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George Burns, His Times and Friends
Chapter IV. Starting in Life

In the year 1812, at the age of seventeen, George Burns made his preparatory start in mercantile life in the office of the New Lanark Cotton Spinning Company. This Company was originated by good old David Dale, “the benevolent magistrate of Glasgow,” and was afterwards carried on by his son-in-law, Robert Owen, of socialistic memory, and other gentlemen (who did not, however, share his views), among them being Hr. Allen, the well-known druggist of Plough Court, London.

George Burns was placed in the Company’s office under Mr. John Wright, an eminently Christian man belonging to Dr. Balfour’s congregation. During his father’s life John AVright was distinguished in Glasgow by the affix “Junior,” which he only dropped when he was himself quite an old man. He was exceptionally active in business, in works of charity, in social organisations, and in Church matters. He was the fugle-man of the Volunteer Rifle Corps, an Elder of the Church, a President of the Magdalen Asylum, as well as one of the keenest men on ’Change.

Between him and his young assistant there soon sprang up a warm friendship, which lasted till death carried away Mr. Wright. George often used to say, “I owe him a debt of gratitude which can never he repaid.” And seventy-two years after the day when he entered Mr. Wright’s office, he wrote to one of his sons: “You express the truth when you say your much loved and eminently Christian father was. kind to me. He was truly a father, both in promoting my temporal and spiritual well-being.”

When George Burns commenced business-life he did not, as too many do, drop his studies, but continued them in his leisure hours—not as tasks, hut as recreation. He was addicted to chemical experiments and scientific pursuits generally, and was much interested in electricity. He studied during a regular course of lectures under Dr. Thomas; Thomson, Professor of Chemistry in the University of Glasgow.

A few reminiscences of this period of his life will throw light upon the times in which he lived.

I had a largo electrical cylinder, but when I heard that there was to lie a public sale of scientific instruments, and other articles belonging to a gentleman who 1 knew had in his collection a fine plate, a disc, and a very handsome electrical machine, I set my heart upon being the possessor of those treasures. I made a bid for the disc at the auction, but I was opposed by Dr. (Professor) Andrew Ure on the part of the Andersonian Institution, or. as it is now called, And el son’s College. Professor Anderson was of the Glasgow University, and was most desirous to popularise scientific knowledge. By his will he appointed various chairs in the Institution; amongst others, one of Divinity, to which my father was nominated professor—but this, and many others, never came into operation. Andrew Ure, however, was Professor of Natural History and Chemistry, and was a very popular lecturer in the Andersonian Institution. Although so young, I was very intimate with him. I had a little money at this time from salary which I received from my employer, Mr. Wright; but Ure’s purse being heavier than mine, he obtained the disc.

George Burns never lost liis love for science, and one of his great delights in after life was to attend, with his wife, Faraday’s lectures at the Boyal Institution.

The introduction of gas into Glasgow was on this wise :—

When I was in Mr. Wright’s office, I became acquainted with two young men named Hart. They were bakers, and sons of a baker in Alston Street. They became eminent for their scientific attainments, and I was a frequent visitor at their bakehouse. Their mode of drawing diagrams was very simple—they took a handful of flour and spread it over the counter or table, and then marked out the figure upon it they wished to describe.

They were foremost in Glasgow in their discoveries in gas and its applications. Gas was at that time quite unknown for illuminating purposes. They obtained permission from the magistrates to light up the face of the clock in the steeple of the Trongate in the front street outside the Tron Church (in which Dr. Chalmers afterwards preached), the entrance to the church being through what was called a Pen Close, that is an arched entrance. Their mode of applying the light was to throw it upon the dial from an arm on which a globe was suspended. That was the only gas light then in Glasgow, and the Tron steeple continues to he illuminated in that same way.

From the first, George Burns showed a decided aptitude for business, and applied himself to it diligently. If ever he was tempted to shirk it, it wras not from idleness, hut from an intense and irresistible love of seeing everything that wras going on in the wrorld. In after life he was described, by one wdio knewr him wTell, as an inveterate sightseer.” But he was not a sight-seer in the ordinary sense of the word—it was with him a craving for knowdedge and experience.

He tells us how this love of “seeing what was going on” sometimes nearly led him into difficulties.

On one occasion I was sent by Mr. John Wright to the office of Messrs. John Campbell, Sen., & Co., with some bills to get signed. Buchanan Street being far west from St. Andrew's Square (Wright’s), but in the immediate neighbourhood of Alston Street, I found my way into Harts’ bakery to see how they were getting on with their gas. I stayed a long while, with the bills in my pocket. On finding my way back to St. Andrew’s Square, 1 innocently delivered the bills to Mr. Wright, who asked me what had kept me so long in returning. I told him the truth straightforwardly, and assisted him to discover that I had omitted to get the bills signed. He gave me an admonition on the occasion which I never forgot—that while the acquirement of knowledge was a very useful thing, I should, in future, consider duty and convenience before staying away so long again.

Much of George Burns’ work was at first in connection with the banks, and some of his recollections are amusing. He remembered the well-known and somewhat eccentric hanker, Robert Carrick— familiarly called “Robin” by his friends—a shrewd manl by no means averse to a good bargain. He purchased a great deal of property in Lanarkshire called Drumpellier; and when his friends spoke of him as “daft” to speculate upon such a dreary and barren-looking place, Robin would look out at the corners of his eyes and say sagaciously, “The value doesn’t lie upon the surface.” Mineralogy was not of much account in those days— but Robert Carrick knew enough of it to make that property yield a very handsome lordship to his heir, Carrick Buchanan of Drumpellier.

Mr. Carrick, despite his wealth, was frugal in all his ways. A friend once said to him that his dress was getting old, and advised him to renew it. His reply vras, “Everybody knows me here, so it doesn’t matter what I wear.” When he was in London, his friend met him again, and made a similar observation. He answered, “Nobody knows me here, so, you see, it really doesn’t matter what I wear ”!

As a youth, George Burns was often sent to Carrick’s bank, where he generally succeeded in getting some amusement, if not out of the banker, at least out of his cashier, a tall, gaunt, unkempt man, who, as the clock struck twelve, would rise from his desk and stalk across Argyle Street to a public-liouse on the opposite side of the way, where he slowly and silently drank a glass of whiskey, which lie called his “meridian.” Having finished that ceremony, he solemnly walked across the street and settled down at his desk, generally without having uttered a word since he left it.

Young Burns was on a very friendly footing with his employer, who asked him to take under his charge the subscriptions for the Magdalen Asylum, and thus awakened in him an interest in a valuable institution over which, at a future day, he was to be a Vice-President, and to continue in that office to the end of his days. Sometimes Mr. Wright asked him to his house.

On one occasion I met at dinner there the celebrated Dr. Hamil, a Russian gentleman, who was sent to (treat Britain by the Russian Government to obtain every information that might be useful to propagate in that country. I remember Dr. Hamil saying that, he learned the English language in print, chiefly on his passage from the Neva to the Thames, the passages being long in those days; and he said, 'When I forget a word’ (striking his hand on his head), ‘I poonish, poonish, poonish, till I recover it! ’ Shortly after his arrival in Scotland, a gentleman asked him to come to his house and take ‘Pot Luck.’ He did not know what that meant, but taking his dictionary and putting the two words together, he shrewdly made out that it meant an easy family dinner.

Although from his childhood George Burns had lived in the constant atmosphere not of religious words only, but of “puil and undefiled religion,” and had been surrounded by “serious” people, it was not until he was advancing towards kjung manhood that any deep religious convictions impressed him. He seemed to care for nothing but play, and every kind of fun and nonsense; and when at last it was said that “George Burns had become serious,” Dr. Balfour, who knew him well, expressed the utmost surprise.

Deferring to a period shortly prior to this, Mr. Burns says :—

Before I was impressed with religious feelings, it was necessary, as was customary, that I should attend ‘the preachings’ in the city, which occurred at the alternate half-year to the period of the sacrament in the Barony Church.

I was allowed to choose what church I would go to. 1 always chose St. George’s for the Sacramental Monday, because invariably Mr. Forrest, minister of Port Glasgow, preached, and as invariably from the same text—‘Belundd I come quickly, I come quickly,’ and his introduction was always the same : ‘ I will treat this subject with as much brevity as is consistent with perspicuity.’ Certainly lie succeeded in brevity, which was the charm for me.

When the period in his spiritual history arrived in which he felt it to be his duty, no less than his privilege, to “publicly acknowledge himself to be upon the Lord’s side,” it came about in the simplest and most natural manner. We give the narrative of the “crisis,” as it is called, in his own words :—

Dr. Dickson, of Edinburgh, at the time of my father’s Communion service, was one of his minister-visitors, and preached in the Barony Church either on Thursday, the Fast-day, or on Saturday, the day of preparation. Well, I became strongly impressed with the desire to join in the communion, and on Saturday evening I went to my father and expressed my wish to him. He said he was sorry that I had not mentioned it earlier, in order that my name might have been enrolled in the communion list by the Session, but he would be very glad to see me at the Lord’s Table. After that period I began to take up with various religious institutions, and particularly with the Sunday Union Society, which was then the equivalent of the Young Men’s Christian Association of to-day. The first thing, after I became seriously alive to religious feeling, that set me to work in earnest, was the text, *Not slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord."

One of the chief movers in the Sunday Union Society was Mr. Wardlaw—nephew of the celebrated Dr. Ralph Wardlaw—an agreeable young man, and a pleasant companion of George Burns. The Ward-laws were a power in Glasgow at that time. The brother of Dr. Wardlaw was sub-Editor of the Crlasgow Herald—a man exceedingly fond of a joke, as the following incident will show :—

Samuel Hunter was Editor of the Glasgow Herald—which at that time was published only twice a week, Mondays and Fridays, at two o’clock. It was his habit, when everything was prepared and out of hand for the Friday issue, to take a run down to Rothesay for a Holiday until Monday. He was a very pronounced Tory. On one occasion Mr. Wardlaw substituted a leading article, conceived in an utterly Radical spirit, for one written strongly in the interests of the opposite party. Wardlaw had only a single? copy printed, which he posted to Hunter at Rothesay. When Hunter read the article, he was at first wild and disconcerted, then greatly perturbed, almost doubting his own sanity. So he sped back to Glasgow, post haste, only to find that he had been the victim of a practical joke.

Hunter was himself very much given to a display of dry, pungent humour, and an occasional practical joke, and Mr. Wardlaw did but pay him back old scores in his own coin.

Eeligious work in those times was performed under greater difficulties than in the present. Says George Burns :—



About the year 1810 I was Treasurer of the 'Penny-a-Week North-West District Society,’ in aid of the British and Foreign Bible Society, and collected in upwards of £400 a year.

This brought me into connection with the Auxiliary Society in Glasgow, and my father, according to my wish and of his own willing mind, attended the annual meeting of the Auxiliary Society. On the platform there were none but Dissenting ministers, except himself, and at that meeting he spoke, which was a marvellous display of liberality for tliose days. That same evening my father and I dined at Mr. John Duncan’s, who had married the daughter of Dr. Balfour, at that time leading Evangelical minister in Glasgow; and well I remember, when I entered the drawing-room with my father, how Dr. Balfour put his hands behind his back and said to the Barony minister. I don’t think I can shake hands with you to-day. You have been away at a public meeting with the Dissenters, and have spoken there ! ’ .

But Dr. Bums was, as we have already said, a man far in advance of his age. About this time Dr. Wardlaw, Independent Minister, was delivering at the little church in Albion Street his famous “Sermons on the Socinian Controversy,” in reply to one, “On the grounds of Unitarian Dissent,” which had been preached by Mr. Yates at the opening of the Unitarian Chapel in Glasgow. George Burns frequently attended the ministry of Dr. Wardlaw, whom he knew intimately; and he heard with infinite pleasure the whole of the sermons on Socinianism. Dr. Burns, being free on Sunday evenings, and having no sympathy with sectarian prejudices, also attended on several occasions. “ I rememher one evening,” says George Burns, “when he was admitted through the vestry into the crowded church, and could only get a seat on the steps of the pulpit. Dr. "Wardlaw seeing him there, beckoned to him to come in beside him ; but my father was too modest to accept.” This incident, simple in itself, has a pleasant significance, for it shows that good men in the early years of the century, though belonging to different sections of the Church, were knit together in the bonds of a sympathy that went much deeper than their ecclesiastical differences. Another incident of those days is thus given by Mr. Burns :—

Albion Street was very narrow, and terminated in a through-going close. It was under repair, and near to Dr. WardlaAv’s church was placed a lamp-post with a notice, 'No passage this way!’ Dr. Wardlaw’s brother, the humorous journalist, at a late hour one Saturday night, added, ‘For Independents,’ that all going to his brother’s church in the morning might read it!

In 1813, the year after George Burns entered Mr. "Wright’s office, there came a great sorrow into the family, Allan Burns, after his return from Prussia, resolved to occupy the place of his brother John, who had discontinued his lectures on surgery and anatomy. He soon became highly popular with his pupils : his demonstrations were admirable; he had the happy art of making the most abstruse subjects plain, and the driest subjects full of interest. But he had a higher ambition than to rest his fame on oral lectures, limited and evanescent. Already his brother John had published several medical works, chiefly on diseases of women and children, and they had met with marked success. Allan, therefore, determined to give the fruits of his studies in a series of contributions to the literature of his profession. His first work, “Observations on some of the most frequent and important Diseases of the Heart,” was published in 1809; the second, published in 1812, was “On the Surgical Anatomy of the Head and Neck.”

Both of these works made their mark, not only in Britain but on the Continent, and a career of unusual professional distinction was opening up to him—when serious illness supervened, arising from a puncture received while dissecting. So early as 1810 his health had begun to give way, and though he continued to lecture for two years afterwards, it was with great difficulty and pain.

John Burns had much more pronounced views on religious questions than his brother Allan, and often urged upon him, in letters full of exquisite tenderness and burning earnestness, the need and privilege of personal consecration to God. The following letter from Allan, with a note affixed after his death by John, gives at once a glimpse of brotherly affection and of Christian zeal:—

Dear John,—I have read your letter with care, and cordially agree in its contents. But for the present I have made up my mind not to partake of the sacrament, not from being influenced by any of the considerations which you notice, but simply because I am not satisfied that my sentiments will permanently remain such as they are at present. If they continue the same till the next dispensation of the Lord's Supper, I will then assuredly follow your advice, for which 1 sincerely thank you.

Yours affectionately,

Allan Burns.

[Note.—This was received in November, 1812, and my brother died 24th of June, 1813. His sentiments did remain permanent, and he fell asleep in the joyful assurance of salvation through Jesus, declaring that Satan, who struggled hard to have his soul, should not prevail, and before he became insensible, cried out that now he had clearer views than ever. John Burns.

June 25, 1813.]

Dr. Warcllaw was of great spiritual service to Allan Burns on his death-bed, and this became an additional bond of union between himself and the Burns family.

But there was a new light soon to break in upon Glasgow, and how George Burns rejoiced in that light we shall see in the next chapter.

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