A career as a forest assistant in northern Siam

In 1897, shortly after leaving Oxford University, Mr. William Reginald Dibb left for Calcutta, India, via a ship called ‘Simla’. In Calcutta he decided to take the examination for the Bengal Superior Police. However, it was unfortunate that he came fourth, but only three appointments were made.[i] He therefore chose to join the Bombay Burmah Trading Coperation Ltd. (BBTC), which was operating a teak business in northern Siam at that time, as a forest assistant. He was posted at a company branch in Lakon (or Lampang as it is now called) from 1899-1904 and later in Phrae from 1905-1915.

[i] Full text of "Trinity College School Record, February 1898- December 1908"

Map of northern Siam, or nowadays Thailand, showing principal tributaries of the Chao Phraya River, including the Ping, the Wang, the Yom, and the Nan rivers. Also showing the Salween and the Mekong rivers close to the borders. These rivers pass through the vassal Lanna states of Siam, including Chiang Mai, Lamphun, Lampang (or Lakon), Phrae and Nan.

Rivers and elephants were the two main transport mechanisms for logs from the jungles of northern Thailand to Bangkok in the early days of the teak industry. The first two photos show dry teak logs, which were dragged from a jungle by elephants close to a dry tributary river basin. In the following two photos, the logs were rearranged so that when the water level rose up abruptly during raining season, they could float of freely along the river to a rafting station hundreds of kilometers away where a teak raft could be made.

From the nineteenth up until the early twentieth century, many Northern provinces of Siam, including Chiang Mai, Lakon, Phrae, and Nan, were known as Lao provinces. They were loosely bounded to Southern Siam only by their sending of token gifts during a triennial visit to Bangkok. These provinces were governed by their own Chiefs called Choa Luang, while their relatives were called Chao. Life in northern Siam at that time was harsh and austere, especially for young Europeans who worked for a teak company like BBTC. The journey in this Lao’s provinces was arduous, especially for those forest assistants, or teak wallahs, who spent their lives mostly in the jungle, only returning to base at Christmas and at the end of season in April.

As a forest assistant, W.R. Dibb’s job was to assist in getting teak logs out of a remote jungle and to move them to a saw mill in Bangkok. At that time BBTC controlled seven forests in Lakon, of which the most important was Mg Kalah's Mee Song forest, which comprised the head waters of the Mae Wang on both banks. In addition, the other source of supply in the Lakon district was the forest controlled by Louis T Leonowens. Leonowens signed an agreement with BBTC in January 1898. The agreement stipulated that he had to deliver the logs from Me Prick forest to BBTC, and he also had to sale to BBTC all his forest supplies from his other forests. However, following Leonowens’ various misdemeanors, the BBTC cancelled their agreement at the end of 1901.[i]

To start the process of work, teak trees had to be girdled about 2-3 feet above ground, i.e. the sap-wood was cut away till the heart-wood was shown all around. Then they were left to dry for two years before they were cut and dragged by elephants to the closest tributary rivers. When flooding season started teak logs would be pushed and prodded by elephants into the rivers, while extreme care had to be taken so that no stack of logs would form. These logs would then float unattended, one by one, down to a rafting station in a deeper and broader major river, such as the river Wang as shown in the above figure, where no more rapid or water fall would be found ahead of it.

The first rafting station was usually a few hundred kilometers away from the primary sources of teak logs. At the station, teak logs would be collected and assembled into rafts before completing the journey to Bangkok, which would take up to 5 years to complete the whole process. Such practices were unique while other parts of it could be a fascinating scene to watch, as it was written by Reginald Campbell in his book ‘Teak-Wallah’:

“No stack has yet formed, but the timber is coming down faster and faster from the north, and the leviathans are finding plenty to do in keeping the logs riding free of one another. The uproar as we go up and down the river is terrific. The trumpeting and bellowing of elephants, “swooshes” of collapsing portions of the bank, the crackling and booming of timber, yells of mahouts and chainmen, the thrumming of the stream-these and other sounds combine to make one great blare of noise.” [ii]

[i] Macaulay, R.H., History of the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation, Ltd.1864-1910 (Privately printed by Spottiswoode, Ballantyne. Co. ltd, 1934)

[ii] Campbell, R, Teak Wallah (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986); Le May, An Asian arcady (W. Heffer, 1926)

A forester measuring and marking teak logs. (Photo courtesy of Peter and Stephen Kirrage)

Elephants working with huge teak logs during the period of the pioneer foreign foresters in Lanna. (Photo courtesy of Oliver Backhouse)

The above photo shows teak logs coming down in the torrential tributary river during a rainy season.

While Dibb was in Lakon there were some incidents worth mentioning. The first incident was the suicide of his colleague at BBTC, C.E. Fairholme, in 1901 at the age of thirty, which suggested that life in northern Siam was probably difficult and lonely in those days. The untimely deaths of various causes were probably a subconscious concern for all expatriates. In 1898, the matter had earlier been referred to the Siamese Commissioner in Chiang Mai, which prompted King Chulalongkorn to bestow a gift of land near Chiang Mai Gymkhana club. This land was, from then on, used as a foreign cemetery, and it was where the body of Fairholme was buried.

As for the Gymkhana club, it was founded on April 6th 1898 by eleven foreign residents, including Louis T Leonowens the son of Mrs. Leonowens the author of a controversial novel ‘Anna and the King of Siam’, who gathered in the flagstaff rotunda of Phya Song Suradet, the Siamese High Commissioner at that time. The club was intended only for use by Europeans, with the exception of a few invited influential Siamese and Chao Lao. The club was quiet during the year with few activities except at Christmas. During Christmas gatherings, there were generally racing, polo, golf, cricket, tennis events. The club also had a bumble puppy. Parties were also held with plenty of dancing and drinking.

In later years, the hosting of this Christmas gathering was alternated between Chiang Mai Gymkhana club and Lakon sport club, which was founded around 1908, on a land bought in 1906 by a Bombay Burmah’s forest assistant, Mr. E.P. Miller. Mr. Miller was later shot dead by dacoits, in a forest south of Chiang Mai, in 1910.[i]

[i] Prof. Kittichai Wattananikorn, British Teak Wallahs in Northern Thailand from 1876-1956 (White Lotus Press, 2018)

A group photograph most probably taken during a Christmas gathering at ‘the Chiang Mai Gymkhana club’ in 1908, presumably after a polo match. (Seated from left) A.L. Queripel, E.J. Walton, W.W. Wood, Not known, H.W. Clarke, W.R. Dibb. (Photo courtesy of Regina Dibb, Oregon. Names obtained from Gymkhana club, Chiang Mai). The lower photo is the polo field in Lakon where a Christmas Gathering was once held for American Polo in December 1914, which Mr. Dibb also attended. (Photo courtesy of Suvaporn Shutoe)

Teak Wallahs at Lakon Sport Club in 1912. (1)A.L. Queripel, later became Chiang Mai’s BBTC manager and spent all his life in Siam; (2)W. Bain of British Borneo who also spent all his life in Siam; (3)W.W. Wood BBTC general manager in Bangkok; (4) H, Macnaghten later became Sir Henry Macnaghten of BBTC in London; (5)H.W. Clarke, Lakon’s BBTC manager; (6)W.A. Elder, whose two years later became Siam Forest Co.’s forest manager, (7)W.R. Dibb, Phrae’s BBTC manager, (8)H.E.M. Martin of Siam Forest Co., a father of a well-known Prof. Dr. Bunsom Martin former Thai Ministers of various Ministries; (9)H.L. Norman of Siam Forest Co., whose pseudo name was Orwell in Reginald Campbell’s famous book ‘Teak Wallah’. (Photo courtesy of Gymkhana Sport Club; Information from Macfie's Chiengmai record and the author's two books 1) "British Teak Wallahs in Northern Thailand from 1876-1956, White Lotus Press, 2) Naihang pamai : sisan chiwit adit Lanna, 2nd Edition, Santipab Pack Print )

The second noteworthy incident, while Dibb was in Lakon, was the uprising of the Shan rebellion in northern Siam in July 1902. The Shans (a Thai ethnic group living in Burma) overtook Phrae on July 25th, 1902 and were preparing to attack Lakon on their next move. The attack was carried out on August 4th, but only after the evacuation of some expatriates who arrived in Chiang Mai on August 3rd. According to Macfie’s Chiengmai record[ii], these included Mr. W.R. Dibb, Mr. R. S. Watson (Siam Forest Company), Mr. and Mrs. R. C. Thomson (Forest Department) and Mrs. Reta Leonowens, who at that time resided with her husband in Lakon. (However, there is another contradictory report that the company money was put into a boat under Dibb, with orders to proceed to Rahaeng[iii]).

The attack on Lakon lasted for less than one day before the Shans were suppressed and their leader, Paka Mong, was killed by Siamese police forces, including one H. M. Jensen, a Captain in the provincial gendarmerie. About a week later the rebellion in Phrae was also crushed by Siamese police and army forces led by Phya Pichai, who entered the town on August 14th. However, on October 14th Capt. Jensen, who caught up with a band of fleeing Shan, was shot dead at Phayao, a small town north of Phrae. His body was later buried in the foreign cemetery, Chiang Mai.[iv]

[ii] Macfie, D F, edited by R W Wood and E R B Hudson, Chiengmai Record 1884-1919. (Payap university Archives, 1987).

[iii] Macaulay, R.H., History of the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation, Ltd., 1864-1910 (Privately Printed by Spottiswoode, Ballantyne Co. Ltd., 1934)

[iv] D.F. Macfie’s manuscript ‘Chiengmai Record’, W.S. Bristowe, Louis and the King of Siam, 1976. and I. Bushell, Merchants and the Missionaries, University of Wales, 2011

Chiang Mai Foreign Cemetery where Mr. Fairholme, Mr. Miller (killed by armed robbers) and Capt. Jensen were buried along with many other foresters, including Mr E.G.S. Hartley, another friend of our family who was also killed by armed robbers just north of Sukhothai in 1956.

Top: Aerial photo of Ban Chetawan, Phrae, taken by Peter Williams-Hunt in 1944, showing former BBTC compound with some buildings, the Royal Forest Dept.(R.F.D.)'s compound with the Green building, and the old Yom River. This BBTC compound was sold with three wooden houses to East Asiatic Co. in 1925 for 4,000 bath. Comparing this aerial photo with the current google map shown below, the former BBTC compound is now in the middle of the present-day Yom river, due to changing of the river's course. The Green building inside the R.F.D. compound was accidentally demolished last June, causing the outcry from Phrae community. This building was wrongly believed by the community to be a former BBTC building. In fact, it belong to the R.F.D. which was first built around 1904, but later modified many times. (Ref.: A letter from the general manager of BBTC, Bangkok, to the Head Office, which is in Dr. Oliver Backhouse's possession, Report on work and administration of the Royal Forest Department from BE 2438 to BE 2457 and a document of Fine Arts Dept., both in the author's possession)

Photograph taken at Gymkhana Club Chiang Mai in 1922. No. 5 is Leigh Williams, former Dibb's subordinate in Phrae. (2) A.L. Queripel (3) W. Haines, both were former Dibb's BBTC colleagues. (4) D.F. Macfie, British Borneo's Forest Manager.

Life in Phrae

In 1905, Mr. W.R. Dibb was transferred to Phrae as the manager of the forest station, where he would reside for the next ten years. Life in Phrae must have been relatively peaceful, what with the end of the Shan rebellion, in that he was able to host a group of missionaries for gatherings as noted by Miss Lucy Staring in Lao News about their Annual Meeting and in the Bangkok Times: [v]

Lao News: "Every afternoon came tea and tennis, Mr. Dibb of the Bombay Burmah Company being the host throughout the week.……"

“Through the kindness of Mr. Dibb two more families were accommodated in one of the Bombay Burmah Company bungalows”.

The Bangkok Times:

" North Laos Mission had a successful meeting at Phrae in December 1909- Mr. Dibb (BBTC) allow them use of a bungalow and his tennis courts, also served tea and 'in every way' gave the delegates 'a most cordial welcome'.

According to Leigh Williams (one of Dibb's subordinates in Phrae), who renamed Dibb as Philips in his book 'Jungle Prison', W.R.Dibb was a very strict boss. He was efficient, and demanded quite a high standard of efficiency from his staff. He judged them by their work, not by their social quality or ability to play polo. But if they were prepared to learn their job, he was only too glad to teach them. He was tremendously keen on the work, and could not bear to see it bungled. Leigh Williams wrote about his boss: [vi]

“There were only two opinions, it seems, about Philips. He was alternately the world’s worst swine, or the finest chap who had ever come out to Thailand. Those who disliked him said that the bitterness of his tongue was only exceeded by the acidity of his pen…."

"I was one of the lucky few who got on well with him…."

"Why had not Philips, with all his abilities, risen to be General Manager, or at least manager of one of the larger stations? The reason, I found out later, was because he did not get on well with his opposite numbers in other firms…."

"It was an axiom of our higher command that you must be popular with your rivals”.

Even though life in Phrae was relatively peaceful, but it was not without dangers. As a forester, W.R. Dibb had to work in a deep jungle alone, with only local helpers, for a long period of time out of the year. There he was prone to malaria and all sorts of other diseases. He could also be attacked by wild animals, such as bears, tigers, panthers, and all kinds of poisonous snakes, or even by elephants in musth. The danger of being assaulted by dacoits was also a likely possibility as it was known to happen.

Talking about tigers, there was a horrific story of a man-eater of Muang Pong, a forest about a hundred kilometers north of Phrae, where Dibb was in charge. Reginald Campbell, in 1935, wrote in his book, ‘Teak-Wallah’, about the hideous tigress that killed many villagers and eluded captures like a devil. The account was based on his recollection of a conversation with a forest assistant, F.D. Spencer, of the Anglo Siam Corporation: [vii]

“Gendarmes were sent out from the nearest big native town, only to return after days of fruitless endeavor. Fearless forest hunters stalked the shefiend, traps were laid, pits dug, and poison was smeared on baits. All, however, in vain, for the tigress had the cunning of the evil. The list of killings mounted and mounted.

Finally no less than twenty-nine of the firm’s employees or their friends and relations were slain, this apart from the very considerable number of victims the tigress must have claimed from the scattered jungle villages.”

Oddly enough this tigress would meet its demise at the hands of a Kamoo coolie ‘who normally could not have hit the proverbial haystack’, as the forest assistant put it. With all these dangers, a return to the base in Phrae to be with his family and a few English colleagues would be a welcoming break for Dibb.

(Note: One of Mr. Dibb’s colleagues in Phrae while he was the manager there was Mr. A.L. Queripel. Mr. Queripel left Phrae to work in Chiang Mai in 1908, where he later became the manager there in 1913. Before he retired from the BBTC, Queripel built a colonial style house at the base of Doi Suthep known as ‘Ban Ling Ha’ (or Heuan Queripel) around 1924-1925. This house is now restored and reopened to public as a museum at the Lanna Traditional House Museum, Chiang Mai University. http://art-culture.cmu.ac.th)

[v] Lao News, 1910, Vol.7 p.21; The Bangkok Times, 11 January 1910, p.5

[vi] William, Leigh, Jungle Prison (Andrew Melrose, 1954); Kittichai Wattananikorn, Naihang pamai yuk sud tai nai Lanna (Santipab Pack Print, BE 2563)

[vii] Campbell, R. Teak Wallah (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986); Kittichai Wattananikorn, Naihang pamai : sisan chiwit adit Lanna, 2nd Edition (Santipab Pack Print, BE 2558)