Birch monument, Taiping

Do you know that there is a commemorative stone for Birch, up Maxwell Hill, my friend Wan Amril asked me, when I met him in Taiping, May 2017.

Of course I knew about J.W.W Birch, the first British Resident of Parak, appointed 4 November 1874 after the Pangkor Treaty and assassinated 2 November 1875. I knew that there was a memorial clocktower for him in Ipoh, but I had never heard about a monument in Taiping.

Wan Amril, who is very knowledgeable about Taiping and its history, had seen a photo of the monument in 2009 and had visited it in December of the same year. Here is the very readable report written by him about what he called a mini-expedition: The Forgotten Memorials .

He was willing to bring me to the monument and of course I accepted his invitation. Aric and I were staying in the Nest, enjoying the hospitality of Suet Fun and Peter, together with another friend, Law Siak Hong, president of the Perak Heritage Society.

From the Nest bungalow it is less than 1.5 km along the tar road to where the trail starts. The tar road ends at the Cottage, the first bungalow of Maxwell Hill, built in 1884.

It is easy to miss the trail. And you must be prepared for leeches.

After about 200 meter you reach the monument.

This is the text on the monument: THE FIRST ENGLISHMAN TO CLIMB THIS HILL WAS MR T.W.W. BIRCH. FIRST BRITISH RESIDENT OF PERAK IN 1875 . In 2009 Wan Amril had already noticed the mistake, the T should have been a J.

Next to the commemorative stone, there is a metal plaque, not easy to decipher, Wan Amril gives: LAWATAN PERTAMA KALI D.Y.T.M. RAJA MUDA PERAK KA BUKIT INI PADA 23.7.73 JAM 8.02 PAGI. Translated: Inaugural visit by His Highness the Raja Muda of Perak to this hill on 23-7-73 at 8:02am

An interesting monument, leading to several questions. When was it placed here and by whom? Who was responsible for the spelling mistake and why was it never corrected? And of course the most important question, did J.W.W Birch indeed climb Bukit Larut during the short period (less than one year!) that he was the Perak Resident? If he did, for what purpose? Adventure? Looking for a possible hill resort πŸ™‚ ?

Back home in Petaling Jaya, I searched Google for more info and discovered that Birch had kept a journal during the period that he was Resident of Perak! In 1976 an annotated edition of these Journals has been published, out of stock, but the National Library of Malaysia has copies!

I visited the Library in December 2018 and found the book with the help of friendly library staff.

I coud not borrow it, so I sat down and soon found the passage in which Birch describes his visit to Taiping. I made photocopies, here they are. Interesting reading, this is Birch’s private diary and he doesn’t always mince his words :-). Click to enlarge.

Here is a summary with some comments from me

Birch arrived in Taiping from the Dindings on Wednesday 30 June 1875. He met Captain Speedy, had discussions with Campbell about surveying matters and inspected the construction work on the road from Sempang to Qualla Kangsa. Spelling in those days was often different from the present one.

He also meets the Mantri, Ngah Ibrahim, at Bukit Gantang and has to settle Chinese disputes. About Sunday 4 July he writes: A large party of Europeans have come over to see Capt. Speedy and the place is quite lively with upwards of 30 elephants also collected. Do I detect some disapproval here πŸ™‚ ? Not surprisingly he is rather critical about the flamboyant Speedy.

On Tuesday 6 July, he starts the expedition to Gunung Hijau. Not looking for adventure or a potential hill resort, surveying is the target. Campbell and Speedy accompany him and three more Englishmen. Plus of course porters, the plan is to stay overnight at the top of Gunong Huji (Gunung Hijau), so besides surveying equipment also material for a temporary shed has to be transported up the mountain.

After “a very steep and troublesome climb” they reach the house of a “Chinaman” at about 1700 feet, where they stay overnight. The mines are very good there with lots of water around, Birch writes.

The next day they must have started early, because at 9am they reached already some Malay houses/huts, at an altitude of 2500 feet. Also here the (tin) ore was very rich and “… an enterprising man may make a fortune here in a very short time …

The Chinese house, the Malay huts, at least the lower ranges of Bukit Larut were inhabited, so there must have been reasonably clear trails. For the upper part, I think the (orang asli?) guides who undoubtedly brought Birch and his team to the top, chose basically the route which now leads to the Hill Station (at 6th mile) and continues to the Cottage on top of Caulfield Hill. Here is a topo map of the upper part of Bukit Larut. Left the Hill Station at an altitude of 3400 feet. Gunung Hijau is at 4750 feet.

Caulfield Hill is what mountain hikers call a “false peak” at 4500 feet. You think that you have reached the top, but you have to go down first and then climb up again to the real peak. Frustrating, I speak from experience πŸ™‚ In this case the saddle between Caulfield Hill and Gunung Hijau is at an altitude of 4300 feet.

After breakfast, they continue, and Birch writes: “after getting considerably higher, we had to go down a dip of about 500 feet, and then ascend again, but at last reached the top” If I am right about the route they followed, he is more or less correct, they had to go down about 200 feet and climb up again 450 feet.

At the top it is cold, there is mist and a strong wind, but there are also splendid glimpses of the land below and the sea. A shed is built, there is intermittent rain and at night it is very cold.

The next day Birch and Campbell wake up early to do their surveying work. They used instruments similar to these two, left an aneroid barometer and right a theodolite.

First they determine the height of Gunung Hijau. Probably everybody will be familiar with a barometer as an instrument to give information about the weather. Notice that the inner scale gives the air pressure (in inches Hg) and also weather descriptions, From Stormy (28 inch) until Very Dry (31 inch).

But a barometer can also be used to determine height, using the fact that the air pressure will decrease when you get higher in the atmosphere.

Birch had measured 29.42 inch for the air pressure at Mrs Marple’s house (where he was staying in Taiping) , and now he found 25.15 inch. He had also measured the temperature at both locations.

With these values he was able to calculate the difference in altitude between the two locations and found 4425 feet. Estimating the altitude of Mrs Marple’s house at 60 feet, this would give 4485 feet for the height of Gunung Hijau. And that value is not correct, more than 250 feet short, the actual height of Gunung Hijau is 4750 feet ! In an Appendix I will give more details about his calculation and about a possible explanation of the discrepancy..

The next step was to determine the actual location of Gunung Hijau. They used the Admiralty Chart number 1353, where the location of the mountain was given and also the location of several island in the Straits, Pulo Jarra, Pulo Rima, Pulo Kandy and Pulo Tellong. Is the location of Gunung Hijau on the map correct? Now the theodolite is needed. With this precision instrument you can measure angles, both in a vertical and a horizontal plane. The procedure is as follows. The theodolite is pointed to an island, and the angle is measured. Using this angle you can draw a line on the map. Repeat this for the other islands. Where the four lines intersect, is your location. In principle two lines are enough, but more will be better. Result of these measurements : “ … we found that Gunung Hiju was in correct position exactly

The view is magnificent, from the Dindings in the South to Quedah Peak (Gunung Jerai) in the North. Penang is clearly visible. Apparently they can also see Taiping, deep down, the prison, roads etc. About the view Birch writes “It is one of the prettiest bird’s-eye views I ever saw, and beats the view from Penang Hill all to nothing“.

All this during the morning hours, because at 12pm, they pack their instruments and start the descent, another 3000 feet down, to the house of the Chinese at 1750 feet, where they stay overnight again.

The next day, “with a good deal of pain in our muscles ” they descend the last part where elephants(!) are waiting, who bring Birch back to his lodgings at Mrs Marple. That night he has a fever, but the following morning he feels well and fresh again and starts works with Campbell to plot the results of the expedition .

It is his last day in Taiping, in the afternoon he goes to Bukit Gantang, on elephant, where he meets Ngah Ibrahim and has a discussion with him about debt slavery and other matters. He stays overnight in Bukit Gantang and continues the next day to Kuala Kangsar.

It is 11 July. Ten days later, on 21 July, in a meeting of Sultan Abdullah with the Malay chiefs, it is decided that Birch will be killed, not poisoned but stabbed to death. Because he has no respect for Malay culture and tradition, some say. Because he wanted to abolish “debt slavery.” other historians say.

One question about the monument has been answered. Yes, Birch climbed Gunung Hijau in 1875, together with four other Englishmen. When and by whom the commemorative stone was placed at what now is called Birch Hill, will probably remain unknown forever.

I am thinking about climbing Gunung Hijau myself during one of my following visits to Taiping. Of course not starting from the foothills πŸ™‚ There is a trail starting near Caulfield Hill and from there it should take about one hour. Probably there is no view anymore, but I want to check out myself. Anyone likes to join πŸ™‚ ?


Atmospheric pressure depends on altitude, as you get higher it will decrease. In my university it was a standard experiment for physics freshmen to determine the height of the laboratory building, using a barometer.

So I was interested how Birch determined the height of Gunung Hijau. Here is the passage in his Journal again, where he does the calculations

The formula he uses is H = 60.000 (log R – log r) K , where R and r are the barometer readings in Taiping and on the top of the mountain, and K is a correction factor depending on the temperatures, measured at the two locations.

Where did Birch find this formula? He mentions Ranbines and Molesworth. Googling for Ranbines gave no results, but Molesworth did. A lot of hits, it must have been a popular handbook for engineers in the 19th century. First edition in 1863, here is a photo of the 19th edition, published in 1879.

The pocket book has 788 (!) pages and can be found online here. I was lucky, I only had to scroll to page 12 to find what I was looking for πŸ™‚

We have to take the logarithm of the two pressure values. Nowadays we use a pocket calculator, but in those days you had to use logarithm tables, which are included in Molesworth’s Pocket Book. By the way, during my own high school days, I still was using a logarithm table! Here are the logarithm pages in Molesworth.

Mainly for nostalgic reasons, but you may try to reproduce the values given by Birch πŸ™‚ Actually I did. Taking the logarithms of the pressure values, I noticed that he gives them in 7 decimals. The tables have 5 decimals, interpolation gives the 6th, but not a 7th. My guess is that the tables in Rambines have 6 decimals, so interpolation gives the 7th. Not that it makes much of a difference. Subtracting the two logarithms, Birch finds a value of 0.0681047, while I find 0.068109, one decimal less, using the Molesworth tables.

The final part of Birch’s calculation is a bit surprising. Birch takes logarithms again ! But there is no need for that, just fill the values in the equation for H, given above

H = 60000 x 0.0681047 x 1.083 = 4425.4 feet (with my value, I find 4425.7 feet).

Of course it is true that using logarithms you replace multiplication by addition, but at the cost of using tables, and the two (long) multiplications are basically primary school stuff.

About the difference between the 4425 + 60 feet found by Birch and the actual value of 4750 feet, the most probable explanation is a change in atmospheric pressure (weather conditions) during Birch’s trip. At least two days between the measurements at Mrs Marple’s house and the top of Gunung Hijau! Look again at the dial of the barometer. “Very Dry” and “Stormy” have a pressure difference of 3 inches!

To see the effect of a small variation in r, I redid the calculation for r= 24.95 inch and found H =4651 feet.

This is a well known disadvantage of the barometric method to determine altitude. Both measurements should be done at the same time!

One thought on “Birch monument, Taiping

  1. I’ve also written about Birch and his visits to caves/limestone hills. Not sure if you can access the link from here –

    This is the relevant text:
    James Wheeler Woodford BIRCH (1826-1875) was the first British Resident appointed to Perak under the Pangkor Engagement of 1874. But only 12 months after taking up the post he was assassinated on 2 November 1875. His death was followed by the Perak War. Prior to taking up the Residency, he travelled through Selangor and Perak. On Monday 13 April he saw Gunung Pondok, and described it as a hill in a gorge sticking up like PunchΓ•s hat. On the 15th he wrote about the caves with huge stalactites in Gunong Pondok. He actually visited the caves on 8 March 1875. In BirchΓ•s report on Perak, 2 April 1875, he mentioned Gunong Pondok with its nitre caves.
    He had plans for a new road to Gunong Pondok. On 7 May he visited Gunong Mesa during a 10-day tour of the Kinta valley, and on the 8th, he wrote about Gunong Gaja. On 12 July he took Booth and George Scott and Speedy to the nitra caves [Gunung Pondok], travelling by elephant.
    The Kinta Valley is an area of some 50 limestone hills lying to the north and south of the city of Ipoh in Perak. It was also one of the main centres of tin mining in Malaysia. Birch is the only person I have found to mention Gunung Mesa and Gaja. Gunung Gaja is a very prominent limestone hill, rising 612m above the plains at the southern end of Kinta Valley, so it is surprising that
    no other travellers described it. Today it is home to one of the most well known caves in the peninsula, Gua Tempurung, which has been developed as a show cave.

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