History with a bounce…

Elmhurst School for Boys

11th April 2013

Usually my assemblies have a moral to them. On Friday, it was more just an interesting historical diversion... Or at least, interesting to me, for reasons which will be apparent!

I brought into assembly a bag of random mundane objects: a wellington boot, some network cable, a pencil rubber, a toy tyre, a ball, a rubber duck. As the boys picked them out of the bag, the common element became apparent, namely that they were all made of rubber.

Rubber is a fascinating substance. It is waterproof, flexible, bouncy, durable - extraordinary. Many boys knew that it comes from the sap of a certain tree, but fewer knew how it is 'tapped' and where it originates from. The answer is the Amazon rainforest, where until the late 19th century it could only be found growing wild, despite the vast global need for the substance, due to the growth of cars, steamboats and all sorts of machines that require it.

The lack of supply combined with huge demand led to vastly inflated prices, monstrous working conditions and very cruel rubber barons in the rainforest region. The wealth accumulated was so huge that there is even to this day a marble opera house standing in the middle of the Amazon jungle.

Of course, the British Empire did not like this situation, which threatened its global dominance. And so, they sent individuals to try and smuggle out rubber tree seeds and seedlings back to Britain. The man who successfully achieved this was a certain...Henry Wickham (later Sir Henry Wickham, knighted by Queen Victoria for services to the rubber industry). Wickham smuggled out the seedlings, planted them in Kew Gardens, and from there these seedlings went out to India, Singapore and Malaysia, to become the beginnings of the now dominant East Asia rubber industry.

It's an interesting story for me of course - as far as we know our family is related to this Sir Henry. I was given a book for Christmas which tells the story - not a story I in fact knew very well till then.

Sir Henry was no saint, nor did he make his fortune. He lost far more money than he earned and died pretty poor. He also had the most enormous handlebar moustache! So - no moral to this tale, except that who knows what future tales will be told of our current Elmhurst boys - maybe there will be another adventurer among them?

11th February 2013

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