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A steamy past

india Updated: Jul 04, 2009 22:33 IST
Mini Pant Zachariah

It’s a relic from the Raj — huge, majestic and still sparkling though it was phased out a quarter century ago. The black and orange steamroller outside the motor transport workshop at the Mhow cantonment office is nearly 90 years old and deserves the respect reserved for veterans.

Manufactured by Aveling & Porter Limited of Rochester, England, this 12-tonne steamroller laid many a road in the Mhow before the cantonment board handed over road-laying to private contractors.

It must have been very effective. Older timers in this cantonment town still recall that the roads laid by this road roller came to be known as ‘chikni sadak’ or ‘smooth road’.

At a time the Indian landscape is dotted with earthmovers and road-rollers levelling and laying thousands of kilometres of approach roads, expressways and highways, this steamroller is a reminder of a time when dusty Indian tracks were asphalted by steam-operated machines.

The steamroller in Mhow may mean little to those born in the jet age, but for Derek Reyner, vice chairman and steam archivist of the UK-based Road Roller Association, it is of great interest. It helps him to understand the history of these machines of British origin that paved our roads in the pre-independence era and continued to do so till the ’70s.

“In steamroller terms, the machine at Mhow, dating from 1922, is a relative newcomer. Nevertheless, it is of interest as it increases our knowledge of this type of machine in India,” says Reyner in an email interview. Going by pictures of the steamroller, Reyner feels that despite its vintage, it seems in pretty good condition. “One could put some fire in her and she’ll be fit to roll again.”

Mhow cantonment office, which owns the road roller, plans to give it pride of place in this town dotted with old war tanks and machinery.

The officers don’t have any information on its history, but Reyner has found out from the archives office in Lincoln that steamroller number 10442 was despatched from the works at Rochester on October 30, 1922. “It is a G Type — which means it is a 12-tonne single cylinder machine — and was supplied to J Birch & Co Ltd. This firm were agents who exported many steamrollers over a long period to India.The roller was fitted with a short length awning (which it still carries today),” says Reyner. The only non-standard item on the roller was the exhaust pipe that was an inch longer than the standard, adds Reyner. Why this was so is a mystery to him too.

Reyner has owned a steamroller, a 1915 built Aveling & Porter, for over 40 years. It sits in his backyard in the UK. Vacationing in Siliguri in 2007, he came across a 10-tonne Aveling & Porter steamroller parked at a park in Malbazar. Intrigued about its antecedents, Reyner found out that a dozen such machines dating back to 1892-95 were brought to India in 1944, presumably for improving road connectivity for the British military during World War II. The find was significant, given that the first steamroller was made in France only in 1860.

“We also travelled to Gujarat where there are two other steamrollers. One of these is very interesting. It’s a Tata-Marshall, produced jointly by the Gainsborough (UK) firm of Marshall Sons & Co and Tata Locomotive Manufacturing Company in India, and given under contract to the Indian Stores Department after World War II. I am very fortunate to have been able to see one of these very rare machines in Gujarat during our visit,” says Reyner.

Like the steamroller in Mhow, Reyner thinks there must be more in India waiting to be identified and add to the knowledge of steam engine enthusiasts.