Graham's Hobby Website

Rangoon Days - Ernest Smith in Burma 1920-1931

After Army service in WW1, my maternal grandfather Ernest Smith lived, worked and raised a family in Rangoon, Burma (present day Yangon, Myanmar).


The following chronology has been pieced together, relating to a period of ten years or so:

The research for this web page has been based on family photographs etc, my mother Pat's recollections (before she died in 2010), together with UK Census information and emigration/immigration records held by Ancestry.co.uk. Some details have also been gleaned from the on-line Anglo Burmese Library.



Ernest Alfred Smith and Elsie May Cox were married on 23rd August 1920 at The Catholic Church of Our Lady of Compassion, Linacre Road, Willesden, Middlesex. The witnesses were: J. Cox, that is John Cox - Elsie's brother and J. Canniff. James Canniff (Senior) was a friend of Elsie's father Micheal Cox (deceased) and his son James Canniff had recently returned from Rangoon.

Family members, left-to-right: Gertrude (Ernest's sister), Ernest, Elsie and Amelia, her sister.

The marriage certificate gives Ernest's occupation as a bank messenger of 30 years of age and Elsie's as a motor works viewer of 29 years of age.

The role of a viewer in a motor works was to assist with quality control - typically involving making check measurements of components against engineering blue prints. Women were often employed in this way, as it required dexterity and numeracy rather than physical strength. Elsie probably got involved in industry during World War One. She was also a seamstress and tailor's daughter.

Tailoring Connections

How did Ernest, soldier son of a nurseryman become a tailor's cutter? At it's simplest the job involves cutting out the panels for a suit, from cloth marked up by a tailor. However, in bespoke tailoring, the cutter may also measure the client, offer style advice and liaise with craftsmen who sew the suit.

Elsie was a seamstress, whilst her sister Amelia was a dressmaker by trade and her father Micheal and aunt Mary Cox both worked at home as tailor's at 44 Windsor Road, Cricklewood, based on the 1911 Census returns.

Once Ernest's RHA unit, V Battery, returned to the UK in 1919, it is likely that he was able to draw on Mary, Amelia and Elsie Cox's experience to learn tailoring and cutting in the family business. This would have been when he was home on leave from Shorncliffe Camp in Kent and in the months after leaving the army, when he was also working as a bank messenger, raising the funds to emigrate.

James Canniff senior and junior, were the father and brother respectively of Elsie's friend Kathleen Canniff and they were both tailor's cutters. The Rangoon-tailoring connection is established by a 1915 commercial record of J Canniff employed as an assistant by Watson and Son, Rangoon. This would fit with the individual being James Caniff, son of James and Julia Canniff, who was 14 at the time of the 1901 Census, but in the 1911 Census he was absent from the siblings listed at home, as he was abroad, then aged 24.

It is concluded that Ernest went out to Rangoon on the basis of a recommendation from the Canniff's, family friends in the "rag trade" in London (see also Travel section below).

Return to Top

1920's Rangoon (Yangon)

Yangon dates back to the small fishing vilage of Dagon, centred around the Shwe Dagon Pagoda. A Burmese King Alaung Paya captured Dagon in 1755, renamed it Yangon and further developed it. Along with the rest of lower Burma it was annexed by the British in the First and Second Anglo-Burmese wars of 1824 and 1852, then later developed in to the political and commercial hub of British Burma after the third Anglo-Burmese war of 1885.

A new city was laid out on a grid plan on delta land. Colonial Yangon had spacious parks and lakes, residential suburbs and services and infrastructure fit for a "garden city". The population was made up largely of indians/south asians, together with europeans (especially Scots), with the balance comprising Burmans, Karens, Chinese and Anglo-Burmese etc.

Following World War One, an independence movement led to nationwide strikes in 1920, 1936 and 1938. From 1942-45 the city was under Japanese occupation, later becoming the capital of Myanmar on 4 January 1948 on independence from the British Empire. During the colonial period 1824-1948, Rangoon was the port-gateway to Burma, a Province of British India.

Strand Road, Rangoon in the 1920's - with The Strand Hotel (1901) in the foreground
and the tower of the Port Commission Building further west along the road.

Under colonisation, the native Burmans were at the bottom of an economic pecking order, below the Indians, Anglo-Burmese and British, with the resulting deprivation leading to much crime and minor revolt.

Travelling hawker, probably Pathan, in late-1920's Rangoon

For a British expatriate, Rangoon was somewhat less formal than other major cities of India. As somewhere to live and work it sat well with Ernest's pre-war Army service in India and his time serving alongside Indian Cavalry in Mesopotamia during the Great War.

Elsie's Lloyd's savings book cover,
(neatly conveys Rangoon's geo-political context of the time)

Travel Between Burma and UK

James Canniff is recorded as returning to England from Rangoon in May 1920 and leaving to return to Rangoon on the 8th September 1920 aboard S.S. Chindwin. Ernest also left for Rangoon on the S.S. Chindwin on 8th September 1920, which neatly confirms the Smith-Canniff connection, with them travelling out East together.

Travel between the UK and Burma was typically by passenger/cargo steamers, usually embarking at Liverpool on the way out and disembarking at Port of London (or eg Plymouth) on the return journey. The ships were generally Clyde-built steam powered single-screw vessels of about 7,000 tones displacement, operated, for example, by the P Henderson Steamship Line and the Peninsular and Oriental Steamship Navigation Company. The ships included in the Smith family's embarkation details are: S.S. Chindwin, S.S. Nanking, S.S. Pegu, S.S. Burma, S.S. Kemmendine and S.S. Sagaing.

The S.S. Kemmendine, somewhere between UK and Rangoon, 1927

Return to Top

No. 3, Theatre Road

For much of their stay in Burma, the family lived in rented accomodation at No. 3, Theatre Road, Rangoon, having an airy upper floor flat. The timber house was in an un-pretentious colonial style, set in what Pat referred to as the "Compound", with houses set in communal gardens. This meant the children could spend a lot of time outdoors and wander locally.

The top floor flat at No. 3, Theatre Road, Rangoon

The veranda at No. 3, Kath Canniff at right-hand-side

The house location was within the British Cantonment in the vicinity of the Royal Lakes and the Shwe Dagon Temple. Across Theatre Road, immediately to the north, were the Cantonment Gardens, as shown on the map extract below. Further away, the locality was surrounded by military barracks, parade and exercise grounds.

Extract from 1914 Baedeker map of Rangoon. From Wiki Commons; file uploaded by Ubel.
Original source: Baedeker, Karl: Indien. Handbuch für Reisende. Verlag Karl Baedeker, Leipzig, 1914, p. 256 f.

Return to Top

Studio Portraits

A small number of family studio portraits survive, taken when Pat was a few months old.

Moira and baby Pat, probably around latter's christening, 1925

Moira, Ernest, baby Pat and Elsie, probably in London, 1926

Return to Top

Family Life

Moira was born in -------- and Pat in April 1925.

Moira, baby Pat and their Burmese ayah in 1925

From left: Connie Davis, Ernest, Moira, baby Pat and Elsie

Tea time: Ernest with a blurred Connie Davis, Elsie with baby Pat, Moira at right.

Moira was two-and-a-half and Pat six months old when Elsie took them back to the UK. This seems to have been with a view to their meeting their aunts, uncles and grand parents in the UK, having support with the two youngsters and possibly on health grounds when Pat was so young. They stayed for eighteen months and then Moira was left in school in London, whilst Elsie and Pat returned to Rangoon in September 1927, Ernest having returned there to work in July 1926.

Pat and Elsie returning to Rangoon from UK, on the S.S. Kemmendine, 1927

Without her sister, Pat made friends with local British and Burmese children. She was a free spirit as shown in photos of her roaming in the gardens, with her dog Bonzo, with Connie, with the gardeners, the houseboys and the children of the Burmese staff. When she was small she was looked after by an ayah or nanny.

Pat with garden staff and chickens

Fancy dress was one of her favorites and Elsie handmade many outfits for Pat, including: a Cavalier, Little Bo Peep, a newspaper seller, a fairy etc. It started when Pat was very small, as a winged cherub.

Pat in fancy-dress, made by Elsie. Photographers - Wagstaff & Co., Rangoon

The house was not far from the Shwe Dagon pagoda and Dalhousie Park at the Royal Lakes. Other visits included the Rangoon Zoo to see the tigers etc. The family home had it's own mongoose, to see off venomous snakes, such as the banded krait. Her childhood Rangoon memories lived with Pat all her life. Later on the family moved closer to town, when she started school.

The flat the family rented in Rangoon town, when Pat started school.

Return to Top

Watson and Son Limited

Watson and Son was an import company, established in 1888, that operated a department store, along with a motor show room and garage. The company head office and shop was at 59 Phayre Street (now Upper Pansodan, Yangon). The managing partners in the 1920's were Messrs. Watson and Penn.

Thacker's commercial directory for 1915 includes the following entry:

"The cycle market of Burma, hardware, china and glass merchants, tailors and outfitters, complete house furnishers, cycle and motor agents, saddlers and harness makers, hair-dressers, perfumers, tobacconists" etc.

Among family Rangoon-related material is a large card-mounted photograph of a farewell dinner for "W. Penn Esq. by the Staff of Watson & Son Ltd. on the occasion of his retirement, November 12th 1927." The mount includes the names of all those present, including E.A. Smith.

Watson & Son's retirement dinner for W. Penn, 1927
(Ernest is seated at top-right, below the pot plant).

The dinner was held at The Silver Grill, Rangoon - Ernest's printed menu card includes music and is annotated with collected signatures from many of those present, including J.V. Watson. The special menu included Mashie-Niblick Cocktails and a dish called Chevrolet Axle Shafts with G.M.C. Sauce: "That awful whistling, sucking sound" was an oblique reference to the motor trade.

A similar farewell dinner was held at the Silver Grill on Tuesday 21st January, 1930 at the retirement of Mr. R.C. Scutt, according to a surviving programme.

Programme cover - Watson & Son's retirement dinner for R.C. Scutt, 1930

Return to Top

Sport and Social

Many family photographs are set at the WSC, believed to stand for Watson's Sport's Club, a pavilion-style building on the waterside at Dalhousie Park in Rangoon. Activities included tennis, canoeing, rowing, swimming and much socialising at the small bar / veranda. The building location may have been in the same area as Rangoon Sailing Club, now Yangon S.C., as sailing dinghies also appear in several family photographs.

The WSC pavilion, Rangoon (Watson's Sports or Social Club)

Socialising at the WSC pavilion. Ernest third from left.

The photograph below includes the WSC tennis ladder, featuring Messrs. Scutt, Baber, Norbury etc together with E.A. Smith, although it needs a hand lens to see these on the original photograph.

Ernest and friend at the WSC.

Particular family friends who feature in the archive, are:

Elsie and Ernest, with Kath Canniff to right, dressed for town

Return to Top

Household Matters

Between June and September 1929, Elsie used an old Lloyd's Bank Savings Book to keep monthly household accounts. The basic house expenses were the rent plus the wages of the cook, boy, sweeper and ayah (ie nanny). There were also payments to the sweeper and the pani, roti, dhud and dobi wallahs, who were respectively the water carrier, baker, milkman and laundryman. These individuals were probably working for several different houses in the area.

Example household accounts, from 1929

Foodstuffs were supplied on an account basis by B.C.S., Burma Cold Stores, and drinks in a similar way. For the latter you paid for what you used. There were also small monthly payments to local suppliers for bread, milk coal and eggs, for example. Rowe & Co. feature as a monthly payment - Elsie obviously had an account at the largest department store in Rangoon, located at the corner of Dalhousie and Barr Streets.

A regular payment was made by bank order to provide for subsistence for Moira, back in England. There was also a regular bank remittance, either to pay off a loan or saving for the return passage to the UK, for example. Most of the months shown include for car hire. Sometimes there is an account payment for gharrie hire, ie horse-drawn cab.

Ernest in "Toad-mode" in a hired bullnose Morris-Cowley, a 2-seater with dickey

The Vienna Cafe features in some of the monthly accounts - this was one of the city's main European restaurants, located at the corner of Phayre and Merchant Streets. Occasionally there is an item for photographs - this would have been at say Wagstaff & Co., for example. Small sums were given to the local church and one or two local charitable recipients eg old Nellie Wallace. There were small payments, for example to Mrs Davis (Connie's mother) and to Inez, possibly for occasional childcare or baby sitting.

Return to Top

Return to the UK

The family's return to Britain in 1931 could have been due to one or more of several factors such as: employment issues in the wake of the 1929 financial crash and the resulting world economic depression, health issues owing to Ernest having tuberculosis (TB), for Pat's schooling, or a combination of all these. Certainly, Elsie and Pat travelled back to the UK, on the S.S. Sagaing, arriving at the Port of London from Rangoon on the 16th May 1931.

It is known from Pat's recollections in later life that the family circumstances were much reduced during the 1930's Depression. Ernest was in poor health and the only work of sorts that he could get was as a property scout, tramping the streets in all weathers and paid only by results. He was hospitalised in late 1932 with TB and died on 30th January 1933 in London. During this time, Elsie and the girls were living with Elsie's sister Amelia etc at the family home at 44 Windsor Road, Cricklewood.

To help make ends meet, Elsie took in sewing work for the hospital staff where Ernest was a patient and this continued after he died. She used her old Lloyd's Bank Saving book as a sewing work record and it has two handwritten pages listing the nursing staff, sewing work and linen yardage for August and September 1932. It was mainly hemming, tabbing, making babies nightgowns and altering aprons etc, undertaken on a treadle-operated sewing machine.

Elsie's sewing work record from 1932

From the low point of Ernest's death, in the years that followed and as the girl's grew up, Elsie went back to working as a motor works viewer, became involved in trade union activity and became the "mother of the union chapel" where she worked. According to Pat, Elsie later received a civic award for her work, such as the British Empire Medal, although no record survives.

Return to Top

Latter Days

Several of the family friends already mentioned stayed in Burma early in World War 2 and were caught up in the British retreat in 1942, after the Japanese invaded.

Vera and Ambrose Davis had three children: Monica, Connie and Tony. A Christmas card in 1937 shows Ambrose, Vera and Tony (their youngest) in Burma - the older girls would have been in school in the UK.

Ambrose, Vera and young Tony Davis, in Burma, Xmas 1937.

Ambrose was a mechanical engineer, given on embarkation records as a Chief Inspector of Boilers. He is listed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission among the "United Kingdom civilian war dead 1939-1945", having been killed during the Retreat from Burma. This happened on the 26th April 1942 at Shwebo, a location north of Mandalay and well in to the Burmese interior.

During the Retreat, although some civilians were evacuated by air from Shwebo, evacuation also continued by train and by river steamer up the Irrawaddy. The Japanese bombed Shwebo on the morning of the 26th and many civilians were caught on the foreshore awaiting transport by boat. A record of casualties, from The Trek Out of Burma 1942, confirms Ambrose as having been an employee of the Boiler Inspection Department.

George K. Peachey worked for the jewellers and gunsmiths Coombes in Rangoon at 118-122 Phayre Street. Thacker's Commercial Directory for 1930 lists him as an Assistant and for 1941 as the General Manager. He stayed in Rangoon during the Japanese bombing raids in 1941 and when Burma was invaded in 1942 took part in the Great Trek across the hills to India.

Family friend George Peachey, in 1925

A dozen or so pages of a letter to his family describe the Trek and his experiences. Other records of the Great Trek include a short description of "Peachey" being rescued en route by a party who were travelling with working elephants. They caught him up one morning, finding him paralysed and unable to walk, as he had managed 25 miles on foot the day before and slept in the open in the rain overnight. He was very ill, but later recovered in India.

Working elephant and mahouts in Burma; Smith family photograph in late 1920's

During WW2, Moira was in the Wrens and Pat was in the Women's Land Army for a short time. During and after the war, they often took holidays in Falmouth and met up with Connie Davis and her mother Vera at the Davis family home at Kimberley Place.

During the 1950's a Burmese friend of Elsie's travelled to England after Independence. Whilst in Burma, Elsie had been active through the RC church in helping Burmese women to learn sewing skills so they could get work and supplement their family incomes.

Elsie with a Burmese friend on Hampstead Heath, London.

Pat later worked as a short-hand typist at the Foreign and Commonwealth Relations Office. When she married Frank Smith in 1954, she was given away by family friend and Burma hand George Peachey, in her father Ernest's absence.

Return to Top

Appendix - Dis / Embarkation Records

A passenger manifest records that Mr E.A. Smith, a tailor aged 31 embarked at Liverpool on the Henderson Steamship Line's vessel S.S. Chindwin for departure on 8th September 1920, bound for Rangoon. Burma was given as the intended future country of permanent residence, i.e. Ernest was emigrating.

The passenger manifest for the S.S. Chindwin for the same departure date records Mr J. Canniff, Assistant, 33 years of age, also bound for Rangoon. Mr Canniff had previously arrived from Rangoon at Liverpool on S.S. Martaban on 16th May 1920.

The Peninsular & Oriental Steamship Navigation Company's vessel S.S. Nanking arrived in the Port of London from Calcutta in June 1925. A manifest of British passengers has an Immigration Officer's stamp dated 27 June and includes: Miss K. Canniff, a secretary aged 31, with the proposed address as: 21, Audley Road, Hendon, London N.W.4.

The Henderson Steamship Line's vessel S.S. Pegu arrived at Plymouth from Rangoon on 25 March 1926. The Master's name was W.J. Hamilton and the registered tonnage was 5031. The passenger manifest includes: Mr E.A. Smith (aged 36, a tailor's cutter), Mrs E.M. Smith (aged 34), Miss E.M. Smith (aged 2 years 6 months) and Miss P.M. Smith (aged 6 months). The UK address given was 44 Windsor Road, Cricklewood, London N.W.2.

A passenger manifest records that Mr E.A. Smith (aged 36, a cutter) embarked at Liverpool on the Henderson Steamship Line's vessel S.S. Burma for departure on 23rd July 1926, bound for Rangoon.

The Henderson Steamship Line's vessel S.S. Kemmendine departed from Liverpool for Rangoon on 16th September 1927. The passenger manifest includes: Mrs. E.M. Smith (aged 36) and travelling on the same ticket Miss P.M. Smith (aged 2). The last address in the United Kingdom is given as c/o Galbraith, Pembroke & Co., Ltd., London, who were ship brokers.

The P. Henderson Steamship Line's vessel S.S. Sagaing arrived at the Port of London from Rangoon on 16th May 1931. The passenger manifest includes: Mrs Elsie May Smith (aged 36) and Miss Patricia Smith (aged 6). The proposed UK address given was Mercantile Bank, London E.C..


S.S. Kemmendine was a British Passenger/Cargo Steamer of 7,837 tons built in 1924 by William Denny & Brothers, Dumbarton, Yard No 1153 for the British & Burmese SN Co. & Burmah SS Co. (P.Henderson), Glasgow. She was powered by a steam single screw engine giving 14 knots. Built for the Glasgow - Burma service.

On the 13th July 1940 she was sunk by the auxillary cruiser Atlantis about 700 miles south of Ceylon as she made her way to Rangoon.

Return to Top