The Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation

Wooden bridge with logs Chiang Mai Timeline
old compound with people in front Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation
Players after a polo match at the BBTC compound in Phrae. Source:

Table of Contents

Founding of the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation

The founding story of the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation Ltd or Company (BBTC abbreviated) is quite complicated. Involved were the six Wallace Brothers, who in different combinations traded in tea, cotton, coffee, and teak. They were originally “East India Traders” but later expanded to Burma and to Siam. In 1884 a BBTC employee, based at Moulmein, Burma, made a scouting trip to Siam.

Five years later the BBTC opened its first office and sawmill in Bangkok. In 1891 the BBTC started its operations in Siam. James Gray became its employee in Raheng (Tak) on the Ping River. One year later the legendary W.W.Wood started working in Chiang Mai and bought a property south of the First Christian Church from Dr.Marion Cheek, a missionary doctor.

old wooden house on stilts
BBTC office in Chiang Mai

The BBTC starts operations in Siam.

In 1897, the year of the founding of the Danish East Asiatic Company, the BBTC opened an operational office in Paknampo (Nakhon Sawan), where the Ping, Yom, and Nan rivers converge to form the Chao Phraya. In Paknampo, most of the teak logs arrived and were assembled and made into giant rafts. Local staff then steered these rafts on the Chao Phraya River to the sawmills in Bangkok.

In the same year, Louis Leonowens joined the company. He was the son of Anna Leonowens, a teacher at the court of King Mongkut of Siam. Louis grew up at the court and served in the Siamese military. He spoke Siamese, which was very useful while dealing with the owners of the forests of northern Thailand, which were local rulers.

Old wooden house Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation
BBTC office in Mae Hong Son, 1968. Photo by Charles Keyes

The Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation in Mae Hong Son province

By the year 1902, the BBTC was the biggest teak exporting company in Siam. Louis Leonowens left the company and started his own business in Lampang in 1905: the Louis T.Leonowens Company Ltd. The BBTC was the only company that had teak concessions in the “Salween” area, which is now Mae Hong Son province. The Salween or Salawin is a major river that flows from the Tibetan Plateau south into the Andaman Sea at Moulmein (Mawlamyine), Burma. The river partly forms the border of Thailand and Myanmar.

When exactly the company obtained concessions in this part of North Thailand is unclear. Still, I deduct from the consular tour report of British consul Josiah Crosby that the company had been active there at least since 1902. The BBTC had representation or an office in Pai, Mae Lan, Mae Hong Son, and in Muang Yuom (Hminelongyi, later known as Mae Sariang). The Salween head office was in the latter.

Elephants moving logs Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation
BBTC elephants working teak logs in Lampang province. Photo Morinosuke Tanaka. Courtesy Oliver Backhouse.

The BBTC operations

There are still many questions regarding the operations of the BBTC in this area. One of the concession areas was the Mae Lan forest, about halfway between Pai and Mae Hong Son. I suppose they floated the logs on the Pai River to the Salween river and onwards to Moulmein in Burma. Other concessions probably were close to the Salawin River.

The Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation ceased its activities in the Salween area in the late 1920s. In 1929 they closed the office in Mae Hong Son, a year later in Mae Sariang. None of its offices are still there. The only reminder of the teak logging days is the office of the Forestry Department in Mae Sariang. Logging in Mae Hong Son province continued. In the 1960s, at least one Thai company called Phanasit was involved in logging, according to the notes of American anthropologist Charles Keyes who lived in Mae Sariang in 1967 and 1968.

Wooden building
Mae Sariang Forestry Office

The Company in the 1930s

With operations in the Salween and Phrae closed, the company focused on Chiang Mai, Lamphun, and Lampang provinces in the 1930s. In 1934 the BBTC sold its Chiang Mai compound, consisting of three houses, to William Bain, the manager of the Borneo Company. Because of the location of the concessions, they opened an office in Lampang, opposite the sports club. In 1940 though, they bought the old compound in Chiang Mai back from William Bain.

In those days, the company also had at least one bungalow on Doi Suthep, very close to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. I think the bungalow was at the location where now the National Park accommodation is.

Group of people on a balcony
Kathleen and Evelyn van Millingen entertaining guests at their BBTC bungalow on Doi Suthep

World War Two

The Japanese invasion of Siam in December 1941 took British ex-pats in the country by surprise. Some of the employees of the BBTC escaped to Burma; some stayed behind and were arrested by the Siamese authorities. Siam had surrendered and signed a friendship treaty with Japan and declared war on the British empire.

The BBTC returned to the country, which had changed its name to Thailand, and continued operations until 1955. The Thai government didn’t extend the forest concessions of the foreign teak firms. Under a new setup, most of the logging concession would go to local companies, leaving the BBTC and other firms only about a third. Subsequently, the BBTC decided to cease its operations in 1956 and sold its offices, elephants, and other property in Thailand.

Four man with tree trunks

Three BBTC personalities

I have gathered a lot of information about the BBTC and its employees. I want to tell you about the lives and careers of three of them: Edward Walter Hutchinson, Evelyn van Millingen and Arthur Queripel. They were all British. I will start with Hutchinson and will add information about the other two soon. They all lived in Chiang Mai for some time. The house of Arthur Queripel (“Lung Que”) is now in the excellent Lanna Traditional House Museum.

Colonial style house
Queripel House

Edward Walter Hutchinson

Hutchinson was one of the most interesting forest managers of the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation. He worked for the company from 1904 until 1929, when he retired in Chiang Mai. He was not done yet. In 1937 he became the agent of the Siam Commercial Bank in Chiang Mai and, after that, started a career as a diplomat. Before World War Two, he became a vice-consul in Saigon, Vietnam. When the war broke out, he was interned there. After the war, he came back to Chiang Mai, where he became the British consul. I don’t know how long his consulship lasted.

Edward Walter Hutchinson was born in Herne Hill, South London, in 1881. In 1904 he started working in Siam for the BBTC and became a member of the Gymkhana Club. The company sent him to oversee its operations in Phrae. During his career for the BBTC, he was most of the time posted at Phrae and sometimes at Raheng and Chiang Mai. In 1910 he was present when his colleague E.P.Miller was killed during a robbery.

Two men in a room
Edward Walter Hutchinson and Horace Joynson in the bungalow on Doi Suthep, 1938. Source: Photograph Collection 28 of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland

Edward settles in Chiang Mai

After his retirement in 1929, he settled in Chiang Mai, where he lived in a house on the Ping River, next to retired British consul W.A.R.Wood. This is the compound of the current Consul’s Garden and the restaurant Le Coq d’Or. The Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland in London owns the photo album of Hutchinson, which I was able to copy in 2019. The album contains photos of Hutchinson’s house, his bungalow on Doi Suthep, and the SCB bank where he worked.

During his retirement, he started researching and published several articles and books on subjects such as the Lawa people and Wat Chet Yot. Some articles were published in the Journal of the Siam Society, of which Hutchinson became an honorary member in 1970. Edward Walter Hutchinson passed away in the UK in 1972 at the age of 81 years.

References for the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation

Over the years, I have researched the activities of the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation in Siam and Thailand. In 2016 Oliver Backhouse contacted me to arrange a tour for him. He is the grandson of Evelyn van Millingen, a forest manager for the BBTC in Burma and Thailand. Oliver sent me photographs, and I met him three times in Thailand, in 2016, 2018, and 2020. I visited him in the United Kingdom in 2018 and 2019. During those visits, I also went to the London Metropolitan Archives, the British Library, Kew Herbarium, and the Photograph Collection 28 of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland.

Below are the two most important books and resources about the BBTC.

  • Arnold Cecil Pointon, Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation 1863-1963 Southampton: The Millbrook Press. 1964
  • RH Macaulay, History of Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation 1864 -1910, London, 1934.
  • Graham Jefcoate, a researcher in Chiang Mai
  • Pamela Backhouse, A Wartime Escape, London, 2015
  • Prof.Kittichai Wattananikorn, British teak wallahs in Northern Thailand from 1876-1956, Bangkok 2018
  • David Macfie, the Macfie Record, Chiang Mai

Leave a Reply