Fires and Urban Planning in Yangon (1841-1857) – 2/ Fire in 1852: Colonial Urban Planning as ‘Ab Initio’ and Proposal on Fire Safety

On the burning down of Alaungpaya’s Yangon in the Second Anglo-Burmese War in 1852, four sources are referenced. The fire was described as by the Burmese for military reasons, as reported by Baker and Laurie and written by Pearn and Ware. While in History of Burma by Htin Aung, a Burmese scholar, mentioning of the fire is to be traced.

‘And that all the houses of the merchants had been sacked, and that many of them had been burned to the ground.’

(Baker, 1852, p.13)

‘February 22nd. … An authority from Calcutta says:Information has been received that all the houses in Rangoon are razed to the ground and the inhabitants removed to Oakahlabad, a new town; that this position is being doubly stockaded with the wooden materials from the houses destroyed at the old.’

(Laurie, 1853, p.40)

‘…, but this measure was undertaken for military reasons, so that no shelter might be left for any invading force between the River and the new town. For this reason the old town, such as still existed, was razed to the ground.’

(Pearn, 1852, p.169)

‘As war became immanent, the distance between the port and the new city allowed the Burmese to adopt a radical defence strategy, the Burmese adopted a ‘scorched-earth’ tactic and burned everything from the port to the walls of the new city. … The Burmese defence in the second war hoped to repeat that, by obliterating shelter and easy supplieds for the British forces, as well as driving away locals living outside the city, preventing any chance of them aiding the British. (Pearn 1939)’  

(Ware, 2016, p.31)

The fire in 1852 to an extent led post-war colonial planning to be rationalised as ‘ab initio’ that a new urban grid was laid out by Dr William Montgomerie and Lieutenant A. Fraser. Besides, fire safety measures were concerned through planning the width of main roads as firebreak1, water reserves in case of fire1 2 and restrictions on building-plans3, use of brick and tiled roof in the civic and business area near the River4.

However, the width of minor roads and housing were less considered. The width of main roads proposed by Montgomerie was 60 feet for north-south roads and 100 feet for east-west, and amended by Fraser, to one central 50 feet and four minor 30 feet north-south and four 100 feet east-west5, in favour of more block area for buildings.

‘The architects of modern Rangoon were fortunate in that they had a clean sheet on which to work: Alaungpaya’s Rangoon had completely disappeared, while Tharrawaddy’s city had suffered much damage from the bombardment and, apart from that, contained no secular buildings of any structural or architectural value. It was thus possible and necessary to design a completely new city on completely new lines; there was no obligation to adhere to the old plan in any respect, for no property in the land of Rangoon was admitted to any private person, all being regarded as Government land.’

(Pearn, 1852, p.182)

1. Bertie Reginald Pearn, History of Rangoon (New York: Columbia University Press, 1967), p.183.
2. Pearn, History of Rangoon , p.185.
3. Pearn, History of Rangoon , p.191. ‘… further, money was needed for the construction of the new roads, bridges drains, and wells. Phayre therefore proposed to sell outright the freehold of the land in the town at fixed rates, the rate being highest in the areas near the River where the business quarter would naturally establish itself, and where he intended to impose rigid restrictions on building-plans so as to reduce the risk of fire.’
4. Pearn, History of Rangoon , p.194. ‘In this business area only brick buildings with tiled roofs might be erected; but a period of two, or in the case of sites farthest from the River three, years was allowed before the permanent roofing needed to be erected, owing, no doubt, to the difficulty of obtaining tiles locally; and during this period temporary roofs of whitewashed mats or of other material covered with mud might be used: failure to use such material would involve the compulsory unroofing of the building, while failure to complete a pukka roof in the prescribed time would involve double municipal taxation, while if failure persisted longer than two or three years confiscation would ensue.’
5. Pearn, History of Rangoon , p.187.


Baker, Thomas Turner. Recent Operations of the ‘British Forces at Rangoon and Martaban (1852). (London : Thomas Hatchard, 1852).

Htin Aung, Maung. A History of Burma. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1967).

Laurie, William Ferguson Beatson. The Second Burmese War : A Narrative of the Operations at Rangoon, in 1852. (London: Smith, Elder & Co, 1853). Reprint, Itineraria Asiatica. Burma ; v. 9. (Bangkok: Orchid Press, 2002).

Pearn, Bertie Reginald. History of Rangoon. (Rangoon: American Baptist Mission Press, 1939).

Ware, Anthony. “Religion and Urbanism in Origin of Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar/Burma: An urban history of religious space, social integration and marginalisation in colonial Rangoon after 1852.” In Religion and Urbanism: Reconceptualising sustainable cities for South Asia, 27-45. (Oxon: Routledge, 2016).

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