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Henry Nicholas Ridley

In the late 19th and early 20th century, botanist and geologist Henry Nicholas Ridley was largely responsible for launching the rubber industry in the Malay Peninsula.

He also discovered "tapping" (a method of extracting latex from the rubber trees which didn't damage them) to ensure mass rubber production was sustainable and environmentally-friendly.

Henry Nicholas Ridley

Credit: narumol pug / Adobe Stock

Born in West Harling, Norfolk, in December 1855, Ridley and his father moved to Cobham in Kent following his mother's death when he was only three years old.

As a child, he was fascinated by the study of insects and his passion for wildlife continued as a pupil at Haileybury boys' school and Exeter College, Oxford, where he studied zoology.


Early career

While studying at Oxford, Ridley took an interest in geology and botany. After graduating in 1878, he received a Burdett-Coutts scholarship to carry out research into fossils found in quarries near Oxford.

He went on to join the British Museum's botany department. In 1887, he took part in an expedition led by the Royal Society of London to the Isle of Fernando de Noronha, off the coast of Brazil.

In 1888, he left his job at the British Museum after successfully applying for the post of director of gardens and forests of the Botanic Gardens and the Straits Settlements in Singapore.

He began to learn about rubber cultivation after meeting Italian botanist and naturalist Odoardo Beccari and British botanist Henry Trimen, who worked in Singapore.


Rubber cultivation

While in Singapore, he experimented with Para rubber trees (Hevea Brasiliensis) and became convinced that cultivating rubber on plantations had enormous economic potential.

He developed the tapping method of collecting latex from the trees, which involved slicing a groove into the bark at a quarter-inch depth, peeling it back and letting the liquid rubber drip into a container. This method is still used today and allows the trees to replenish themselves, so they can grow and produce rubber for many years.

Ridley began campaigning to establish rubber plantations and by 1896, the first estates were planted, using seeds that he had cultivated. He lived in the Malay peninsula for 20 years and under his guidance, the rubber industry grew, with increasing numbers of people taking up rubber cultivation.

From its humble beginnings, thanks to Ridley's persistence, the rubber industry expanded into one of the Malay states' mainstays of the economy. He even earned the affectionate nickname, "Mad Ridley", due to his passion for rubber cultivation and his persistence in establishing a thriving industry.


Later life

After officially retiring from his role as director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens in 1912, Ridley continued with his botanic research and became a highly-respected author.

He carried out extensive studies of plants in the Malay Peninsula and published numerous articles and a five-volume book, Flora of the Malay Peninsula, containing the results of his research, in 1925.

He was awarded the Linnean Medal in 1950, at the age of 95, by the Linnean Society of London - an accolade given to either a botanist or a zoologist each year in recognition of their outstanding work.

The important role he had played in establishing the rubber industry in the Malay Peninsula was recognised on his 100th birthday in 1955, when he received a visit from the High Commissioner of Malaya. He died just two months short of his 101st birthday in Kew, London.

Coruba is one of the leading UK manufacturers and suppliers of industrial, commercial and residential rubber products, including standard and bespoke items. Give us a call on +44(0)1702 560194 or email info@coruba.co.uk for information on our wide range of rubber matting and other products.

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