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Burns, Sir James (1846–1923)

from Sydney Morning Herald

Sir James Burns, n.d.

Sir James Burns, n.d.

from Pastoral Review, 15 September 1923

Colonel Sir James Burns, K.C.M.G., M.L.C., chairman and managing director of Burns, Philp, and Co., Ltd., died yesterday morning, after a long illness, at his home, Gowan Brae, near Parramatta. He was 77 years of age.

By the death of Sir James Burns there passes away one of the best-known and most influential figures in the commercial and public life of the Commonwealth, one whose public-spiritedness and benevolence found practical expression in many directions, notably in the establishment of the Burnside Homes. The impress of his enterprise and industry has been stamped indelibly upon the annals of Australian business and commerce, and upon the development of Australia's trade in the Pacific and with the East. The existence and the development of Australian trade with the big Pacific groups are due largely to the pluck and the enterprise of the great firm which he founded at Townsville, in North Queensland, 50 years ago, and of which he remained the pillar.

In business life, and as a philanthropist, the name of Sir James Burns will always be remembered with pride and with deep respect.

In Sir James Burns was to be seen a notable example of that fine type of indomitable, unconquerable Scotsman that the world has learned to admire—the Scotsman who, leaving his native country of stern upbringing when young, has gone out into the four corners of the earth, subduing the wilderness, pioneering trade, and bringing to remote places those civilising influences which have helped to make a better world. Such men it is who have helped to give Scotland an honoured name. Sir James Burns was a shrewd, far seeing man of business, but he blended with these attributes a wide range of sympathies and a beneficence which clearly indicated that the spirit of public service keenly appealed to him, even amidst the ramifications of business.

The Burnside Orphan Homes will always stand as a memorial to his fine citizenship, and to the deep love which he felt for his adopted country. Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson (now Viscount Novar), when, Governor-General, spoke of these homes as "memorials of Christian charity in the care of little children."

The death of Sir James Burns recalls inevitably the history and the growth of the great business enterprise in which he was the leading figure. It was in 1873, upon his return to Australia from a visit to Scotland, that he founded the company at Townsville, then commonly known as Cleveland Bay. Impressed with the potentialities of the place, Mr. Burns, as he then was, decided to establish himself in business there. Some time afterwards the late Sir Robert Philp (then Mr. Philp, later Premier of Queensland) acquired a partnership in the business, assuming control of it on the departure of Sir James Burns for Sydney. Such was the progress of the business, such was the enterprise of the founder of it, that from the day he commenced operations at Townsville until he left, a little over four years later, the young Scotsman was doing more business than could be conveniently attended to. Thus was seen the small beginning of one of the biggest enterprises in Australia, and from his new base in Sydney he devoted himself to the development and expansion of the business in a big way. He did not confine his energies to shipping, but so enlarged the scope of the business that today its activities are more varied probably than those of any other firm in Australia.

The son of Mr. David Burns, a merchant of Edinburgh, Sir James Burns was born near that city on February 10, 1848. He was educated first at the Newington Academy, and subsequently at the Edinburgh High School. In company with an elder brother, he came to Australia at the age of 16, landing at Brisbane in 1862. He at once made his way into the back country, and for some years was engaged gaining colonial experience on various station properties in Queensland. Later he joined his brother in a business venture in Brisbane. The discovery of gold at Gympie gave him an opportunity for displaying the commercial promptitude which characterised his whole career. He was the first man to arrive at the goldfields from Brisbane, riding across country a distance of 120 miles, and before he attained his majority he was conducting the business of a general storekeeper at Gympie, One Mile Creek, and Kilkivan, all mining centres. He was associated with the opening up of some of the principal reefing claims on the field. In 1870, in consequence of the death of his father, he disposed of his Queensland interests, and revisited the old country. Reaching Scotland during the Franco-Prussian war, he spent a couple of months in Paris during the Communist troubles. Eighteen months later he returned to Queensland and Townsville, then progressing because of the Charters Towers discoveries, and there established stores, and laid the foundation of the great business now known as Burns, Philp, and Co.

The story of the establishment of the fleet, which bears the flag of Burns, Philp, and Co. is interesting. From his now base in Sydney Sir James Burns started first of all a line of regular sailing vessels between Sydney and Townsville, besides other North Queensland parts; those before long were either supplemented or supplanted by an irregular steam service, which in its turn, led to the formation of the Queensland Steam Shipping Company, Limited. More development followed. The Q.S.S. Company Ltd, to cope with the ever-increasing traffic, had the steamers Barcoo, Maranoa, and Warrego built to their order, and a very animated competition then ensued with the old Australian Steam Navigation Company. The Q.S.S. Company was an English corporation, in which Sir James Burns acquired a considerable interest, besides the representation of the agency at Sydney. A few years keen rivalry on the coast secured to the company a signal victory over the Australian Steam Navigation Company, Sir James Burns being accorded the privilege of negotiating the terms and conditions upon which the Q.S.S. Company, Ltd, became the purchasers of the whole of the A.S.N. Company's fleet. A new amalgamation was thereupon formed in London, known as the Australasian United Steam Navigation Company, Ltd, which has since, at Sydney and various other ports also, been controlled by Burns, Philp, and Co., Ltd. Following the first shipping agency at Sydney—that of the Q.S.S. Company—Sir James Burns in rapid succession secured the representation of numerous important overseas lines to nearly all parts of the globe.

The point was finally approached at which it was deemed desirable to amalgamate the five businesses, viz, Sydney, Normanton, and Thursday Island, hitherto carried on in the name of James Burns, and Townsville (comprising a subsidiary business at Charters Towers) and Cairns, carried on in the name of Robert Philp and Co. The necessary amalgamation arrangements were completed, and as the result Burns, Philp, and Co., Ltd, evolved as a registered limited liability company as from April, 1883. Mr Adam Forsyth joined the board, and later on, Senator J. T. Walker and Sir James Fairfax added their names and interest, making four directors in Sydney. Resident directors were also installed in Queensland, Western Australia, and London, and with Sir James Burns as chairman of directors the rise and progress of the business became even more rapid, attaining finally its world-wide proportions of today.

When Sir James Burns came to New South Wales, he selected as his home the highlands to the left of the Pennant Hills road, near Parramatta, and there he erected the noble grey stone pile of Gowan Brae, which in the years that followed offered on innumerable occasions hospitality to vice-royalty and to many other distinguished visitors to Australia.

In the early 'Nineties Sir James Burns became associated with the volunteer movement, which he did so much to advance. In 1891 he was appointed captain of the Parramatta mounted troop, which was subsequently known as No 1 Squadron, and in 1897 he took command of the New South Wales Lancer Regiment with the rank of colonel. It was largely through his influence that 30 officers and troopers of the 7th Lancers went from the State to attend Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee celebrations, and that contingents of Australians were sent to take part in the military tournament at Islington and Dublin, and to train at Aldershot. Some of these men were on their way home when the Boer War broke out, and they proceeded straight to the scene of action where they earned the greatest distinction. Sir James Burns retired from the military forces in 1908, after commanding also the 1st Brigade Australian Light Horse.

Of recent years, the Burnside Homes, at Parramatta, had provided Sir James Burns with his principal relaxation from business worries. These homes owe their existence entirely to him, and are beautifully situated on the main road from Parramatta to Gowan Brae on land given by Sir James. Commencing with one cottage home for Scottish orphan children, the homes now consist of a whole avenue of handsome cottages, sheltering nearly 200 orphans, who are being well cared for and fitted to take their places later as useful citizens.

Sir James Burns's public-spiritedness and patriotism wore again made manifest during the war in connection with the launching of the Victory Policies Trust, to provide insurance for married men, or men with dependents, then enlisting for active service. He aimed, successfully, at a fund which would enable policies to the extent of £200,000 to be issued to the soldiers, and headed the list with a personal subscription of £2000 per annum for the duration of the war.

Sir James Burns was called to the Legislative Council in 1908, and in 1917 the honour of knighthood was conferred upon him by the King in recognition of his great services. For many years he was engaged in pastoral pursuits in Queensland, while he was a director of a number of financial and commercial institutions.

Of all the institutions with which Sir James Burns was connected probably none will miss him more than the Highland Society, of which he had been president for the past 19 years. His death will be an irreparable loss to the society, whose interests he did so much to advance.

The wife of Sir James Burns died 19 years ago. One son, Lieut Robert Burns, was killed at the war. Another son, Captain John Burns, of the Light Horse died from wounds received on active service. The remaining son, Mr James Burns, was also on active service, with the rank of lieutenant. Sir James Burns has also left three daughters—Mrs M. M. Brooks, of England, Mrs. Cyril Williams, of Gowan Brae, and Mrs. C. A. Peirson, of England.

The funeral, which will be preceded by a short service commencing at 2.45 p.m., will leave Gowan Brae, Parramatta, at 3 p.m. today, for the private cemetery in Gowan Brae grounds.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 August 1923, p 8

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Additional Resources

Citation details

'Burns, Sir James (1846–1923)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/burns-sir-james-177/text1591, accessed 26 October 2014.

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