J J Murphy: Kerala’s Rubber Man



“On a rainy day in Ooty, South India’s famous hill station, some nuns were walking along a road in the cold. Suddenly, a car stopped by and the gentleman driving it offered them a lift. He asked why they were not using a vehicle in such inclement weather. The nuns replied that their convent did not have one. The next day, a local dealer delivered a brand new Dodge car to the convent. The astonished nuns thanked the donor. They also told him they could not keep the vehicle because there was no money to engage a driver or to buy petrol. The gentleman assigned a driver on his payroll to the convent. He also instructed a petrol bunk to forward the convent’s bills to his office.”

This is an anecdote about a man you’ve probably never heard of – an Irishman named John Joseph Murphy (1872 – 1957). But in the rubber plantations of Kerala, Murphy is a legend. A planter who arrived in India at a very young age, it was Murphy who set up India’s first commercially successful rubber plantations in Kerala, in the early 20th century. Today, Kerala accounts for 90 per cent of India’s rubber production.

Rubber plantation in Kerala
Rubber plantation in Kerala|Wikimedia Commons

Murphy arrived in India in 1897. He worked first with tea, then as a planter of cardamom before he finally switched to rubber when he realised its growing importance in manufacturing. He was an entrepreneur with a workforce of about 1,000 people as well as a philanthropist who received the Papal honour 'Pro Ecclesia Et Pontifice' from Pope Pius XI. Here is his story…

J J Murphy was born in 1872 in Dublin to a family of shippers and bankers. The youngest of six children, he was not even a year old when he was diagnosed with asthma. As a result, he was educated at home with Marist Brothers, a Catholic Educational Brotherhood in Europe.

A young Murphy regularly visited the Dublin port with his father and would come across ships laden with rich spices and other commodities from the East. Fascinated and curious about this ‘other part’ of the world, Murphy enrolled at Trinity College in Dublin as it had periodical recruitments for the Indian Civil Service.

However, even before he completed the course, Murphy sailed to Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) to try his luck. There, he joined a tea plantation company when he was just 21 but he quit his job in a few years. K L Kershaw, former Chairman of the Travancore Rubber and Tea Co Ltd, in his article on Murphy in Planters Chronicle (September 1957), writes, “In 1897, Murphy migrated to South India to join Messrs Finlay Muir & Co, who at the time had just taken over many estates in the Kannan Devan Hills in Kerala and was recruiting planters from Ceylon for the development of tea on the hills.”

After serving the company for eight years, Murphy longed to strike out on his own. His first endeavour was at Pampadumpara in the Idukki district in Kerala. He was offered an estate here by two English planters, who were growing cardamom here. Murphy seized the opportunity, bought the estate and set out to grow cardamom on an organised basis. He expanded and the Pampadumpara Estate became the first cardamom estate of its size in the region.

At the age of 29, Murphy was already a private estate owner but the entrepreneur in him wanted more. So, after reaping a good profit from cardamom, he turned his attention to rubber.

Ficus elastica, Assam
Ficus elastica, Assam

In India, rubber had been in use in a crude and rudimentary way for a long time. William Roxburgh, popularly known as the ‘father of Indian botany’, in his book Flora Indica wrote that he came across rubber extracted from the Ficus elastica plant in Assam dating back to 1810. In the 19th century, this was the only plant in the valleys of North-East India that was commercially tapped. The average annual production of raw rubber between 1882 and 1887 was 207 tonnes.

However, excessive extraction using destructive methods led to a decline in its production, even as the demand for this locally extracted rubber was growing. This was in large part due to the expansion of the railway network in India, which required a large amount of rubber. The authorities were thus forced to look for supply elsewhere.

They turned their attention to faraway South America and the Amazon rain forest, which was home to many species of trees that yielded rich latex or rubber. The best of them was Hevea brasiliensis.

Improvements in technology, specifically the discovery of the process of vulcanisation by Charles Goodyear in 1839, upped the global demand for rubber. Vulcanisation is a process where rubber is heated to 100-140 degrees Centigrade and mixed with sulphur to harden it while allowing it to retain its elasticity. One can only imagine how versatile rubber suddenly became, and latex from the Amazon was sought by industrial countries across the world.

When even the great forests of the Amazon started struggling to meet the world’s demand for rubber, Thomas Hancock, an English inventor and manufacturer who founded the British rubber industry in the first half of the 19th century, suggested introducing rubber cultivation in the Eastern hemisphere.

Tapping of Hevea brasiliensis
Tapping of Hevea brasiliensis

In 1873, the first attempts were made to grow Hevea outside Brazil. After much trial and error, 12 seedlings germinated at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, London. Six of these were sent to Britain’s India Office in Calcutta. But they did not survive for long as the site selected was climatically unsuitable.

A couple of years later, a second attempt was made and 70,000 seeds were smuggled from the Amazon to Kew, by a British explorer, Henry Wickham. Only 3.5 per cent of these seeds germinated, and in 1876, about 2,000 seedlings were dispatched to Ceylon.

By 1878, Ceylon was producing root cuttings from its stock of Hevea trees, and a consignment was sent to the Nilambur Valley in the Malabar, on the west coast of India. It was to be planted as a forest crop in the teak plantation there in an area called Munderi. However, this lot of saplings too failed due to lack of care and patronage, followed by a series of failed attempts at various other sites. But the flurry of activity around rubber had aroused considerable interest among private players, who tossed their proverbial hat into the ring. One of these entrepreneurs was J J Murphy.

Murphy along with three other planters – J A Hunter, K E Nicoll and C M F Ross – formed the ‘Periyar Syndicate’ in 1902. They successfully attempted a Hevea rubber plantation in Kerala in Alwaye, on the banks of the Periyar River.

Plantations in Mundakayam in the 20th century, Yendayar estate can be seen in the centre
Plantations in Mundakayam in the 20th century, Yendayar estate can be seen in the centre|George Abraham

Two years later, in 1904, Murphy went solo. He acquired land in the Mundakayam area, partly from the Travancore government and partly from the local Rajas of Vanjipuzha and Poonjar. It was located in a dense and uninhabited forest. Today, the place is known as Yendayar in Kottayam district, Kerala, and is the heart of the country’s rubber plantations. In fact, the name ‘Yendayar’ itself was given by Murphy in memory of his mother who passed away around the time when Murphy bought the land. ‘En Thayar’ in Tamil means ‘my mother’. Murphy was proficient in Tamil, and unlike the British wanted to give his estate a local name.

It is here that rubber was first planted commercially in India by Murphy. By 1915, he had also planted tea on this land, which in later years came to be sold under the ‘Stella’ trademark. Murphy was also a pioneer in organising pepper on a plantation scale.

Murphy’s success attracted many other players, including major British companies with their many advantages and vast resources. However, the economic collapse set off by the Great Depression of 1929 hit the world hard and British companies were forced to close for a while. But Murphy held on, refusing to shut his estate. When the demand for rubber grew during the Second World War, Murphy took advantage of it and bought even more estates.

He was not only a pioneer in the plantation industry but also a pioneer in labour welfare. In his plantations, Murphy employed a workforce of almost 1,000 people drawn from the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. And, as an employer, he took care of them in a way that was unheard of in those times. Murphy was fondly called ‘Murphy Sayippu’ (Sahib in Malayalam) by the entire town.

Murphy Estate
Murphy Estate|George Abraham

K L Kershaw writes that at Murphy Estate, “permanent family lines, piped water, sanitation, maternity wards, crèches, hospitalisation, noonday meals for children and schools were in existence.” He even sent his workmen’s children to Madras for higher education at his own expense. Kershaw says Murphy also took an active part in the plantation politics in the formative years of United Planters' Association of Southern India (UPASI), and was the driving force behind the formation of the Rubber Scientific Department, which saved South India's young rubber industry from extinction due to the ravages of Phytophthora meadii (a plant-damaging disease). Murphy also started the first rubber research centre named ‘Mycology’ in the country in 1924 at Mundakayam.

K V Thomas Pottamkulam, an entrepreneur in Kerala from whose article Princely Planter the introductory anecdote has been taken, writes that “the entire country faced severe food shortage during World War II. But the people of Yendayar were fortunate because Murphy ensured regular supplies of quality rice and other items at a great personal cost. Substandard stuff was destroyed.”

JJ Murphy School, established in the rubber man’s honour
JJ Murphy School, established in the rubber man’s honour|George Abraham

Murphy may have made a fortune from his plantations in Kerala’s but he was also a philanthropist and was keen on giving back. He built many churches and chapels and his contributions to charities, seminaries, convents, schools and orphanages were so generous that he was conferred the Papal honour 'Pro Ecclesia Et Pontifice' by Pope Pius XI.

Murphy also enjoyed the good things in life. He led a group of planters in founding the Mundakayam Club in 1912. For years, the Murphy Ball was the main feature of ‘Planters Week’, where he entertained 300-400 guests. He was also passionate about racing and had a large stable with horses bringing him laurels from many racecourses in India.

Murphy visited his hometown in Ireland and the UK for the last time in 1938-1939. Even after retirement, he chose to remain in India among the people he loved to call his own. He died on 9th May 1957 and was laid to rest in St Joseph’s Church Cemetery at Yendayar, the same cemetery where many of his plantation workers have been buried.

JJ Murphy’s grave
JJ Murphy’s grave|George Abraham

In 2013, a memorial was built for Murphy in the same cemetery by the Rubber Board of India. The JJ Murphy Research Centre at India’s Rubber Park at Airapuram and John Joseph Murphy Memorial Higher Secondary School at Yendayar were also built in his memory.

These are only some of the markers for a man who forever changed a part of Kerala’s economy as well as the lives of those who toiled to make his ventures a roaring success.

Note: In 1952, JJ Murphy sold his 1200 acre Yendayar estate to Jose Kallivayalil, Michael Kallivayalil, KV Joseph Pottamkulam and KK Abraham Pottamkulam for 17 lakhs and they became equal partners of the land. Later on, their families became the main stakeholders of the Murphy estate. Murphy used a big part of that money for philanthropic activities. Murphy’s bungalow and other property in the heart of Yendayar are today, as of this date, owned by 97-year-old Michael Kallivayalil. He is also responsible for starting the JJ Murphy Memorial School.

Many thanks to Mr. George Abraham and his book ‘The Path to the Hills’.

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