John Burns

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Sing a Song of Sixpence,
Dockers on the strike.
Guinea pigs are hungry,
As the greedy pike.
Till the docks are opened,
Burns for you will speak.
Courage lads, and you'll win,
Well within the week.

London dockworkers in 1889 [4]

In 1892, he was elected as Member of Parliament for Battersea as the candidate of the Battersea Liberal Association. He displayed fervent Parliamentary opposition to the Second Boer War (1900).

Burns became well known as an independent Radical, but while fellow socialist Keir Hardie argued for the formation of a new political party, Burns remained aligned with the Liberal Party. In December 1905 Campbell-Bannerman included him in the cabinet as President of the Local Government Board, the second workingman (after Henry Broadhurst) to serve as a government minister. Burns remained proud of his working-class roots, declaring to the Commons in a speech in 1901: "I am not ashamed to say that I am the son of a washerwoman". Whilst an MP he voted in favour of the 1908 Women's Enfranchisement Bill. [5] He received praise for his administrative policy and was retained in the government after H. H. Asquith became Prime Minister in 1908. He was sworn into the Privy Council in 1905.

In 1914 Burns was appointed President of the Board of Trade, but on 2 August 1914, just two days before Britain declared war on Germany, signalling the start of the First World War, Burns resigned from the government in protest. [6] He played no role in the war and left parliament in 1918.

Despite his earlier radicalism, Burns adopted various positions during his time in Cabinet that placed him on the right-wing of the Liberal Party. Although supportive of the government's introduction of old-age pensions in 1908, [7] Burns was opposed to the provision of government aid to the unemployed, arguing that no outdoor relief should be given to the poor. According to Kenneth D. Brown, Burns had long believed “that poverty and its related problems were the combined outcome of individual failure and an inadequate social environment. This was reinforced by a strong streak of puritanism which expressed itself in his opposition to smoking, drinking, and gambling." Burns had also spoken out in opposition to the gradual development of what would become known as the Welfare State, arguing in 1913 that charitable organisations and government “should not "supersede the mother, and they should not by over-attention sterilise her initiative and capacity to do what every mother should be able to do for herself." [8]


Burns has been described as an antisemite by scholars of Jewish history such as David Feldman, Colin Holmes, Robert Wistrich and Anthony Julius. [9] [10] [11] [12]

His opposition to the Second Boer War was interconnected with his personal antisemitism, making repeated references to the "trail of the financial serpent", declaring at an anti-war rally at Battersea Park in 1900 that “the South African Jew has…no bowels of compassion…every institution and class had been scheduled by the Jew as his heritage, medium and dependent. Where he could not intimidate, he corrupted; where he could not corrupt, he defamed…[the Boers] defend their land, not from a nation armed, vindicating a righteous cause, but against a militant capitalism that is using our soldiers as the uniformed brokers’ men turning out the wrong tenants in South Africa for the interests of the Jews...with wisdom foresight and kindliness, we may yet retain South Africa for the Empire and humanity, even though we may lose it for the Jews”. [13]

Later, Burns declared in Parliament that "wherever we examine, there is the financial Jew, operating, directing, inspiring the agencies that have led to this war". [14] [9] Wistrich has compared this conspiratorial antisemitism to that which spread during France during the time of the Dreyfus Affair. [11]

Burns deplored the British Army which had, in his view, been transformed from the "Sir Galahad of History" into the "janissary of the Jews". [14] In 1902, Burns further denounced "syndicated Jews who don't fight but do know how to rob". [14]

He remarked during a tour of the East End that "the undoing of England is within the confines of our afternoon’s journey amongst the Jews". [14] In 1900, David Lindsay recorded Burns telling him that he believed that the "Jew is the tapeworm of civilisation". [12]


Burns was a non-drinker and enthusiast for sporting activity. [15] He was a long-time lover of cricket, being a regular at The Oval and Lord's, and sustained severe injuries being hit in the face by a cricket ball while watching a match in 1894. [16]

In 1919 he was left an annuity of £1000 by Andrew Carnegie which left him financially independent and he spent the rest of his life devoted to his interests in books, London history and cricket. As a book collector, he created a very large private library, much of which he left to University of London Library. [17] He developed an acknowledged expertise in the history of London, and in 1929, when an American compared the River Thames unfavourably with the Mississippi, he responded "The St Lawrence is water, the Mississippi is muddy water, but the Thames is liquid history". [18]

A collection of his papers is held at the University of London library, and embraces many of his political interests, including universal adult suffrage, working hours and conditions, employment, pensions, poor laws, temperance, social conditions, local government, South African labour, and the Boer War.

He died aged 84 and was buried in St Mary's Cemetery, Battersea Rise. His connections with Battersea are recalled by the naming of a local school and a housing estate after him, as does John Burns Drive in Barking, and one of the Woolwich Ferry vessels also carried his name.

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  1. Thom, Colin (2012–2013). "Battersea" (PDF). Survey of London. 50 (Draft): Chapter 8, pp2-4.
  2. 1 2 3 Encyclopædia Britannica 1911.
  3. In Encyclopædia Britannica 1911 the Conference is dated 1884 and it said that Burns delivered a speech at the conference which attracted considerable attention. But Burns did in fact contribute to some discussions, for instance at friday afternoon (30 January) ( Industrial remuneration conference : the report of the proceedings and papers : read in Prince's Hall, Piccadilly under the presidency of the Right Hon. Sir Charles W. Dilke Bart., M.P. on the 28th, 29th and 30th January 1885. 1885. pp. 483f.
  4. Newth, A.M. (1967). Britain and the World: 1789–1901. New York: Penguin Books. p. 119. ISBN   0-14-080304-1.
  6. Clark, Christopher, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went To War in 1914, 2012, p.543
  7. Thane, Pat (Autumn 2008). "The Old Age Pensions Act, 1908" (PDF). The Journal of Liberal History. Liberal Democrat History Group (60).
  8. John Simkin. "John Burns". Spartacus Educational.
  9. 1 2 David Feldman. Englishmen and Jews: Social Relations and Political Culture, 1840-1914. (London: Yale UP, 1994) 266
  10. Colin Holmes. Anti-Semitism in British Society, 1876-1939. (Routledge Library Editions Racism and Fascism, 2015) 68)
  11. 1 2 Wistrich, Robert S. From Ambivalence to Betrayal The Left, the Jews, and Israel. Lincoln: UNP - Nebraska, 2012. 206
  12. 1 2 Anthony Julius. Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England (Oxford: OUP, 2012) 417
  13. Anthony Julius. Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England (Oxford: OUP, 2012) 275
  14. 1 2 3 4 Hirshfield, Claire. ‘The Anglo-Boer War and the issue of Jewish culpability’, Journal of Contemporary History 15.4 (1980): 626
  15. Sean Creighton Organised Cycling and Politics: the 1890s & 1900s in BatterseaThe Sports Historian No. 15
  16. "ITALY AND THE TRIPLE ALLIANCE. - The Subject Discussed in a Debate Concerning the Italian Budget. - View Article -" (PDF). 4 May 1894.
  17. Senate House Library John Burns Collection Archived 5 January 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  18. Oxford Dictionary of Quotations


Further reading

John Burns
John Burns.jpg
Burns, circa 1911
President of the Local Government Board
In office
10 December 1905 11 February 1914
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by Member of Parliament for Battersea
Constituency abolished
Trade union offices
Preceded by Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee of the Trades Union Congress
Succeeded by
Preceded by
New position
Trades Union Congress representative to the American Federation of Labour
With: David Holmes
Succeeded by
Political offices
Preceded by President of the Local Government Board
Succeeded by
Preceded by President of the Board of Trade
Succeeded by