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
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
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
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
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
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.
[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.
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.