An English Girl’s First Impressions of Burmah …

As part of my background reading about Myanmar, which is rapidly turning into an informal unstructured study of British colonialism in Burma and South East Asia I’ve been reading, end enjoying immensely, Beth Ellis’s An English Girl’s First Impressions of Burmah which is truly a little gem of late Victorian travel writing. (Besides the UK Kindle edition and various paperback reprints there is also a US Kindle edition and a free version from Project Gutenberg).

It’s amusing, witty, and paints a quietly fascinating picture of the minutiae of colonial life. It should definitely be better known.

However there are two puzzles.

Beth Ellis refers to the hill station she visits as Remyo, though no such placename can be found by googling or on wikipedia. She visited before the railway line as complete but describes the railway having been pre built awaiting the arrival of the line. We also know that it was somewhere near Mandalay and took two days to get to using a combination of horse riding and carriage. We also know that you could look out onto the Shan State hills.

We know that Beth Ellis visited in 1897/8 and that the railway through Maymyo to Lashio via Hsipaw was under construction at that time which, given the distance travelled make Maymyo the most likely location being 70km from Mandalay, but up in the hills.

Maymyo was established as a military post in 1896 on the site of an existing Shan village and named after a Colonel May, the first British commander of the military post. My guess is, and it is only a guess, that the original name of the village of Remyo, and when Ellis visited the previous name was still in use and the name Maymyo came into use shortly afterwards. Certainly a railway map from 1900 shows the town as Maymyo. However Ellis describes the town as being in the process of being laid out with vacant blocks being marked out so it is perfectly possible that the town had not yet been renamed.

The other puzzle is just who was Beth Ellis. She turns out to be even more enigmatic that W G Burn Murdoch. Looking at the British Library catalogue page for her works we can see that she wrote several books and that she lived from 1874 to 1913, making her 23 when she visited Burma.

Other than that she seems to have left no trace. In fact to add insult to injury the NLA catalogue confuses her with the American storyteller Elizabeth Ellis ….

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About dgm

IT professional, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical and medieval historian ...
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6 Responses to An English Girl’s First Impressions of Burmah …

  1. Pingback: Remyo and Maymyo | stuff 'n other stuff

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  3. Miles Ellis says:

    Beth Ellis was my great-aunt and I have copies of all her books (7 novels, plus her Burmah book). Sadly she died in childbirth at the age of only 38, otherwise there might have been many more novels. She was also very keen on education, as might be expected of one of Oxford’s early women students, and played an important role in helping to improve the schools in her home town of Wigan before her marriage in 1908, after which she move to Berkhamstead in Hertfordshire, where she would die less than five years later. It is interesting to note that she was at Oxford at the same time as her brother, although he took four years to get a Third class degree in Law while she took only three years to get First class honours in English – but no degree, of course, because she was woman!

    Like you, I have been puzzled about the Maymyo – Remyo conflict and have finally found some documentary evidence that your guess was correct. In 1904 a French gentleman called Count Etienne Lunet de Lajonquière made a two-month visit to Siam and, for a few days, Burma. On his return he wrote a book called “Le Siam et les Siamois” which was published in 1906. In his entry for November 11th 1904, while he was in Rangoon, he writes “Depuis quelque temps, le Lieutenant- Gouverneur a transporté sa résidence habituelle à Remyo, une station estivale de la haute région, où il installera peu à peu toutes les grandes administrations, concentrées jusqu’ici à Rangoon: les fonctionnaires y trouveront une température plus agréable; quant aux commerçants attachés à leurs bureaux, ils y gagneront l’aisance des coudes ; il y a donc profit pour tous.” Loosely translated this says that “For some time, the Lieutenant Governor has transported his main residence to Remyo, a summer station in the high region, where he has installed little by little all the main administratve offices, which were previously concentrated in Rangoon; the civil servants will find a more pleasant temperature there; while the staff attached to their offices will have more space; there is thus a benefit for everyone.”

    So it is clear that when Beth visited Burma the embryonic summer administrative capital was still called Remyo as you, and I, had guessed might have been the case.

    And I do agree with you that her first book is a wonderful book with an entrancingly witty view of life in the Raj.

  4. Pingback: Beth Ellis … | stuff 'n other stuff

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