The International Steam Pages

My Best Friend is a Steam Engine Agent ...

This is part of a series of pages covering the known steam engine manufacturers for Burma, although in this case the field is wider and includes India. Click here for the full list.

This is a very big page, because its contents represent a very big problem in my researches...

In my world, the word 'agent' is synonymous with 'shark' or 'cowboy'. Think of Estate Agents, Travel Agents, Sports Agents, these are people who promise you the earth if only you will place your business in their hands, it's like doing business with the devil. I don't think I have ever met more than one or two I would happily share a beer or have dinner with. In other words they rank alongside lawyers, accountants, politicians, used car salesmen, double glazing salesmen and Burmese immigration officers as the scum of the earth, much as the orthodox Hindus regard the untouchables in India. One of the reasons my tours of Java have been so successful is that I have resisted all blandishments and fix everything myself or get good friends to do me a favour. Middle men do have their uses, we also use a very select few to sell our DVDs to people who have never heard of my website.

However, it was (and still is) an unfortunate fact of business life that sometimes medium sized steam engine manufacturers had to bite the bullet and find someone in a far off place to market their high quality products locally. And naturally since such people lived off commission (and still do), they would most likely insist on the engines carrying their names instead, thereby hopefully preventing customers from contacting the manufacturer directly. The big boys either had their own local offices or were willing to pay commission even if the agents were left out of the loop inadvertently.   

Fine, except for today's industrial archaeologist living in a world where both agents' and manufacturers' records are inaccessible or non-existent it creates a huge problem. Specifically in Burma, I can usually instantly pick out a Marshall, a Tangye, a Robey or a Shore as they all occur in sufficient quantity and have certain peculiarities. After that, I struggle. This page tries to explain why, with particular reference to so-called 'MacDonald engines'.

Marshalls seem to have serviced Burma either directly from London or through their own Indian offices, to judge from the plates seen. However, as time went by they also used agents, Jessop (ca 1922/3), George Garrett (ca 1927), Garrett and Taylor (ca 1930) and Alexander Young (ca 1927) - this information comes from MERL records to whom I am very grateful. I have also seen a 'Rangoon Mechanical and Electrical Stores plate' on one of their engines!

I am not sure how Tangye marketed their engines in Burma originally, maybe sales were direct, but in later days they certainly used Jessop (offices in India and later in Burma) and Hosain Hamadanee (offices in Burma), the latter were supplied engines without any trace of 'Tangye' on them.

I do not know how the few early Robeys got to Burma (direct when new or secondhand) as I have no way to know where the company names listed in the sales records were based. Robey seem to have worked consistently through Stewart Raeburn (at least between 1924 and 1929), although this agent was almost certainly working with other manufacturers at least early on.

The nearest I have come to tracking down the origin of the term 'MacDonald engine' is this engine in Bago Division, first seen by us in 2006. However, all my experience tells me that these people were not the original manufacturers.

Here are several typical anonymous 'MacDonald engines'. I know for a fact that known manufacturers for Burma like Douglas & Grant, Lees, Ruston, Shore and even (possibly) Tangye made such engines and those Hens' Teeth engines by Bellhouse, Dryden, Holman, MacDowall and Siddall fall broadly into this area. Also there are many such engines from a multitude of makers in the fabulous books of Watkins which show stationary steam engines in Britain. So tell me who made this wonderful creature which we found in an almost new mill near Shwebo in 2006? Buggered if I know, certainly not '‘The Burmah Engineering and Trading Co. Ltd, 75 Merchant Street, Rangoon’! The only thing they would have made is a good profit...

Or this little beauty not far away photographed in 2009?

The 'x' on the valve chest cover (nor to be confused with Tangye's '+') is a frequent feature as on this engine near Hinthada in 2009: 

And yet one more anonymous engine in Irrawaddy Division in late 2009, the valve side was wreathed in dust and steam and the wrong side for the light...

In Bago Division we found this self styled 'MacDonald Engine', but to confuse the unwary it also carries 'Geo Garrett, Glasgow' and 'Standard and Electrical Motor Works Rangoon' for some additional local flavour.

This engine, also seen in Shwebo in 2006, also carries the name of George Garrett of Glasgow later known as 'Garrett and Taylor' and certainly no relation to the better known Richard Garrett of Leiston who at least were honourable makers of engines:


This early Cowie Bros, Glasgow, engine was working in a mill in the same area in 2006, newly erected in 2004. Yes it's a 'MacDonald engine' too.

As so is this one in the same area, photographed in 2009:

Finally from Cowie is what is probably my greatest frustration in Burma, this tandem compound in Moulmein which is always going to work 'soon' every time I visit... This was it cocooned in plastic in 2009.

I know nothing about 'T. Bradford & Co, Manchester & London' which appeared on the base of one dismantled 'MacDonald engine' I once saw in the industrial zone in Yangon. 'John Birch, Engineers, London' is a difficult company to fathom. I know they represented Richard Garrett and Davey Paxman (and no doubt others) but neither of these as far as I know were into 'MacDonald engines' like this one seen in store in the Yangon industrial zone in 2009 - also here was a very similar Lees engine but that doesn't belong on this page!

For a change, here's a compound version of the MacDonald engine, we saw this in Bago Division in 2006. Alexander Young of Glasgow and London employed some management consultants a few years later and became a snappier 'Alex. Young'... 

We've seen their name on several simple engines too, like this one in Irrawaddy Division in 2005

Now consider the local agents most of whom who have very British sounding names, Bulloch Brothers of Rangoon - also known to have owned actual rice mills - certainly imported Rustons, put their name on this engine in Yangon Division which we found in 2007:

Who actually made this engine seen in the Shwebo area in 2009 is another matter altogether. The Bulloch name is not actually visible under the 'mend' but can safely be deduced from what is visible. Both the last two engines were later seen working:

In 2009 near Hinthada we found another of their engines, it was quite simply utterly filthy although we got the plate cleaned:

The only lettering on this MacDonald engine is the agents plate on the valve chest cover, "The Burmah Engineering and Trading Company Limited, 75 Merchant Street, Rangoon". However, this company's plate appears on a Lees engine which is an indication of just who might have made it... 

Mower & Co, Rangoon appears on this engine seen in Bago Division in 2006, this was one we had seen running in 2005:

Stewart Raeburn & Co, Rangoon (of Robey fame) got into the act too, their name is under the grime on this engine in the Hinthada area in 2006: There are several more like this around the country too.

One of my favourite engines in Irrawaddy Division is another MacDonald engine, badged for 'The Rangoon Docking & Engineering Co Ltd.' because it is well looked after (seen waiting for the new season in late 2009) and nicely placed for photography, we had seen it working in 2005:

If one engine could be said to have 'taken the biscuit' then it would have been this one in Irrawaddy Division in 2005. It is an Alexander Young engine, to which is attached a plate for 'The Rangoon Docking and Engineering Company, Mower & Coy., Managing Agents, Rangoon'. Three agents on one engine, mind boggling!

Confused? I should bloody well hope so! I have plenty of pictures of these engines in close up (obviously including the valve gear) available if you fancy acting as a detective, just get in touch...

Click here for the full list of known steam engine manufacturers for Burma.

Rob and Yuehong Dickinson