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A Brief History Of William Kellie Smith
William Kellie Smith was a planter, but many remember him for his palatial abode - Kellie’s Castle! This mansion has been gazetted as a historical site in Malaysia today and has received many tourists. Kellie’s Castle was also one of the sets for the film ‘Anna and the King’.
The following is an abstract taken from a talk by Dr Ho Tak Ming:
William Smith was born on the 1st of March 1870 in Moray Firth, Scotland and came to Malaya as a 20-year old civil engineer. He joined Alma Baker in road construction in south Perak and later in his contract surveying. In 1893 he joined the Kinta Valley Railway for one year as an Assistant Engineer. Later he became a Government contractor.
In the nineteenth century the Government gave generous concessions of land to European settlers interested in “scientific” cultivation, ie, setting up plantations. William Smith acquired 3,000 acres of land around Batu Gajah on very generous terms, ie, without premium and at a rental of 10 cents an acre for ten years, and 50 cents thereafter. He first planted coffee, and built a modest wooden bungalow, the first Kellas House, at the present site of Kellie’s Castle.
Although coffee prices were good in the early 1890’s, by 1896, its price had collapsed and a lot of the coffee planters were ruined. William Smith was also affected. He wanted to switch the rubber, but by the early 1900’s still had not the capital to do so. He also had a number of mining concessions but had not worked on them. In 1903 he was recalled rather suddenly to Scotland to see his dying mother. Her maiden name was Kellie, and when he came back from Scotland, he added this to his name, calling himself William Kellie Smith.
He had a sudden change of fortune on his return to Malaya. He met his wife, Agnes. Tan Sri Mubin Sheppard, who wrote an article on Kellie’s Castle for the New Straits Times Annual, says that he met her on the ship back to Penang. She was coming out East for the first time, and William Smith was a tall, handsome and dashing bachelor. He must have swept her off her feet. They got married almost immediately, and had a daughter, Helen, the next year. Agnes was an heiress, due to inherit $300,000 in 1906.
He transferred half of his holdings to her name, making Agnes the owner of a 1,500 acre estate, Kellas Estate, and arranged with a Singapore firm to advance her $24,000 a year for three years to develop Kellas Estate. However, he did not use all the money to develop the estate. He built a distillery costing $20,000 for distilling the perfume patchouli from patch leaf grown in the estate, and also for distilling lemon grass. In the late 19th century patchouli was a very popular fragrance in Europe, the fabrics manufactured in India and sent to Europe being scented with it. However, by the late 1900’s, its popularity had declined, and his distillery was a failure. (Its popularity was revived in the 1960’s during the hippies’ “flower power” era). He also bought sawmill machinery costing $1,500 to cut the logs felled from his concessions.
Agnes was not used to the heat in his wooden bungalow. He built her a solid brick bungalow costing $8,500 so that she need not spend a lot of her time at hill stations. This is building (now in ruins) behind Kellie’s Castle. At the time it was the most beautiful bungalow in BG, even outshining Alma Baker’s mostly wooden bungalow. In 1905 the Chinese firm in Singapore told him that it could not advance Agnes any more, having been ruined by Chinese failures in Batavia (now Jakarta) where it had invested a lot of money. The trustees also told Agnes that they could only release the money in 1908. Thus the Kellie-Smiths were faced with mounting debts, which they had no ready cash to repay. Agnes had no choice but to approach the Government for a loan of $50,000 to tide them over until the trustee released her money.
The Government, having to abide by regulations, insisted on a valuation of the estate. They found only 277 acres planted with rubber. Taking the valuable timber on the concession into consideration, they offered Agnes a loan of $10,000. Kellie Smith was furious. He wrote to WP Hume, the Secretary to Resident in Taiping, “My wife is of course borrowing, or asking for the loan on her expectations, or rather her own funds which will be released from trustees on 15th January 1908. $10,000 is absolutely of no use at all”. Agnes appealed all the way to the High Commissioner, but could not move the Government’s obduracy. In fact Agnes’ “expectations” became something of a joke among official circles, the word having a double meaning. Kellie Smith had no other option but to sell the estate to an agency house. In 1906, Kellas Estate became Kellas Ltd, with Kellie Smith as the Managing Director. In 1910 this was split into the Kinta Kellas Ltd, concerned solely with rubber, and the Klian Kellas Ltd, which was also involved with tin mining.
Why did Kellie Smith build Kellie’s Castle when he already had a lovely mansion where they could entertain the upper crust of Kinta society? This is the question that I would like to bring up for discussion. When Agnes received her inheritance in 1908, of course, they were among the wealthiest couples in Kinta and could well afford to indulge in William Kellie’s Smith’s whims and fancies. My theory is that he had a grudge against the Government who had made fun of Agnes’s “expectations” and did not really believe she was actually an heiress. He wanted to build her a mansion that was more resplendent that the Residency in Taiping. There was really no functional use for the new “castle” or “palace” whatever one would like to call it. There were 14 rooms, a wine cellar capable of holding 3,000 bottles of wine, a shaft for a lift, a flat rooftop for parties or tennis, but no kitchen or servants’ quarters. It was connected with the old mansion by a covered passage, and was probably not independent of it. In fact, there was going to be no one to use the castle. In the early 1920’s Agnes left Malaya with their son Anthony for Britain for his education. Kellie Smith got a big concession of land in Portuguese Timor for planting, and would have to be away from Malaya for long periods. In 1926, with the castle still unfinished, he went to England with his daughter Helen to visit his family, and it was on the return trip that he caught a cold in Portugal where he was going to finalise the terms of his lease, and died in the Portuguese capital.
The first picture is from the National Archives. The second picture is courtesy of the Estate of William Kellie Smith.
To read about other famous personalities from Batu Gajah, click here.
To see the video "Kellie's Castle - Myth and Mystery", in three parts, click here.