The International Steam Pages


Temples of Steam - The Rice Mills of Burma

Temples of Steam DVDs
10 DVDs with more than 100 working stationary steam engines in Burma

Rob and Yuehong in Burma, 2005 - 10

Since 2005, my wife, Yuehong, and I have visited Burma (Myanmar) a number of times to research the stationary steam engines in the country's thousands of rice mills. It has been a fascinating experience and you can follow the links below to the summary pages for our various trips; each, in turn, contains links to individual reports. Later rice mill visits are mixed up with the 'tourist stuff', please use the link above to access them:


I was told about the rice mills more than 5 years ago by John Raby, he said he had heard that there were maybe more than 2500 of them all over the lowlands of the country where rice is grown. It was a natural extension of my interest in Java's sugar mills to pay an extended visit to research just what was left. Mechanisation of the separation of the rice grains from the husks appears to date from the time of the British Raj, and nearly all the original pre-Second World War machinery, if it carries a name at all, bears that of British manufacturers. It seems we have now visited the majority of areas with significant steam activity and we have found that within each State/Division the activity varies appreciably by district. There are a number of factors at work, I am sure that the main reason for the survival of steam power in quantity is the absence of any kind of reliable 24/7 electrical supply in most of the country, at least two mills are using an engine to power a generator for electric motors. For, instance in the area south of Pyay, steam is strongest furthest from the city and again wanes nearer Yangon. The liberalisation of the rice trade a few years back means that in some areas many mills have closed, farmers now being free to make their own arrangements for processing their harvest. Many steam mills have seen little investment and the old, poorly maintained equipment produces poor quality rice with many broken bits which will fetch a low price. On the other hand, some millers (particularly but not exclusively in Irrawaddy Division and also around Shwebo in Sagaing Division) are building new mills which are steam powered. They appreciate that the current low price for electricity (when it is available) is unsustainable and that when economic reforms are completed, they will be very competitive.

On our first visit, we were told there are several thousand (mainly small) private rice mills in the country, certainly a lot less than half use steam power but that is still an awful lot of engines.....  So how many stationary steam engines are there left here? I would say of the order of 500 - 1000; it is impossible to estimate more precisely because of the number of them which are derelict or out of use, the total might even be higher. And how many still earn their living? At least 300, (we have seen well over 250 and know of many more which are 'runners'), a more exact figure cannot be given with any confidence because not all mills are registered and inaccessible mills in remote areas may well continue to use steam. Our reports on this website are deliberately selective, designed to give a flavour of the country rather than be a definitive account. Having seen it happen in China with steam locomotives, I am painfully aware of the 'Lonely Planet Effect' and if you want to see these mills for yourself, you are going to have to co-operate with us (and more specifically our guide friend Han) or repeat the whole painful learning process we have been through. Even those mills which work all through the year have days off while they accumulate enough rice to mill or repair their equipment. Some mills may only operate on a few days a year which is rather unfortunate if they happen to possess an unusual type of engine. Each visit sees us log fewer and fewer 'new' working mills, we could easily have boosted our total by assiduously revisiting mills with standard engines but simply it's not worth the effort.


The Manufacturers:

The names of Tangye and Marshall dominate the scene, with maybe rather more than a quarter of the market each, the Marshalls being generally later, more sophisticated and larger machines than the Tangyes. Jessop appeared to have been the main Tangye agents for some time and their plates are found on some engines. However, a lot of other names appear and no doubt others too are represented because many engines (especially very old ones) carry no mark. The following is a list of what we have found, at least one example active unless indicated otherwise, more information (eg based on the unidentified engines shown in the various reports) to flesh it out would be very welcome indeed. While most engines we have seen were delivered new here, it seems that quite a few came second hand, especially once the British mills went over to electricity, this may explain the appearance of some oddball small makers who would definitely not have had the resources to get into the export business.

The links will open a new window. In some cases this will be to an extended report in which the one known example is shown. Otherwise it will be a page which shows a number of that manufacturer's products, these pictures will have appeared previously on this site but are now grouped together for convenience as well.

Ajax Iron Works, Corry, Pa., USA (only one, semi-derelict)
Bellis and Morcom, Birmingham, England (one reported active by another visitor in a saw mill in Central Burma in 2000) 
E.T. Bellhouse, Manchester, England (only one, out of use)
Burn & Co, Howrah, India (only two, one out of use, the other dismantled and stored, the name is cast on one of them, but they may have been simply agents)
Chicago Pneumatic Tool Co, USA (only one)
Cowans, Sheldon (only one in store, possibly off a steam crane)
Davey, Paxman and Company, Engineers, Colchester, England (several)
Douglas and Grant, Kircaldy, Scotland (two working, I saw another working in 1999, but it had gone by 2009)
T. Dryden, Preston, England (only one)
Foster, Lincoln, England, (several, all former portables)
R. Garrett & Sons Ltd, Leiston Works, Suffolk, England (former portables, just two)
Hayward, Tyler, London, England (one engine and one pump, the company still exists and is now in Luton, England)
Holman Brothers, Camborne, England (only one)
R. Hornsby, Grantham, England (two only, totally derelict, one of these scrapped by 2009)
Howarth, Erskine Ltd, Singapore (only one stored pending resale, styled as Engineers and Boiler Makers so probably not mere agents) 
T & R Lees Ltd, Engineers, Hollinwood, Manchester, England (at least two)
F.C. MacDonald, Engineers, Glasgow & London (only one, but see below)
Marshall & Sons, Gainsborough, England
John McDowall & Sons, Johnstone, Renfrewshire, Scotland, (only one, stored in quite good order)
Oil Well Supply Company, Pittsburgh, USA (one working, one derelict)
Ransomes, Sims, Jefferies, Ipswich, England (four working, one stored for resale)
Robey & Co Ltd, Lincoln, England (quite a few)
Ruston Proctor, Lincoln, England (quite a few) - two of these carried just "Ruston, Lincoln, England"
Ruston and Hornsby, Lincoln, England (one former portable and a few old diesel engines, mainly not working)
Sharples & Co, Ramsbottom, Lancashire, England (only one)
Alexander Shanks & Son Ltd, Dens Iron Works, Arbroath, Scotland (only one, stored)
T. Shore and Sons, Stoke-on-Trent, England (several), several machines with only Cowie agents plates are identical to later Shore engines
A. Siddall, Sowerby Bridge, Yorkshire, England (only one)
A & W Smith, Glasgow, Scotland (only one, out of use)
Societé Centrale Pantin (France???), (only one)
Spencer & Co, Limited, Melksham, England (only one)
Struthers Wells Company, Warren, Pa. (USA), (four working, several others in varying conditions)
Summers & Scott, Gloucester, England (only one, stored)
D. & J. Tulis, Kilbowie, Scotland, (only one)
Tangye, Birmingham, England (more examples added 15th May 2012)
E.R. & F. Turner, Ipswich, England (only one, well out of use)
Whitmore and Binyon, Wickham Market, England (only one, used occasionally and reported finished by 2009) - however, in this case, it looks very like a Marshall and the number it carries was a Marshall engine sold to this company!

Although we have seen only one engine marked for MacDonalds as possible manufacturers, the term "MacDonald Engine" appears on several engines including at least what seem to be several near standard Tangyes with no identification save "Hosain Hamadanee" and a Tangye number - see below. Many people in the mills also use the generic term "MacDonald Engine", for an engine with narrow parallel frames and two or four separate bar crossheads, maybe it was once the industry standard. "MacDonald Engine" is on more than one of the Geo. Garrett engines and another similar with no other identification. Some late Geo. Garretts are also Tangyes. This is a very murky area.

The name James Tate & Co., Bradford, England appears on two machines on a (disused) electrical emergency stop device - I am unclear whether they also made engines.

The Agents

For an idea of the problems I have in this area, please see the My Best Friend is a Steam Engine Agent ... page. It's a VERY BIG page indeed. But compared to a page of the great unknowns it would be tiny...

The following appear and were definitely agents:

Old time agents:

John Birch, Engineers, London, I know they represented Richard Garrett and Davey Paxman and no doubt others!
T. Bradford & Co, Manchester & London 
Bulloch Bros. & Co Ltd, Rangoon (they also owned/ran rice mills)
The Burma Engineering and Trading Company Limited, 75, Merchant Street, Rangoon
Cowie Brothers, Glasgow, Scotland (these also used their own number series), they issued comprehensive catalogues of everything under the sun as Chas (= Charles) Cowie, Rangoon at least up till 1937 and presumably until the Japanese invasion.
Hosain Hamadanee, Rangoon - many of these carry Tangye numbers but no other Tangye identification
George (more often Geo.) Garrett, Glasgow, Scotland, (also later as Garrett and Taylor, Glasgow and Rangoon), three examples of these carried "MacDonald Engine" - one with this term also carried the plate "The Rangoon Mechanical & Electrical Stores", but no Garrett name. I now believe their girder engines will turn out to be the same as the Hosain Hamadanee engines in several cases and hence Tangyes and I have one number at least to back up this theory.
Jessop, Engineers, India and Burma (and variants on this)
Mower & Co, Rangoon - also as "The Rangoon Docking Engineering Co Ltd, Managing Agents Mower & Co" on an 'Alexander Young' engine.
Alexander Young, 8, Leadenhall Street, London EC, England (and 50 Wellington Street, Glasgow, UK) - I have seen one 'agents plate' of theirs on a Marshall, otherwise they seem to have been masters at putting their names even on machines with local agents' names too! 

The following appear and are assumed agents although often there are no manufacturers' names on the engines:

The Rangoon Electrical Stores, surely the same as the Rangoon Mechanical & Electrical Stores, Maung Bazaar, 5, Strand Road and may have been the same as the Standard Electrical & Motor Works, Rangoon, all seen around the country. I believe I have also seen Burma Electrical Stores, Rangoon but I can't trace the origin of this observation!
Stewart Raeburn & Co, Engineers, Rangoon (on several older MacDonald type engines, these are similar to the Geo. Garrett engines), they were definitely agents for Robeys later

Modern agents - at least to judge from the plates, my guess is that these were secondhand engine dealers:

Harry H. Gardam & Co Ltd, Engineers, Church Street, Staines
Chris Holden Limited, Engineers and Merchants, Blackburn, England (these also used their own number series)
Thomas Mitchell, Bolton, England - these lasted until the 21st century
Charles Phillips, Newport, Monmouthshire, Wales

Overall this is a very murky area which with the Second World War and the passage of time is unlikely ever to be resolved. 

One engine bears "C.R. Co" but no other identification, three others have an entwined "RSJ" on the valve chest cover, the latter likely to be for Ransomes, Sims and Jefferies.

Pumps

There are quite a few duplex pumps at the mills used to pump water, very similar to those in Java's sugar mills but at the smaller end of the size range. Few see much use.

Hayward Tyler, London
Worthington, USA appears on many of them although we saw relatively few active examples. We have seen one active duplex engines marked Worthington-Simpson (British) and another marked "Hayward, Tyler Co Ltd, London, Engineers" which was almost of the miniature variety.

Other names appear on disused duplex pumps, of course these could be manufacturers or agents:
Arai Pump, Osaka Japan
Tangye
The Moorlands Engineering Company Limited, Leek, Staffs, England 

We saw one active vertical cylinder pump marked Lee Howl, Engineers, Tipton, England. There are other derelict pumps, the name Blair, Campbell & McLean Ltd, Glasgow 1920 was noted on one. 

Of other engines we also saw a small disused Robey generator.

Boilers

The mill boilers (fired by the rice husks) are similarly a complete miscellany, although time constraints did not allow proper examination and record keeping. Most appear to be of relatively recent local manufacture, others supplied originally, being both vertical and horizontal. Nearly all have no identification at all. There are boilers formerly from steam locomotives (we were shown one said to be from a YB), road rollers and portable engines etc.  Names which do appear on boilers include:

Babcock and Wilcox, Oldbury, England
Clayton, Leeds, England
Cochran (on an unusual vertical boiler)
Cowie Brothers, Glasgow, Scotland (but I now believe these are agents)
Douglas and Grant, Kircaldy, Scotland
Foster, Lincoln, England
Marshall, Gainsborough, England
Oil Well Engineering Company Ltd, London, England (agents??)
Ransomes, Ipswich, England
Ruston and Hornsby, Lincoln, England 
Wilson, Glasgow, Scotland


Technical Notes:

The engines broadly fall into two groups. Older engines have a cast (under) frame on which the various parts are mounted (cylinder block etc). Newer engines have their parts just bolted together linearly. We have seen just one complete working over-boiler engine, another out of use, one stored and another working with the boiler out of use. Many of the smaller engines we saw seem to have been supplied as portables where the engine and boiler have now been separated - in such cases the firebox doors have been blocked and fire grates for the husks added underneath. Clues that this has happened include a rounded fixing point under the cylinders and the presence (or signs of the presence) of a regulator ahead of the cylinder(s), even a chimney crutch.

These are all non-reversing engines. Almost all use slide valves, exceptionally a few machines have piston valves and a few machines drop valves or variants. The vast majority have a single eccentric Stephenson's type valve gear. Most of the later Marshall engine were built with twin eccentrics although many of them these days work with just one and no cut-off adjustment. Others still have Marshall's own (Hartnell) governor which operates directly on the gear system to control steam admission, this needs both eccentrics to work and hence the engines are 'complete'. Some Tangye's had been fitted with their patent Tangye-Johnson system with a second eccentric but these have mostly been removed. Pickering (type) governors predominate, many Tangye engines have their company's governors, but there are many unmarked examples.

We have seen a number of compound engines, but they are very much in the minority - rice mill owners in Burma like their engines 'simple'. Tandem compounds seem twice as common as cross compounds and it has been an extremely rare joy to see one at work.

By and large cylinder stroke is twice that of the cylinder diameter, we recorded many sizes as reported by the mills (we made no measurements), but many Tangye engines, for example, have a small plate with the size (eg 10" x 20"). 10" and 12" engines were the most common but many other sizes between 6" and 16" were noted working (low pressure compound cylinders were up to 20"), a few engines were clearly smaller but none was working. Some engines have their sizes cast on the cylinders. Rated horsepower was again anecdotal, but in the range 20HP up to over 100HP. Working boiler pressures were generally below 100 psi and engine speeds of the order of 90-100 rpm. The use of multiple belts means that it is easy to adjust the speed at which the power is actually delivered to individual components of the mills.


Footnote:

I was always certain that other industries in the country would still use stationary steam engines and, although I had little time to follow this up, it seems that pockets of such activity remain. I saw two engines which have been stored following their sale by sawmills (many big engines were said to have been bought secondhand from sawmills) and have visited a groundnut oil mill with an engine used during that season (said to be between June and October), but in Pyay one such mill owner told us that all the mills in that area now used electricity, even though they still keep their boilers (using the shells as fuel) as steam is needed in the processing. Later we saw a rice mill converted to a peanut oil mill. We were told of areas with steam powered sawmills but they were not readily visited - a friend of mine saw a working saw mill in Central Burma in 2000. The rice husks produced by a good mill are far more than it needs for its own fuel purposes and in major centres with many rice mills there are large numbers of other chimneys which indicate boilers used for other purposes. The railway workshop at Insein in 2005 had a derelict Ruston (and Hornsby) engine which had been used as a generator and a Cowan's steam crane under repair had a small Worthington-Simpson duplex pump.


These are links to the summary pages for our various trips to Burma. In turn, they contain links to individual reports:

Read more about our travels, follow the links in Rob and Yuehong in Burma, 2005 - 10.


Rob and Yuehong Dickinson

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