Charles Alma Baker’s Mansion

When I wrote my piece on Batu Gajah’s Christian cemetery,  God’s Little Acre, last November I mentioned Charles Alma Baker, one of the early pioneers of Perak. This Kiwi was a surveyor by trade but with a strong entrepreneurial streak and he made a fortune from plantations and tin mining. In later life he gained fame as a big game fisherman back in New Zealand.

He was born in 1854 to humble British parents who had recently migrated to New Zealand. He was named ‘Alma’  after the battle where British and French troops defeated the Russians during the Crimean War.

Through hard work and social skills he made a name for himself in Auckland and married Florence, the daughter of Sir Frederick Whittaker, a leading politician and businessman. Things were looking up until he scandalously fathered a child with a high born Maori girl called Maria Nikora and soon after, at age 36, he and Florence left New Zealand for India via Singapore (maybe he had to).

They missed their next ship from Singapore and on discovering that there was a great need for surveyors in Perak to support the ever growing tin mining industry, they decided to abandon the idea of India and head for the Kinta Valley which became the Baker’s main home from 1890 until his death in Penang in 1941.

Life in Batu Gajah, the administrative centre of the Kinta District, must have been sleepy, even by New Zealand standards, with a European population of less than 30 (including just 6 or 7 women).

He made good money out of his Government surveying contracts, some of which he carried out in partnership with William Kellie Smith and in 1894 he decided to build a grand new house to show off his wealth. This no doubt aroused jealousy among the cliquey colonial Perak society.  The Perak Pioneer reported cattily:

“Mr Alma Baker is building a fine house facing the Race Course, to be called, probably, Goodwood or Ascot, or some appropriate name of the kind – or maybe, ‘the Bakeries’.”

There was probably even rivalry with his friend Kellie Smith (or more likely their wives) and in an act of one-upmanship Kellie Smith later began constructing  Kellie’s Castle, an act which might have bankrupted him if not for his wife’s inheritance.

The Government terminated Alma Baker’s surveying contract in 1897 and he turned his talents to mining. Some of his mining concessions were more successful than others but he was a pioneer in the use of tin dredges and he made a fortune from fabulously rich tin deposits on his land near Simpang Pulai .

By 1906 he was ready to diversify into rubber and with some difficulty acquired a lease from the government for 2,000 acres with which he established Kinta Valley Estate.  By 1914 his estate was booming. 

In later life he spent more time on other pursuits such as supporting the war effort, game fishing, horse racing and farming in New Zealand. 

This YouTube video has some more details about Alma Baker’s fishing exploits including catching an 850lb black marlin.

When I visited Batu Gajah last year I passed the remains of Charles Alma Baker’s house. Only the supporting pillars were left standing as the wooden house on top was, according to various sources, demolished in 2005.


Later I learned from a newspaper article that in fact the house had not been destroyed but carefully dismantled and rebuilt on a new site in faraway Kampung Telaga Papan in Setiu, Terengganu.

Since I was passing this village during my recent travels I was determined to try and find the reassembled house. I had to ask a couple of locals for directions and eventually found the Alma Baker house, now renamed ‘Ombak’, in a secluded beachfront location.


The appearance has changed quite a bit and I might have doubted it was the same house if I had not seen a photo of it in the coffee table book From Alma Baker Mansion to Ombak: Relocation and Restoration of a Colonial Style Malayan House written by the new owner, Datuk Ahmad Hisham Kamaruddin.


Purists might complain that this historic house has lost some of its value by moving it from its proper context but at least it has been preserved and given a new lease on life  (albeit with a modern makeover) and as for the location, I think it is a big improvement on the original!

The new location of Alma Baker's Mansion.

God’s Little Acre – Batu Gajah

In a peaceful corner of Batu Gajah, a modest sized town in Perak, lies an Anglican cemetery known as God’s Little Acre.

It dates back to 1891 and contains the remains of more than 600 persons many of whom were early pioneers in Perak.Batu Gajah Christian Cemetery

One such pioneer was Charles Alma Baker who must have been quite a character.  More on him in a later post.

The cemetery saw a sharp increase in occupants during the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960).  The first shots in this struggle were fired in Perak with the murder of three European planters on their respective estates by ‘bandits’ , a term later replaced by ‘CTs’ or Communist Terrorists.

Died during the Emergency

Often stationed in isolated areas, planters were soft targets for the terrorists.

In all, 115 planters, miners, dependents, police and military personnel who lost their lives during the Emergency are buried here. Their names are inscribed on a Roll of Honour memorial near the entrance.

Roll of Honour, Batu Gajah

You can find more details about these names on the Roll of Honour website.

The cemetery is beautifully maintained now but apparently it was not always so. The graves had been neglected for many years until 1980 when Police Superintendent (now Dato) R. Thambipillay encountered the deserted and desecrated graveyard in the course of his duties. Thanks to his efforts, together with support from the Perak Planters Association and the Malaysian Palm Oil Association,  the graveyard is well looked after and annual remembrance ceremonies are held there on the second Saturday of June each year. Although the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s brief is to only look after the graves of those who died in the two World Wars , its website says that these Emergency-era graves at Batu Gajah are also under their care.


At least their lives were not lost in vain. Although the Emergency years were a tremendously painful period for Malaya/Malaysia, the country emerged victorious in one of the few examples, if not the only one, of a country successfully defeating a full-blown Communist insurrection.

You can read more about heritage sites in Batu Gajah on my Malaysia-Traveller website.

God's Little Acre, Batu Gajah

The Tanjung Tualang Tin Dredge

Tin Dredge at Tanjung Tualang

I had read that close to the town of Batu Gajah in Perak there is a surviving tin dredge, a colossal industrial relic from the days when Malaysia was the world’s largest tin producer.  I drove there recently to take a look.

A tin dredge is like a floating factory. This one, named Tanjung Tualang Dredge No. 5, or TT5,  weighs 4,500 tons and is supported by a pontoon of 75 meters in length, 35 meters in width and 3 meters in depth. It was built in England in 1938 by F.W.Payne & Son which, at that time, was a major design engineering company in bucketline dredges.

Tin dredges work by scooping up bucket loads of tin-bearing soil at the front end, which then passes through an oscillating drum and a system of jigs and screens to extract the tin, before spewing out the waste material at the rear end through a number of chutes.

A line of bucket scoops

This dredge was built for the Southern Malayan Tin Dredging Ltd, a company formed in 1926 which operated a further 5 dredges  in the Batu Gajah and Tanjung Tualang area. TT5 was in operation for 44 years until 1982 by which time the Malaysian tin industry was in rapid decline due to a combination of exhausted tin deposits, low tin prices and high operating costs.

The ultimate meccano set. Some fine British engineering.

Since 1982 the dredge has fallen on hard times. All the other dredges in the area were disposed of long ago and this last remaining example was in danger of being of being sold off for its high scrap metal value until heritage-loving individuals launched a “Save the Dredge” campaign. The dredge is currently owned by the Perak State Government so there is a chance it will be preserved. A visitor car park  has been created  (sadly mine was the only car in it) and there is a miniscule museum providing some information on tin mining and you have to pay a small fee to get up close. Workmen were doing some maintenance  during my visit ( a good sign perhaps?) so I was unable to go inside the dredge.

View from the front.

All the tin mining and dredging activity which took place for over a hundred years has left behind a pockmarked landscape running for hundreds of miles down the length of Peninsular Malaysia. But the scars have filled with water and cleaned up quite well  and now serve new roles as fishing ponds, wetlands, water features for housing developments and so on.

Former tin mine now attracts birdlife. That's a goose farm on the far bank.

The lady collecting the entrance fee said that this is the last tin dredge in existence in Malaysia. That may not be entirely accurate as I have heard there is another near Paya Indah, Dengkil, albeit a newer model, but that too might be sold off to Australia shortly.

If you are interested in seeing this important piece of Malaysia’s industrial heritage you had better visit Tanjung Tualang soon while you still can.

Waste disposal chutes.