John Burns

From Academic Kids

John Burns (20 October 1858-24 January 1943) was a prominent English trade unionist, anti-racist, socialist and politician of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly associated with London politics.

A Scottish engineer's son, Burns was born in Lambeth and followed his father into the engineering industry. There a fellow worker introduced him to radical writers including John Stuart Mill, Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin.

After joining the Amalgamated Society of Engineers in 1879, Burns worked for two years for the United Africa Company. Appalled at the racist treatment of Africans, Burns turned to socialism and in 1881 and formed a branch of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) in Battersea.

Elected to the SDF's executive council, Burns stood for Parliament in the 1885 General Election but was unsuccessful. A year later, he was involved in a London demonstration against unemployment. Although arrested and later acquitted of charges of conspiracy and sedition, he was arrested again on 13 November 1887 after a central London demonstration against coercion in Ireland ended in the 'Bloody Sunday' clashes; Burns was imprisoned for six weeks.

The London dock striker of August 1889 was a major turning point. By this time Burns had left the SDF and, with fellow socialist Tom Mann, was focusing on trade union activity as a leader of the New Unionist movement. With other London radicals such as Ben Tillett, Will Crooks and John Benn, Burns ('The Man with the Red Flag') helped win the dispute, and in the new elections to form the first London County Council, he was elected to represent Battersea.

In 1892, he expanded his role, being elected to Parliament for Battersea North as an Independent Labour Party member. But while fellow socialist James Keir Hardie argued for the formation of a new political party, Burns remained aligned with the Liberal Party, and in the 1906 Campbell-Bannerman administration was appointed President of the Local Government Board the first working class person to serve as a government minister (albeit a somewhat disappointing one to many socialists).

Nonetheless, he had at least previously distinguished himself by his fervent opposition in Parliament to the Boer War (1900), and he 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".

As a local politician, Burns is particularly noted for his role in the creation of Battersea's Latchmere Estate, the first municipal housing estate built using a council's own direct labour force, officially opened in 1903.

In 1914 Burns was appointed President of the Board of Trade, but after the start of the First World War, he resigned from the government (and from political life after 1918) in protest, spending the rest of his life devoted to his interests in London history, books and cricket.

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. Elsewhere his connections with Battersea are recalled by the naming of a local school and a housing estate after him, and one of the Woolwich Ferry vessels also carries his name. He was buried in St Mary's Cemetery, Battersea Rise.

Preceded by:
Gerald William Balfour
President of the Local Government Board
Followed by:
Herbert Samuel
Preceded by:
Sydney Charles Buxton
President of the Board of Trade
Followed by:
Walter Runciman

Other people named John Burns:


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