Guthrie & Co.



Singapore Infopedia

by Chia, Joshua Yeong Jia

Background

Guthrie & Co.’s history began in 1823 when a partnership was established between Alexander Guthrie and Thomas Talbot Harrington, a family friend. First located in a rented godown on Hill Street, the company sold British goods to the European and Chinese communities in Singapore. Following a number of changes in partnership, the company was renamed Guthrie & Co. in 1833.By the mid-19th century, its main business was in the trading of British goods and Straits produce.2 It also acted as an agent for shipping, banking and insurance businesses, including London banking firm Coutts.3 Under the leadership of John Anderson, the firm diversified into agricultural and mining estates in the Malay Peninsula and surrounding region.4 It was one of the largest rubber-producing companies by 1910, with operations in Malaya, Borneo and Sumatra.5 Currently known as Guthrie GTS Pte Ltd, its core businesses include engineering, property and leisure.6

Early history

Guthrie, a Scot, first arrived in Singapore from the Cape of the Good Hope in 1821 to conduct business on behalf of Harrington & Co.7 He had obtained his indenture to trade in Singapore on 10 April 1820 from the Marquis of Hastings, then governor-general of India.8

With the help of Alexander Laurie Johnston and William Farquhar, Guthrie rented a godown on Hill Street, where he sold British goods such as woollen cloth, cotton twist, nails, axes, knives, clocks, stationery, brandy and sherry to the Chinese and European communities in town. Following Johnston’s practice, he carried out his trade through Chinese middlemen.9

When the rented godown was sold off by its owner, Guthrie obtained Farquhar’s help to secure a plot of land on High Street where he built his second godown. However, Guthrie lost his second godown when the layout of Singapore town was reorganised upon Stamford Raffles’s return to Singapore in 1822.10 Undeterred, he leased a patch of swamp from the government in the Boat Quay area where he built his third godown. Business resumed and the establishment of a partnership named Harrington & Guthrie was formally announced on 1 February 1823. But the partnership ended on 8 November that same year.11

In February 1824, Guthrie entered into a new partnership with James Scott Clark and the company was named Guthrie & Clark.12 Clark left the firm in 1833, following which Guthrie pursued the business alone as Guthrie & Co.13

Moving from the sole import of British manufactures, Guthrie started trading British goods for Straits produce such as rice, coconut oil, pepper, clove, nutmeg, mace, camphor, birds’ nest and rattan.14 Trade links were established with places like Siam, Saigon and Borneo.15 In addition, Guthrie began offering services in transshipment, cargo storage, insurance and local forwarding.16

Besides trade, Guthrie also experimented with agriculture. In 1824, he started a plantation to grow gambier, pepper and other spices, but frequent tiger attacks made the hiring of labour difficult. In addition, Guthrie invested in two nutmeg and clove plantations. They were the Claymore estate at the far end of Orchard Road and the Everton estate in Tanjong Pagar. Both estates ultimately turned in profits, either as rental property or as nutmeg plantations.17

Guthrie handed over the reins of the company to his nephew, James Guthrie, and left Singapore on 8 February 1847.18 He died in London on 12 March 1865.19

Arrival of James Guthrie

James Guthrie arrived in Singapore in 1829 aged 15.20 He soon proved his abilities and was made partner in January 1837.21 Under James, the company became the agent for the London Fire Assurance Company, Triton Insurance Company, as well as the London and Provincial Marine Insurance Company. The insurance agency business turned in profits when the Chinese began insuring their goods.22 James left Singapore in 1856 and retired from the firm in 1876. He died in Tunbridge Wells in 1900 and was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery in London.23

Subsequent partnerships
The firm subsequently came under the control of a series of partnerships. They included John James Greenshields (made partner in 1849), Thomas Scott (made partner in 1857 and senior partner in 1867), and Louis John Robertson Glass (made partner in 1874 and senior partner in 1876).24 Scott returned to London in 1873 and established Scott & Co., which later merged with Guthrie & Co. to form Guthrie & Co. Ltd. on 28 February 1903.25

Key developments from the late 19th century
The formation of the Federated Malay States on 1 July 1896 created great opportunities for trade on the Malay Peninsula. Having already established business interests there, Guthrie & Co. was prepared to take advantage of these opportunities. It became the agent for five coffee estates in Selangor and two in Negri Sembilan, and purchased a rubber estate in Perak with Malayan businessman Loke Yew.26

Anderson joined the firm in early 1876 and eventually assumed the position of governing director.27 He steered the firm towards rubber, mining and other products made possible by the opening of the Federated Malay States.28 Anderson also played a key role in the development of Malaya’s rubber industry. His contribution and influence in the region earned him a Knighthood in 1912 after his retirement from Singapore.29

By the early 20th century, Guthrie & Co. had become a leading import and export agency between Britain and Southeast Asia, as well as one of the largest rubber producers in the region.30 The firm served as agent for several rubber plantation companies in Malaya, Borneo and Sumatra, including Selangor Rubber Co., Linggi Plantations Ltd. and United Sua Betong Rubber Estates Ltd.31 The company thrived with the rubber boom. It also had side businesses such as the export of Eucaria Fusanus (slightly different from sandalwood, but locally regarded as ‘sandalwood’) from Western Australia and tin dredging. The Renong Dredging Company in southern Thailand, for which the company acted as agent, conducted the first dredging operations on land in Southeast Asia.32

John Hay joined Guthrie & Co. in 1904 and became its general manager in 1925.33 A notable figure in the rubber industry, he was instrumental in the establishment of the International Rubber Regulation Committee of 1934, which sought to stabilise world rubber prices by restricting rubber exports.34 Under Hay’s leadership, Guthrie & Co. benefited from the introduction of new grafting techniques (like bud grafting) and agricultural hormones (like Stimulex) that produced higher-yielding trees. In 1961, the firm developed a more homogenous form of natural rubber called Dynat to compete against synthetic rubber.35 Besides rubber, the firm had also made substantial investments in oil palms since 1924.36

World War II and postwar decades
Business came to a halt with the outbreak of World War II. The firm’s head office in Singapore was bombed and many of its employees were interned in war camps.37

The head office was relocated to London after the war, and the company subsequently went global with interests in Zimbabwe (then known as Rhodesia), Australia, Canada and South Africa.38

On 1 January 1961, the Guthrie group formed a cooperative named Guthrie Estates Agency Ltd. with a subsidiary Guthrie Agency (Malaya) Ltd. The purpose of the cooperative was to manage the affairs of its various constituencies.39 With this change, the secretarial and agency services of the Guthrie group were decentralised to the various companies under its name.40

In 1968, a company called Guthrie Waugh Berhad was established to take over the businesses of Guthrie & Co. and Jardine Waugh. The company was renamed Guthrie Berhad in 1973, and its shares were listed on the Stock Exchange of Singapore in 1974.41

In 1983, Mulpha International Trading Corporation Berhad bought over the company and renamed it Mulpha (S) Ltd. Then in 1988, it was acquired by Indonesia’s Masagung family and renamed Guthrie GTS Ltd. As of 2007, Putra Masagung jointly owned a majority stake in the company with the Salim Group, one of Asia’s largest conglomerates. The company was privatised and delisted in 2013.42

Guthrie GTS Pte Ltd’s current core businesses include property, engineering and leisure.43

Offices in Singapore
By the 1850s, Guthrie & Co.’s office-cum-godown in Singapore was located at Collyer Quay (where The Arcade now stands). The two-storey building, with a central tower, housed the office on the upper floor and warehouse on the lower floor. The head office had remained there at least until 1905, when it moved to a plot of land on Battery Road, which James Guthrie’s widow, Sophia Fraser, had handed over to the company. In 1950, the land was sold to the Chartered Bank.44

Guthrie GTS Pte Ltd is presently located at Guthrie House on Fifth Avenue.45



Author

Joshua Chia Yeong Jia



References
1. Guthrie Corporation,” Guthrie Corporation Archive, accessed 17 March 2020; Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 65–66 (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS]); Sjovald Cunyngham-Brown, The Traders: A Story of Britain’s Southeast Asian Commercial Adventure (London: Newman Neamie, 1971), 14, 50. (Call no. RSING 382.0959 CUN)
2. Guthrie Corporation Archive, “Guthrie Corporation”; G.C. Allen and Audrey G. Donnithorne, Western Enterprise in Indonesia and Malaya: A Study in Economic Development (London: Routledge, 2003), 54 (Call no. RSEA 338.9 ALL); Cunyngham-Brown, Traders, 92–93.
3. Cunyngham-Brown, Traders, 104; Tommy Koh, T et al., eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, 2006), 225. (Call no. RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
4. Guthrie Corporation Archive, “Guthrie Corporation”; Cunyngham-Brown, Traders, 173.
5. Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 225.  
6. “Corporate History,” Guthrie GTS, accessed 23 December 2016.
7. Guthrie Corporation Archive, “Guthrie Corporation”; Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 65; Cunyngham-Brown, Traders, 13, 26–27.
8. Cunyngham-Brown, Traders, 26.
9. Cunyngham-Brown, Traders, 31–32, 36–37.
10. Cunyngham-Brown, Traders, 41–43.
11. Cunyngham-Brown, Traders, 45, 50; Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 65.
12. Guthrie Corporation Archive, “Guthrie Corporation”; Cunyngham-Brown, Traders, 50; Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 66.
13. Guthrie Corporation Archive, “Guthrie Corporation”; Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 66.
14. Guthrie Corporation Archive, “Guthrie Corporation”; Allen and Donnithorne, Western Enterprise in Indonesia and Malaya, 54; Cunyngham-Brown, Traders, 92–93.
15. Guthrie Corporation Archive, “Guthrie Corporation”; Allen and Donnithorne, Western Enterprise in Indonesia and Malaya, 54.
16. Cunyngham-Brown, Traders, 39.
17. Allen and Donnithorne, Western Enterprise in Indonesia and Malaya, 54; Cunyngham-Brown, Traders, 70, 132.
18. Guthrie Corporation Archive, “Guthrie Corporation”; Cunyngham-Brown, Traders, 70; Allen and Donnithorne, Western Enterprise in Indonesia and Malaya, 54.
19. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 66; Cunyngham-Brown, Traders, 89.
20. Cunyngham-Brown, Traders, 55–56.
21. Guthrie Corporation Archive, “Guthrie Corporation”; Cunyngham-Brown, Traders, 60; Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 66.
22. Cunyngham-Brown, Traders, 104.
23. Guthrie Corporation Archive, “Guthrie Corporation”; Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 66.
24. Guthrie Corporation Archive, “Guthrie Corporation”; Cunyngham-Brown, Traders, 125.
25. Guthrie Corporation Archive, “Guthrie Corporation.”
26. Guthrie Corporation Archive, “Guthrie Corporation”; Cunyngham-Brown, Traders, 164, 169–70, 173.
27. Guthrie Corporation Archive, “Guthrie Corporation”; Allen and Donnithorne, Western Enterprise in Indonesia and Malaya, 54; Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 31.  
28. Cunyngham-Brown, Traders, 171–73.
29. “Sir John Anderson.” Straits Times, 20 December 1924, 9 (From NewspaperSG); Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 31.
30. Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 225.
31. Guthrie Corporation Archive, “Guthrie Corporation”; Cunyngham-Brown, Traders, 183–85, 228.
32. Cunyngham-Brown, Traders, 185, 198–99, 210.
33. Guthrie Corporation Archive, “Guthrie Corporation”; Cunyngham-Brown, Traders, 224.
34. Cunyngham-Brown, Traders, 222, 258–59, 263.
35. Guthrie Corporation Archive, “Guthrie Corporation”; Cunyngham-Brown, Traders, 295, 305.
36. Allen and Donnithorne, Western Enterprise in Indonesia and Malaya, 54–55; "Through Fair and Foul," Malaysian Business, 1 December 2002. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
37. Guthrie Corporation Archive, “Guthrie Corporation”.
38. Guthrie Corporation Archive, “Guthrie Corporation”; Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 225.
39. Guthrie Corporation Archive, “Guthrie Corporation”; Cunyngham-Brown, Traders, 309–310.
40. Cunyngham-Brown, Traders, 309.
41. Guthrie GTS, “Corporate History.”
42. Guthrie GTS, “Corporate History.”
43. Guthtie GTS, “About Guthrie,” accessed 17 March 2020.
44. Cunyngham-Brown, Traders, 91, 318.
45. “Contact Us, ” Guthrie GTS, accessed 17 March 2020.



The information in this article is valid as at March 2020 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.


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