BRICKMAKING IN KUALA LUMPUR | 61
JMB RA S, JU NE 2017 VOL 90 PART 1, NUMB ER 312, pp. 61–72
The Brickmaking Industry in Kuala
Lumpur in the Late Nineteenth
Shapiza Sharif and Arba’iyah Mohd Noor
Kuala Lumpur was primarily a mining centre in the nineteenth century, but there
were other significant economic activities as well. As the city grew, so did the
demand for construction materials. Although small compared with mining, the
brick-making industry helped change Kuala Lumpur from a small village to a
substantial city. This article explains how brick-making developed, and examines
Shapiza Sharif, is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of
Malaya. She holds a Degree of Bachelor’s in Education and a Master’s of Science in
Educational Technology, and has produced six books for Oxford Fajar Sdn. Bhd.
Along with journal articles and book chapters.
Dr. Arba'iyah Mohd Noor is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of History at the
University of Malaya. She holds a B.A from the International Islamic University
of Malaysia (IIUM), an M.A from the University of Lancaster, and a Ph.D from
the University of Malaya. Her research specialization is Historical Thought and
Theory and Methods of History, and she has published a number of books and
articles published internationally.
Shapiza Sharif: email@example.com
Arba’iyah Mohd Noor: firstname.lastname@example.org
brickmaking, buildings, houses, factories, machinery, Kuala Lumpur, urban
development, construction materials
62 | SHAPIZA SHARIF AND ARBA’IYAH MOHD NOOR
Following a series of destructive fires in 1881, the Selangor State Council took
steps to ban the use of wood and thatch in construction in Kuala Lumpur. To
meet the demand for bricks created by the new regulations, brick-making works
developed around the city, and bricks played a significant part in shaping the city
as it expanded in the decades that followed.
Factors That Led to the Brick-making Industry in Kuala Lumpur
In January 1881 a fire, believed to have started when an oil lamp fell inside an
opium shop, killed three people and left 500 homeless. Another conflagration in
August of the same year destroyed twelve houses.1 The damage caused by these
fires was extensive because many houses were flimsy structures made of wood
and attap, and residents stored flammable materials, including fireworks and
firecrackers, in their homes for use during festive seasons.2
Many buildings in Kuala Lumpur were poorly constructed and insubstantial.
In April 1884 a severe storm caused considerable damage to buildings in and
around Kuala Lumpur.3 In May of the same year a wing of a newly constructed
police barracks in Kuala Lumpur suddenly collapsed,4 and 92 buildings, including
the house of Yap Ah Loy, leader of the Chinese community, collapsed during a
heavy rainstorm in December.5
At the time, Kuala Lumpur had no specific guidelines for building
construction and these incidents highlighted serious deficiencies in construction
methods and materials. After the fire in January 1881 a group of Chinese
businessmen sent a letter to the British Resident, Bloomfield Douglas, asking that
steps be taken to improve the situation, calling specifically for a prohibition on
setting off fireworks and firecrackers on Chinese New Year in Ulu Selangor and
Kuala Lumpur because of the risk of fire.6 In September, after the second fire, the
Selangor State Council introduced regulations prohibiting the building of wooden
shophouses in the business area of Kuala Lumpur, and regulating the distance
separating residential dwellings, as well as construction materials. Each block
could contain a maximum of twelve houses, and blocks had to be separated by at
least 20 feet. Only non-flammable materials such as stone and mud bricks could
be used; thatch-roofed verandas were banned.7 Ceilings had to be more than 15
cm thick and made of non-flammable material. Owners of wooden houses could
be fined $5 per month for failing to follow the new rules, especially if they were
located in the business area.8 The administration also widened roads and divided
1 Ahmad Kamal Ariffin (1993: 23–4).
2 Buyong (1981: 146).
3 Report on storm damage in Kuala Lumpur, SSF, 29 April 1884, MISC 817/84, pp. 1–2.
4 Copies of reports from Messrs. Spence Moss & Bellamy with reference to the fall of the
completed wing of the near Police Barracks, in SSF, 8 May 1884, KL 890/84, pp. 8–14.
5 Suleiman and Lokman (1999: 44).
6 Letter from Chinese businessmen to Bloomfield Douglas, SSF K.S. 12/8, 7 Jan. 1881.
7 Nik Anuar (1995: 7).
8 Ahmad Kamal Ariffin (2001: 23–5).
BRICKMAKING IN KUALA LUMPUR | 63
the city into zones, such as an opium shop zone, a business zone and a food court
zone, to reduce the risk of fire.
In 1884 the Resident of Selangor, Frank A. Swettenham, called for structures in
Kuala Lumpur to be rebuilt using stones, tiles and bricks, and required that new
houses use these materials. A notice dated 15 September 1884 required owners
to get approval from the Superintendent of Public Works before undertaking
any building work or modifying existing premises.9 The regulations stipulated
that buildings must be made from bricks, and roofs from tiles rather than nipah
palm leaves. At the time, there were just four houses with tile roofs in Kuala
Lumpur, but by early in 1885 there were 218 brick houses and two years later the
number had risen to 518.10 The state government offered credit with low interest
rates to residents of Kuala Lumpur to encourage them to build brick houses.11
Failure to switch from wood to brick carried a penalty of up to $100, which was
a substantial sum at the time.12 Owners of business premises sought a delay in
enforcing the requirement to change building materials, and the owners residing
in attap houses near Batu Road and Batu-Maxwell Road on government land
sought a postponement until late 1895, but clearly the regulations had a positive
effect,13 and led to an expansion of the brick-making industry. By 1886 there
were 15 brick factories and 6 limestone factories to meet the demand for bricks
in Kuala Lumpur.14 The brickmaking factories used timber in the furnaces to
fire the bricks.15 The choice of fuel was important for the industry because high
temperatures produced better quality bricks that lasted longer.16
Apart from reducing the risk of damage from fire and storms, officials
thought that substantial brick buildings would help attract overseas investment.17
Swettenham’s successors, Sir William Maxwell, Resident of Selangor 1889–1892,
and J. P. Rodger, Resident 1896–1902, called for the use of bricks in the construction
of public buildings, and many of the city’s iconic structures, such as the building
housing government offices (now Bangunan Sultan Abdul Samad) and the Railway
Station, are made of bricks.18 Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya refers
to Rodger’s concern for conditions in Kuala Lumpur, saying ‘He found it a hotbed
of filth and dirt; he left it well advanced on the road to modern cleanliness and
9 Proclamation: That from and after this date no new house shall be erected within the
town of KL unless built of bricks, 15 Sept. 1884, in SSF, KL 1592/84, p. 8.
10 Ahmad Kamal Ariffin (1993: 32); Nik Anuar (1995: 7).
11 Ahmad Kamal Ariffin (1993: 32).
12 Proclamation: That from and after this date no new house shall be erected within the
town of KL unless built of bricks, in SSF, 15 Sept. 1884, KL 1592/84, p. 8.
13 Attap houses situated on Government land state that they are willing to purchase the
land to erect substantial brick building but pray that their houses may be allowed to
stand till the end of 1895, in SSF, 22 Jul. 1895–13 Aug. 1895, CHINESE MISC 3774/1895,
pp. 4 –5.
14 Ahmad Kamal Ariffin (1993: 31–2).
15 Suleiman and Lokman (1999: 71).
16 Tender notice for brick, limestone and wood supplies for sewerage by Selangor
Government Railway, in SSF, 24 Dec. 1883, Selangor Railway 1942/83, p. 7.
17 Suleiman and Lokman (1999: 44).
19 Wright (1908: 846).
64 | SHAPIZA SHARIF AND ARBA’IYAH MOHD NOOR
Illus 1: Detail of the Bangunan Sultan Abdul Samad
Illus 2: An Excerpt of the Notice
on the Restriction of Bricks as
Building Material for Building
New Houses. [Source: Selangor
Secretariat File KL 1592/84.
Courtesy of National Archives
Malaysia, Accession Number
BRICKMAKING IN KUALA LUMPUR | 65
Illus 3: An Appeal Letter from Attap
House Owners to Postpone Bricks
Control in Kuala Lumpur. [Source:
Selangor Secretariat File CHINESE
MISC 3774/1895. Courtesy of National
Archives Malaysia, Accession Number
Illus 4: Layout of the Location of
Four Attap House Owners Who
Appealed for the Postponement on
Bricks Control. [Source: Selangor
Secretariat File, CHINESE MISC
3774/1895. Courtesy of National
Archives Malaysia, Accession
66 | SHAPIZA SHARIF AND ARBA’IYAH MOHD NOOR
The Brick-making Industry in Kuala Lumpur
Bricks became the construction material of choice in 1884 partly because stone,
formerly the main non-flammable building material, was in short supply. The
shortage eased by 1886, but bricks were preferred for construction at locations
in the centre of the city such as Market Street, Ampang Road, High Street and
Pudu Road. When inviting tenders for bridge construction for Sungai Klang and
Gombak, the state government called for the use of bricks.20
Bricks had been made in Kuala Lumpur since 1878, and one of the leaders
of the Chinese community, Yap Ah Loy, owned a brick factory that exported
bricks to Singapore and Hong Kong. The regulation of building materials created
a growing demand that existing brickworks could not satisfy, and government
officials encouraged European and local companies to open brick factories.21 As
the industry grew, the government received many requests for land to set up
brickworks in the city. For example, an entrepreneur named Dorasamy asked
for a piece of land to build a factory for brick and tile production near Jalan Batu
and Sungai Gombak, while A. B. Rathborne was given 10 acres of land for brick
production, and later asked for 5 acres more.22
Tenders submitted for supplying bricks to be used on government projects in
Selangor provide details of the industry, including the price of bricks offered to the
government. Any company that submitted bids had to send samples for evaluation,
and the competition between companies provided a degree of quality assurance in
Table 1: Measurement and Cost of 1000 Bricks Offered to State Government
Measurement of Bricks and Tiles Cost
10" x 6" $4.00
81/2" x 41/2" $2.25
Source: Mr. T. H. Hill Applies to Supply the Government of Selangor with bricks at a fixed
price, in Selangor Secretariat File KL 718/83.
20 Tender notice for the construction of four brick piers for pipe bridges over Gombak and
Klang Rivers, in SSF, 30 Oct. 1894, PWD 4927/1894.
21 Ibid., pp. 23–5; Nik Anuar (1995: 7).
22 Ibid.; J. G. Davidson to Resident, Selangor, in SSF, 28 Mar 1879, RESIDENT 128/79;
Dorasamy to J. P. Rodger, in SSF, 29 April 1881–19 April 1884, 816/84; Applies for 5 more
acres of land adjoining his former grant of 10 acres for Brick Making Works, in SSF, 19
Oct. 1883–22. Oct. 1883, MISC1606/83.
23 Asking for stamped samples of bricks & tiles, in SSF, 31 Jul. 1883, PWD 227/83; Tender
for supply of Bricks, in SSF, 9 May 1894–10 May 1894, SECRETARIAT 2589/1894.
BRICKMAKING IN KUALA LUMPUR | 67
Messrs. Hill & Rathbone Company operated the largest factory in Brickfields
and Damansara producing bricks and tiles, and in 1884 they won a contract to
supply bricks and related materials to the city of Kuala Lumpur. The prices were
based on size, and initially they were asked to supply 5,000 tiles measuring 10" x
6" and 550,000 tiles measuring 8½" x 4½" for roofing. Later, they supplied 1,000 tiles
measuring 12" x 12" and 550 measuring 14" x 14" for flooring.24
Illus 5: Bricks, Tiles and Wood Supply Contract between Messrs. Hill & Rathbone
Company and the Public Works Department in Kuala Lumpur. [Source: Selangor
Secretariat File PWD 1671/84. Courtesy of National Archives Malaysia, Accession
Because planned developments required a massive number of bricks, the
Public Works Department (PWD) set up its own brickworks in 1894.25 The
launching of this factory sped up production and made it possible to carry out a
large-scale building programme in Kuala Lumpur.
While bricks were initially made by hand, the introduction of brick-making
machinery brought a number of changes that allowed bricks to be made more
efficiently.26 Machine-made bricks also required less labour, a point that was
24 Mr. T. H. Hill Applies To Supply The Government of Selangor with bricks at a fixed
price, in SSF, 28 May 1883, KL718/83, pp. 3–4; Contract for the supply of bricks, tiles,
timber with Messrs Hill and Rathborne, in SSF, 15 Sept. 1884, PWD 1671/84; Ahmad
Kamal Ariffin (1993: 32).
25 Tate (1987: 45).
26 Mr. T. H. Hill Applies To Supply The Government of Selangor with bricks at a fixed
price, in SSF, 28 May 1883–5 Jul. 1883, KL 718/83.
68 | SHAPIZA SHARIF AND ARBA’IYAH MOHD NOOR
demonstrated when machines sold by H. Clayton, Son & Howlett’s reduced the
time and the number of workers needed for brick-making in Kuala Lumpur. A
‘Single Chamber Machine’ required just one employee and produced 5,000 bricks
per day. A ‘Double Chamber Machine’ could produce 6,500 units per day, but
two workers were needed to operate the machine. As the cost of production fell,
bricks became cheaper, and the number and quality of bricks manufactured per
day increased as equipment was upgraded, with production rising from 10,000
to 16,000 to 25,000 units per day. Moreover, the new machinery produced better
quality bricks, and by 1892 machines could make bricks and tiles measuring 6", 9",
12" and 15”.27
Illus 6: Advertisement for a Brick-making Machine. [Source: Selangor Secretariat File, PWD
8122/92. Courtesy of National Archives Malaysia, Accession Number 1957/0035877.]
27 Brick Manufacture K. Lumpur, in SSF, 30 Nov 1892, PWD 8122/92, pp. 8–10.
BRICKMAKING IN KUALA LUMPUR | 69
Illus 7: Advertisement for a Machine That Could Manufacture 3 Different Bricks
Measurement in the Quantities 10,000, 16,000 and 25,000 per day. [Source: Selangor
Secretariat File, PWD 8122/92. Courtesy of National Archives Malaysia, Accession Number
1 9 57/ 0 0 3 5 8 7 7. ]
Illus 8: Advertisement for an Improved Brick-making Machine. [Source: Selangor
Secretariat File, PWD 8122/92. Courtesy of National Archives Malaysia, Accession Number
1 9 57/ 0 0 3 5 8 7 7. ]
70 | SHAPIZA SHARIF AND ARBA’IYAH MOHD NOOR
Kuala Lumpur was built on low-lying, swampy land in the valley of the
Klang River. The eastern part of the city was a catchment area for the surrounding
highlands, and the city experienced heavy rainfall throughout the year.
Accordingly, it required an extensive network of drains to remove excess water.
The government required that drains and sewers be built with an average depth of
around 20 feet, with the exact measurement adjusted to suit the length and width
of individual roads28 (see Table 2). Fixed measurements for bricks made it easier
to meet the specifications for drains, and the demand was strong. The Selangor
State Railway, for example, used 1,050,000 bricks measuring 9" x 4½" x 3" to build
Table 2: The Measurement and Total Number of Bricks Used in Construction
of Drains and Sewers in Kuala Lumpur
Road No. of Bricks Measurement of Bricks
Damansara Road 500 (not specified)
Sultan Street 46 12" x 12"
Junction of Clarke Street & Jalan Raja 19 12" x 12"
Petaling Lane 134 12" x 15"
Holland Road 99 ⅓12" x 15"
Petaling Street Lane 60 12" x 12"
Gombak Lane 37 12" x 12"
Sultan Street 60 12" x 24"
Petaling Street 60 12" x 24"
Source: Annual Report 1897, Sanitary Board Kuala Lumpur in Selangor Secretariat File,
Machine-made bricks were identical and did not need to be cut to size
manually. The clay used to manufacture bricks did not require expensive
tempering, but was simply mixed with water and passed through a pug mill to
reduce it to a plastic state. It was then pressed downwards into a chamber where
a revolving arm forced it through dies and onto the rollers of a cutting frame that
could produce either perforated or solid bricks.30 J. M. Gullick noted that bricks
made in this way were ‘produced in larger quantity, better quality, and at lower
co st ’.31 Using bricks as building material not only saved on cost but also gave the
impression of better quality.
28 Annual Report of the Kuala Lumpur Sanitary Board for 1897, SSF 1493/98; Ahmad
Kamal Ariffin (1993: 3).
29 Tender notice for brick, limestone and wood supplies for sewerage by Selangor
Government Railway, 24 Dec. 1883, SSF Selangor Railway 1942/83, p. 7.
30 Brick Manufacture K. Lumpur, 30 Nov 1892, SSF PWD 8122/92, p. 8. The machines were
made of iron and driven by tooth-gearing … [or] by a belt.
31 Gullick (1992a: 30).
BRICKMAKING IN KUALA LUMPUR | 71
The brick-making industry in Kuala Lumpur transformed the appearance of
the city, as buildings and houses made from nipah and attap were replaced with
brick structures. The magnificent building that housed government offices, now
Bangunan Sultan Abdul Samad, was built in 1897 and required 4 million bricks,
2,500 barrels of cement, 18,000 pikuls of lime, 5,000 pounds of copper, 50 tons
of steel and about 30,000 cubic feet of timber.32 Factories in the Brickfields area
supplied bricks for the building, for the Pudu Gaol (built in 1891–5), and for other
government construction projects.33
Brick-making became a major industry in Kuala Lumpur after conflagrations in
the city led the British administration to control the use of flammable building
materials. The principal non-flammable materials that were available were bricks
and tiles, and the restrictions created a strong stimulus for the brick-making
industry in Kuala Lumpur. Improved machinery for making bricks helped develop
the industry, giving it the capacity to provide the bricks needed for large-scale
AR Annual Repor t
JMBRAS Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society
KL Kuala Lumpur
KS Kuala Selangor
MISC Miscella neous
PWD Public Works Department
SSF Selangor Secretariat Files
Ahmad Kamal Ariffin Mohd Rus (1993), Sanitary Board Kuala Lumpur: Peranan
dan Pentadbirannya, 1890–1914, M.A. dissertation, Universiti Malaya, Kuala
——— (2 0 0 1), Sanitary Board Kuala Lumpur: Peranan dan Pentadbirannya, 1890–1914,
Kuala Lumpur: Persatuan Sejarah Malaysia.
Buyong Adil (1981), Sejarah Selangor, Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.
Gullick, J. M. (1992a), ‘The Bangunan Sultan Abdul Samad’, JMBRAS 6 5/1: 27–38.
——— (1992b), ‘The Bloomfield Douglas Diary 1876–1882’ in J. M. Gullick, Glimpses
of Selangor 1860–1898, MBRAS Monograph No. 25, Kuala Lumpur: MBRAS.
——— (2 00 0) , A History of Kuala Lumpur 1857–1939, Kuala Lumpur: MBRAS.
32 The secretariat building was designed by A. C. Norman. Sir Charles Mitchell, Governor
of the Straits Settlements in 1894 when it was in the planning stages, stipulated that it
should be made of bricks (Gullick, 1992a: 27–38).
33 For a proposal to supply all timber, bricks and tiles required for the new Gaol building,
see SSF,10 Jul. 1884–11 Jul. 1884, MISC 1309/84; Gullick (1992a: 30).
72 | SHAPIZA SHARIF AND ARBA’IYAH MOHD NOOR
Nik Anuar Nik Mahmud (1995), ‘Dalam Lipatan Sejarah 1857–1974’, in Hairi
Abdullah (ed.), Titian Warna: Sejarah Pembangunan dan Perubahan Citra Kuala
Lumpur, Kuala Lumpur: Penerbitan Sejarah, pp. 3–16.
Tate, D. J. M. (1987), Kuala Lumpur in Postcards 1900–1930: from the collection of Major
David Ng (Rtd) and Steven Tan, Petaling Jaya: Fajar Bakti.
Suleiman Mohamed and Lokman Mohd. Zen (1999), Sejarah Kampung Bahru: Di Sini
Awal Segalanya Bermula, Bangi: Institut Alam dan Tamadun Melayu (ATMA).
Wright, Arnold (1908), Twentieth Century Impressions of British Malaya: Its History,
People, Commerce, Industries, and Resources, London: Lloyd's.