Henry Nicholas Ridley

Henry Nicholas Ridley C.M.G. (1911), M.A. (Oxon), F.R.S., F.L.S., F.R.H.S. (b. 10 December 1855, West Harling Hall, Norfolk, England–d. 24 October 1956, Kew, Surrey, England) was a botanist, geologist and the first scientific director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens from 1888 to 1911. He spent many years promoting rubber as a commercial product, and his research led to an important discovery in 1895: a means of tapping that did not seriously damage the rubber trees. With this advanced method, plantations thrived, and rubber became the most important enterprise in the Straits Settlements. His advocacy for the crop, plus a sharp increase in demand as the auto industry developed, rubber was the key to the 20th-century prosperity of Malaya and Singapore. Malaya was the world's number-one rubber producer for many years. In the world encyclopedias, Ridley is known as "the English botanist who was largely responsible for establishing the rubber industry in the Malay Peninsula". Ridley is also known as the "father of the rubber industry", and the rubber-tapping technique he invented is still being used all around the region where rubber plantations exist. Ridley retired from Singapore in 1911 and spent the rest of his life back in England. He died on 24 October 1956 just a few months before his 101st birthday. Ridley Park is named after him.

Para rubber-tree seeds (Hevea brasiliensis) were collected in the Amazon in an 1876 expedition. These were sent to the Royal Kew Gardens, from which 3,000 were sent to Ceylon, and from there 22 Para rubber plants arrived. These were grown in the Botanic Gardens in 1877, 12 years before Ridley's arrival in Singapore.

Early life
Ridley was born at West Harling Hall, Norfolk, England, on 10 December 1855 to Reverend Oliver Matthew Ridley and Louisa Pole (Stuart). His mother died during his infancy, so he had no memory of her. He had an early and intense interest in the natural world around him, especially entomology and Coleoptera (beetles), and decided while still at school that his life's work would be dedicated to the study of natural history in the tropics.

Ridley was educated at Haileybury School, where there were no biology classes, but he was an active member of the school's natural-history society. At Exeter College, Oxford, he obtained second-class honours in science in 1877, and was also awarded the Burdett-Coutts Geological Scholarship.

Early work
From 1880, Ridley was assistant in the Botanic Department of the British Museum, and received a munificent salary of £100 a year. With this, his first encounter with botany, there was much that was new to him and to learn. He studied a series of collections of specimens sent to the Museum from many parts of the tropics. This gained him a remarkably wide knowledge of tropical plants, especially of monocotyledons. His reports were published and he also continued to publish papers on zoological subjects. In 1887, sponsored by the Royal Society, he was accompanied by the zoologist G. A. Ramage on an expedition to the island of Fernando de Noronha (off the coast of Brazil), and wrote reports on the botany, zoology and geology of the island. He worked with the British Museum until 1888, when at the age of 33, he was selected to fill the directorship of the Botanic Gardens in the Straits Settlements.

Ridley was appointed director of the Botanic Gardens on 25 September 1888 to take charge of the forests and gardens in the Straits Settlements, especially the Botanic Gardens in Singapore. Here he recognised the agricultural potential of Para rubber trees and conducted experiments that convinced him of the enormous economic potential of rubber as a plantation crop. He began a campaign to establish a rubber industry. He prepared specimens of this cultivated rubber, and exhibited them here in 1890, the first specimens of cultivated rubber ever shown to the public. Most of the early rubber estates in Malaya, beginning about 1896, were planted with Ridley's seeds.

Discoveries and creations
Ridley's research on rubber led to his discovery and development of a practical and improved method of latex gathering, a more efficient method of rubber-tapping, without killing the tree. His more advanced and successful tapping technique encouraged planters to grow rubber, and rubber plantations appeared everywhere. Rubber became the most important enterprise in the Straits Settlements.

"Father of the rubber industry" in Malaya
It was Ridley who recognised the agricultural potential of rubber trees and spent years researching and promoting their use. His nicknames "Rubber" and "Mad" Ridley were due to his persistence in persuading Malayan coffee planters to grow rubber trees instead. There were rejections and considerable initial opposition among planters, but Ridley persisted. By 1896 he succeeded when the first rubber estates were planted using his seeds. From this beginning the rubber industry grew into one of the economic mainstays of the Malay states and the Straits Settlements. His advocacy for the crop, plus a sharp increase in demand as the auto industry developed, made rubber the key to the 20th-century prosperity of Malaya and Singapore. Malaya was the principal producer for many years.

Ridley retired and left Singapore in February 1912, and spent the rest of his exceptionally long life in continued research, writing and living near the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, England. Apart from various journeys abroad, he made two trips back to Singapore and Malaya in 1917 and 1922. At the age of 83, he married Lily Eliza Doran, who, with her sister, most devotedly cared for him in his last years. Until he was over 90 years old, he attended the Linnean Society meetings with great regularity. From the autumn of 1953, he was unable to leave his house, but sat at his desk every day and wrote letters and his diary until a severe illness, just before his 98th birthday, caused an almost complete loss of sight. His gradually increasing deafness made communication with him difficult, but his mind remained clear, and he loved to tell of his varied experiences and early life, especially in Malaya.

Ridley's career, lasting a quarter of a century in Singapore, and his indefatigable literary contributions to botanical science were recognised: He was made a Fellow of the Linnean Society in 1881, and Fellow of the Royal Society (F.R.S.) in 1907; he became the second "Malayan", after Stamford Raffles, to be elected an F.R.S., one of the greatest honours a scientist can receive. Upon the recommendation of the Straits Settlements government, the British monarchy conferred on him the title, Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George (C.M.G.), in 1911 before he retired in February 1912. The list of gold medals he received include the Rubber Growers Association Gold Medal in 1914, Frank N. Meyer Medal of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1928, Linnean Society of London Gold Medal in 1950 and the Colwyn Medal of the Institution of the Rubber Industry in 1955. His name can be found in the world encyclopedias for his discoveries, often referred to as the "father of the rubber industry".

As a botanist, Ridley also carried out an extensive study of plants of the Malay Peninsula, especially monocotyledons, and published at least 300 articles, as well as educational books including the five-volume Flora of the Malay Peninsula in 1925. He was editor of the Agricultural Bulletin which became the Malayan Agricultural Journal, and an active member and contributor to the journals of Royal Asiatic Society, Straits Branch. His two most important written works are Flora of the Malay Peninsula and The Dispersal of Plants throughout the World (1930). Books by Henry Ridley in the holdings of the National Library Board include:

Ridley's centenary
Ridley's 100th birthday in 1955 was celebrated quietly at home, and he received congratulations from the Royal Society, the government of Singapore with a personal visit from the chief minister, other official bodies, as well as relatives and old friends. To commemorate the celebrations, a souvenir tribute book, The Ridley Centenary – Henry N. Ridley 1855–1955, was printed, and from 10 to 17 December 1955 the Botanic Gardens held special exhibitions, music entertainment and was floodlit at night to highlight exhibits.

Henry Nicholas Ridley died on 24 October 1956, almost 101 years of age, at 7 Cumberland Road, Kew, Surrey, England. The funeral service was held at St. Anne's Church in Kew Green. Ridley Park in Singapore is named after him.

Vernon Cornelius-Takahama

Holttum, R. E. (1960, May). Henry Nicholas Ridley: Obituary. Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic SocietyXXXIII (1), 104–109. Singapore: Straits Branch, Royal Asiatic Society.
(Call no.: RCLOS 959.5 JMBRAS) 

Liu, G. (1999). Singapore: A pictorial history 1819–2000 (pp. 92, 98). Singapore: Archipelago Press: National Heritage Board. 
(Call no.: SING 959.57 LIU)

Makepeace, W., Brooke, G. E., & Braddell, R. S. J. (Eds.). (1991). One hundred years of Singapore (Vol. 1, p. 561; Vol. 2, pp. 64, 77–78, 90). Singapore: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 ONE)

Purseglove, J. W. (1955). The Ridley centenary, 10th December, 1955 (pp. 1–10). Singapore: Govt. Print. Off.
(Call no.: RCLOS 580.924 SIN) 

Reith, G. M. (1985). Handbook to Singapore (pp. 117–124). Singapore: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 REI)

Ridley, N. (1998). In The new Encyclopedia Britannica (Vol. 10, p. 59). Chicago: Encyclopedia.
(Call no.: R 031 NEW)

Royal Society. (1957). Biographical memoirs of fellows of the Royal Society (Vol. 3, pp.149–159). London: The Society.
(Call no.: R 509.22 ROY)

The New Encyclopedia Britannica (Vol. 21, p. 332). (1998). Chicago: Encyclopedia.
(Call no.: R 031 NEW)

Historical dictionary of the British Empire (Vol. K–Z, pp. 947, 1187). (1996). Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.
(Call no.: RSING 941.003 HIS)

Who's Who in Malaya 1925 (p. 152). (1925). Singapore: [s.n.].
(Call no.: RCLOS 920.0595)

Further resources
Edwards, N., & Keys, P. (1996). Singapore: A guide to buildings, streets, places (pp. 156, 174–175, 192–193). Singapore: Times Books International.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 EDW)

Turnbull, C. M. (1989). A history of Singapore, 1819–1988 (p. 89). Singapore: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 TUR) 

Singapore historical postcards from the National Archives collection (p. 7). (1986). Singapore: Times Eds.
(Call no.: RSING 769.4995957 SIN) 

Funeral [Microfilm: NL 227]. (1956, October 30). The Times (London), p. 10.

Death [Microfilm: NL 227]. (1956, October 26). The Times (London), p. 1.

Obituary [Microfilm: NL 227]. (1956, October 25). The Times (London), p. 14.

The information in this article is valid as at 2001 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Science and technology>>Botany>>Horticulture
Botanic Gardens (Singapore)
Botanical garden directors--Singapore
Science and technology>>Manufacturing>>Rubber and latex
Personalities>>Biographies>>Colonial Administrators
Rubber industry and trade--Malaysia--Malaya--History
Ridley, Henry Nicholas, 1855-
Colonial administrators
Nature and Environment

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