road connection between the Malay States, which were not then Federated, and either Singapore or Penang. Arrivals came up by small steamships operated by the Straits Streamship Company, and on this particular occasion the family traveled by S.S. “Sapho”. The vessel steamed past what is now Port Swettenham up the Klang River to a point just above Klang Village. A few years prior to that the point of disembarkation was at the village of Damansara being the place of disembarkation accounts for the name of the village of Batu Tiga (three miles) – three miles away – and for the 17th mile stone just outside the Masonic Hall of the Damansara Road.

In 1890, Kuala Lumpur was quite a small town with merely a handful of Europeans, mostly in the employ of the Selangor Government but with a sprinkling of planters engaged in the production of indigo and some contractors building the railway and on road construction. The club was a wood and attap affair situated on the corner of the Padang nearest Gombak bridge. This was superseded by a two-storeyed brick building on the present site and replaced in 1904 by the present building. The government Offices were on the hill over-looking the present Club – those on Jalan Rajah being erected in 1896 prior to which the site was occupied by Chinese shop houses backing on to the river. In 1892 a branch line to the railway was opened to Pudu and it is unfortunate that during the Japanese occupation of Hongkong the writer lost an invitation to the opening ceremony issued to his father. After the first world war the line passed through Kuala Lumpur was removed and the bed of the track turned into what is now Avenue Foch.

The Chinese community was headed by a senior member and named the “Capitan China”. The first of these was Yap Ah Loy after whom was called the street of that name. Gambling and Opium smoking were legal and good revenue was obtained each year from renting out under tender the right to operate what was called Gambling and Opium Farms. The local Dollar was based on the price of silver as in Hongkong and China and in 1880 was around 5/- in value. The big silver slump of 1893 which caused such chaos in the States also had its effect in Selangor and it is said that Towkay Loke Yew came to the rescue of the State in the matter of financing its commitments in return for which he received valuable concessions, which added greatly to his wealth.

The family suffered a bereavement in January 1893 when Mrs. Russell met with a fatal carriage accident in Singapore whilst there in holiday with some of the children. Soon after four of the children including “JA” were sent to England but they returned to Selangor again in 1897. After spending some months in becoming a proficient scholar in the Malay language both orally and in Jawi, “J.A.” joined the Straits Trading Co. whose buying office and assay rooms were in Market Street and he remained with them for some four years during which time he took up the study of Chinese and became probably the finest Chinese scholar Malaya has known, speaking fluently Cantonese, Hokkien, Haka and Mandarin together with both reading and writing. In 1903 an American concern opened up in Kuala Lumpur and were known as the International Tin Co. Their object was to work on the same lines as the Straits Trading Co. in the purchase of tin ore but for shipment to the States for smelting and refining. They asked “J.A.” to join them as Manager realizing that his knowledge of Chinese would be of the greatest assistance in promoting the welfare of the Company. Unfortunately things did not work out as was expected as the Governor in Singapore – Sir Frank Swettenham – in order to protect the smelting industry of the city, imposed an Export duty of 100% on tin ore. During his short connection with the American Company “J. A. “ had become well known to a number of Chinese tin mine owners who being able to converse with him easily in their own language often brought him mining prospects. He was also, at about this time, appointed by the Courts as Administrator of a Chinese estate of fairly large proportions on the basis of a good monthly fee and commission. He therefore decided to start his own company and in 1904 the firm of J. A. Russell came into being. Being engaged in the mining industry it was decided that the writer who was in England again, having been sent there in 1902, should go to study mining at the still well known School of Mines in Colorado U.S.A. with the object of joining the firm after his training. In 1906 the youngest member of the family – “Bob” came out from England to join the firm.

With the introduction of synthetic indigo in Germany in 1890 the planting industry of that commodity had long since ceased to be profitable and planters had turned their attention to the cultivation of coffee. This too suffered extinction in around 1905 as the result of a heavy price fall and the incidence of a disease which literally wiped out all coffee estates from Penang to Singapore. Attention was then directed to rubber and, as known, it has grown into one of the major industries of Malaya. It was not however until 1908 that “J. A. “ interested himself in the new industry and in the meantime he took up contracting mainly in tendering and securing work on the formation of new roads. He also became interested in property in Kuala Lumpur which, as the town grew, proved a fine investment. The real boom in rubber started in 1909 and good advantage was taken of the situation and with profits made, further property was acquired including a large part of Kampong Malacca. It is interesting to recall that on St. George Day 1910 rubber touched 13/8d. a lb, and “J. A. “ luckily decided to dispose of all of his various shareholdings. He had been operating for some two years a tin mine at Kepong and the writer well remembers having to pedal cycle out to the mine once a month with the wages in cash strapped to the back of the saddle. A French Syndicate became interested in the property and a sale was arranged at a good figure.

“Bob” Russell left the firm when the rubber boom started and joined Baxendale and Devitt – later on known as the Planters Stores. This firm was engaged in share broking and offered Bob a very handsome salary and commission. He left them when the boom collapsed and then joined Adolf Henggeler but finally returned to J. A. Russell & Co. in 1916.

In 1909 it was decided to build a new Railway Station in K. L. The firm were successful in their tender in their tender in conjunction with another brother “P. C. “ who was a qualified architect. The basis of the arrangement was that “P. C. “ should attend to the actual work of building, whilst “J. A. “ would be responsible for the heavy finance. It was a big job taking nearly three years to complete and running into millions.

In 1910 the firm was heavily engaged in rubber and floated a number new companies including New Serendah, Kamasan, Otan Simpan, Amalgamated Malay etc. It also purchased for itself an estate at Sungei Tua and later-on a large estate at Tenang in Johore.

The writer having completed his four years course in mining in the States returned to Malaya at the end of 1909. His first assignment was to report on the possibilities of discovery of coal at what is now known as Batu Arang. The reason for the report was that Government had called for tenders to work the deposit and “J. A. “ had thought it worth looking into. The tender was not successful and the rights to work given to someone in England who soon afterwards sold his right to a Syndicate in London composed of retired Malayan residents. After two years work on the property the Syndicate were advised the mine was of no great value. “J. A. “ happened to be on holiday in England at the time and met an old friend of the family who was a member of the syndicate and who had previously been the Senior Warden of Mines. This gentleman was still optimistic in regard to the possibilities of the deposit and intimated that he felt sure the syndicate would be prepared to sell out. Details were fixed, option money paid and “J. A. “ returned to float the company in 1913.

It was tough going at first. Several people who had intimated they were prepared to subscribe withdraw as a slump had taken place in rubber which had fallen to 8/- a lb! “J. A. “ raised all the money possible on his investments and subscribed for shares whilst he also took his profit in shares. Machinery etc. was ordered but the advent of war the following year made deliveries difficult and it was really not until 1918 that the Collieries got really going.

Returning to some of his property deals, he also around 1911 purchased from the Estate of Yau Tat Shin a number of houses in Seremban, but this was only a step for a much bigger deal with the same estate. It was achieved two years later when he became the owner of the whole of the New Town in Ipoh at a figure in excess of 1 ½ million dollars.

At the end of the war the writer who had been serving with the Royal Engineers in France, returned to Kuala Lumpur and shortly after “J. A. “ expressed the desire to extend his activities. Towards this end he purchased an old established business in Hongkong and with a branch in London and businesses in Shanghai and Tientsin. The writer moved up to China to manage them.

In 1927 after thoroughly studying the matter of tea, which he considered might be grown as a secondary industry in Malaya which so far was dependent upon Tin and Rubber only, and coming to the conclusion from statistics that high level tea seemed to weather periodic slumps he got in touch with A.B. Milne an old Ceylon tea planter, and together they applied for and obtained a large area in the Cameron Highlands which was at the time being opened up. After a year of so he bought out Milne and became the sole owner of Boh Estate which now has a planted area of some 1500 acres.

The writer was made a partner in 1913 and remained on until 1933 when “J. A. “ succumbed to an internal ailment and passed away on April 7th that year It took a long time to wind up his estate and so it was not until the following year that the partnership was converted into a private limited liability company in which capacity it still operates today.

About 1920 H.H.Robbins an Australian joined the Company and after managing the Company’s Wolfram mine in Kedah and Sungei Tua Rubber Estate in Selangor joined the staff in K.L. and he followed J. A. Russell as head of the Firm and as Chairman of Malayan Collieries Ltd. He shared J. A. R’s enthusiasm for expanding the Colliery and developing Boh Plantations tea estate. To the Colliery was added a modern power plant, a brick and tile works, a Plywood factory an a wood Distillation plant, and at the Tea estate a modern factory was built.

About 1929 consideration was given to the possibility of a Cement works with the idea of meeting the need for cement and creating further demand for coal.

In 1932 a Cement Consultant was employed to investigate the suitability of raw materials and to prepare a project and later the project was considered in conjunction with the A.P.C.M. Ltd.

Agreements between the Company and the A.P.C.M. were reaching finality when the advent of the 1939 war put execution of the project out of the question and the occupation of Malaya by the Japanese put it back for another period of years.

After the Liberation, interest was renewed and after various impediments Malayan Cement Ltd. was registered in 1950 and the Works were opened by His Excellency in July 1953.

H.H.Robbins died during internment, and the Company lost a very valuable man. Bob Russell retired from Malaya in 1937 but returned with the Malayan Planning Unit to assist in the rehabilitation of Malayan Collieries Ltd., of which he was Managing Director until 1947 when he again retired. He died in London in 1948.

The rehabilitation of the Firm and its various interests after the liberation was carried out by J.H. Clarkson and J. Drysdale who were mainly responsible for the floating of the Cement Company. Unfortunately J.H.Clarkson was killed by terriorists in 1950 during a visit to Sungei Tua Estate at Batu Caves.

The Malay Mail, 50 years of Progress Supplement

Sunday Mail 18 July 1954


He laid the foundations of a fortune in 1890

Fifty years ago it was still possible to lay the foundations of a fortune in Kuala Lumpur - and this is the story of a man who did so, a European who lived at the time of the fabulous Towkay Loke Yew, a little after Capitan China Yap Ah Loy and many other famous names – Mr J.A. Russell, founder of the present Kuala Lumpur company of J. A Russell and Co.

Studious, cynical at times, he started as an assistant, learnt to speak Chinese, and went on to build Kula Lumpur’s present day railway station, found the coal and tea industries, and own a large proportion of the new town of Ipoh. A contemporary wrote, “ His whole career has been a business romance of such magnitude that it can hardly be compared with the achievements of any other European in Malaya – past or present. He acquired both wealth and a unique commercial position by pluck, industry sound sense and vision”

The story is told by Mr. D. O Russell, the remaining survivor of the Russell family which came to Malaya in the 1890s.