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George Burns, His Times and Friends
Chapter VI. In Business


We must now go Back a few years, to trace the course of events in the personal history of George Burns, and to glance at other aspects in his character and career.

He soon exhibited a singular capacity for business, and was in receipt of a salary which enabled him to gratify his tastes and inclinations, and to take his part in contributing to the philanthropic and religious movements in which, as we have seen, he was so deeply interested. On the 10th of July, 1816, his father, Dr. John Burns, who was described as a “merchant,” was “admitted a Burgess and Guild Brother of Glasgow, as being the eldest lawful son of the deceased John Burn;” and on the same day George Burns, although only just twenty-one, was also admitted a burgess. It was unusual for a minister to become a burgess, but Dr. Burns entered on the privileges of his father simply to enable his son to enter in like manner at what was called the “near or short hand”—that is to say, for the sake of being able to allow the privilege to descend from father to succeeding son of sons. A burgess ticket is a curious document; that of George Burns ran as follows :—

Here I protest before God, that I confess and allow with my heart the true religion, presently professed within this Realm, and authorized by the laws thereof. I shall abide thereat, and defend the same to my life’s end, renouncing the Roman religion called Papistry. I shall be leal and true to our Sovereign Lord the King’s Majesty, and to the Provost and Baillies of this Burgh. I shall obey the officers thereof, fortify, maintain, and defend them in the execution of their office with my body and goods. I shall not colour unfreemen's goods under colour of my own. In all taxations, watchings, and wardings, to be laid upon the Burgh, I shall willingly bear my part thereof, as I am commanded thereto by the magistrates. I shall not purchase nor use exemptions to be free thereof, renouncing the benefit of the same for ever. I shall do nothing hurtful to the liberties and common well of this Burgh. I shall not brew, nor cause brew, any malt but such as is grinded at the Town’s milns, and shall grind no other corns except wheat, pease, rye, and beans, but at the same allenarly. And how oft as I shall happen to break any part of this my oath, I oblige me to pay to the common affairs of this Burgh the sum of one hundred pounds Scots money, and shall remain in ward while the same be paid. So help me God. I shall give the best council I can, and conceal the council shown to me. I shall not consent to dispone the common goods of this Burgh, but for ane common cause, and ane common profit. I shall make concord where discord is, to the utmost of my power. In all lienations and neighbourhoods I shall give my leal and true judgment, but without price, prayer, or reward. So help me God. . . .

Glasgow, 2 August, 1813.

Although George Burns was thoroughly well versed in all that concerned the New Lanark Cotton Spinning Company; although his Burgess ticket had been “hooked with the Incorporation of Weavers”—it was not in that branch of business that he was to make the successes of his life. Mr. Wright considered that cotton was the staple trade of the country, and, following his advice, George Burns, on leaving the New Lanark Company, became an unsalaried clerk in the house of Andrew Grant & Co., to learn the mysteries of the business, in which, however, as important changes soon took place, he remained for only a very short time. .

It was well for him that events took the course they did. The power-loom was not destined to be the instrument that should cause Glasgow to take rank among the first commercial cities of the world. At one time it seemed that the cotton trade was to have its head-quarters north and not south of the border; but although Arkwright had personally assisted David Dale to lay out his famous works at New Lanark; although it grew to be the first spinning-mill of its day and became the pattern for many others in Scotland—nevertheless the trade declined, and, according to recent returns of the Factory Inspectors, all Scotland has but 830,894 spindles, while England has over 40,000,000!

In 1818, George Bums entered into partnership with his brother James, as general merchants. James Burns was a man of great beauty and simplicity of character, of much tenderness of heart, and was universally loved and admired. Deeply religious, his faith was simple and natural as that of a little child. He was one who, like George Washington, “could not lie,” his conscience was clear as the noontide; his character transparent as glass—a natural, loveable, and good man.

But he had not the enterprise of his younger brother. He would attend faithfully and conscientiously to the things near at hand, and plod on unweariedly, hut he could not make forecasts ; he had the gift of putting the drag on the wheel if the concern ran too fast, but he had not the corresponding gift of knowing the exact moment to take it off and let it run free ; he could advise sagaciously on any plan suggested to him, hut he could not suggest; he was admirably adapted to stand fast to the traditions of a business already made, but he had not the special qualifications necessary to make a business.

George, on the other hand, was shrewd and far-seeing, always on the alert, ready to set sail whenever the right wind blew. Like his brother, he was a “perfectly honest merchant;” he would not, and it is not going too far to say he could not, take a mean advantage of any man. Unlike many who enter into the great struggle to acquire wealth, he was liberal and generous, always ready to recognise the fair claims of others, and equally ready to refuse the most tempting proposals, or to sacrifice any coveted gain, if the whole transaction would not hear the full noontide sunshine to blaze upon it. He knew nothing of that questionable motto, “Honesty is the best policy”—he knew that honesty was the best principle, the only principle upon which he could square accounts with this world and the next—therefore men trusted him. As we shall see in pursuing this narrative, the successes of. his life rested almost entirely upon the trustworthiness of his character. Men who had done business with him, liked to come again; they knew that his word was always as good as his bond, and that in all things he was reliable.

There is a story told of a Highland innkeeper who, when a tourist remonstrated with him upon his excessive charges, replied, “Aweel, an’ maybe I’ll never see you again no more.” That man’s policy was destitute of the principle which governed the dealings of George Burns.

In order to prosecute their business with energy and success, it became necessary that one or other of the brothers should travel to various parts of Scotland, as well as to England and Ireland, and this branch of the work fell upon the shoulders of George.

It is difficult in these days, when the journey from London to Edinburgh is made in less than eight hours, to realise how much time and money were expended in travelling when George Bums was a young man. In his father’s day there were only three courses open to the traveller from Glasgow to London—the post-chaise, the saddle, or the stage-waggon. The first cost not less than £40, the second was impossible to the majority, and the third was tedious in the extreme. So late as 1791, the “London Llying Waggons” were advertised to “ leave Glasgow on Monday, arriving in London on Thursday se’ennight, and on Thursday, arriving in London on Monday se’ennight.” As the former journey, where one Sunday intervened, took ten days, and the latter journey, where two Sundays intervened, took eleven days, we see that the “Flying Waggon” folded its wings on Sunday, and covered the distance in nine days net, travelling, of course, night and day, and with relays of horses.

But in 1784 the mail-coach was instituted. Before that time, mails all over Great Britain had been carried either by hoys on horseback, or, in a few cases, by mail-carts at an average speed of three and a half miles an hour, and constantly exposed to perils of waters and perils of robbers.

On the 7tli of July, 1788, the first London mail “pulled up at the Saracen’s Head (Glasgow), surrounded by a cloud of horsemen who had ridden out to meet it; and from that day till the 10th of February, 1848, when the Caledonian Railway was opened, the London mail ran Sunday and Saturday, summer and winter, fair weather and foul.”

At first the journey occupied sixty-six hours, and it has not till many years later that it was shortened to forty-six hours.

If travelling to London—the capital to which all roads led—was difficult, much more so was travelling to outlying cities in England and Ireland. But it had its pleasures, and George Burns, who entered into every new experience with a refreshing enthusiasm. soon sipped the sweets of his new line of life. There were only two drawbacks to the pleasure of seeing new cities and opening up new business—one was that he was obliged to leave the Sunday-school and other work in which he took so much interest, as well as the society and ministry of Dr. Chalmers; and the other, that it separated him from Miss Cleland. To her, however, he sent a daily letter, and from these, as well as from some of his reminiscences, we may trace his movements during the time he was “ making a business.”

In 1811-20, he visited every out-port in Ireland, and his labours were crowned with considerable success. He found little difficulty in procuring any amount of grain consignment, but “as the skippers were so .prone to draw up to the teeth and more,” that branch of the business was rendered very hazardous, and therefore it was not cultivated by him. In Belfast, however, he obtained the support of the whole town, and its consignment of produce fell entirely into the hands of J. and G. Burns. Moreover, wherever he went to many friends, and the influence of this upon his future career was very remarkable.

Upon the occasion of my going to Ireland (says Mr. Burns), 1 fell in with a gentleman named Hodgson, at Youghal, whose firm in Liverpool was largely engaged in the Irish grain trade, and that was part of my object in visiting these out-ports. Having got into conversation with him, he said to me, ‘I find that you are going on the same errand and-the same route as myself: you will find in the West of Ireland you will get no stage-coaches, and will be obliged to go by carriage ; if you drive I’ll join you, and we’ll go together.' Afterwards lit- said, ‘I am going* on at once to Cork; will you follow?’ I said, ‘Yes; I will go with you on Monday or join you on that day.’ He said I must come before that: to which I replied, ‘No; I will not under any circumstances travel on the Sunday.’ So he had to make the best of it, and submit. I had a pocket full of introductions to people living round the ports, and among them, to a Quaker family at Cork—most excellent people. I dined with them, and before dinner all stood for a few moments perfectly silent. The host said, ‘This is our way of asking a blessing.’ He told me a great deal about Killarney, and possessed a fund of anecdote. I remember him telling me of a gentleman who had gone there to see the Lakes, and was beset by beggars, to whom he gave alms. At last he was so teased that he held back and gave nothing, when a crowd gathered round him, and one called out, ‘Hitter had luck to yer honour; a full suit of it, and long life to wear it.’

To return to Hodgson. We subsequently set out on our travels, and proceeded to Limerick; there] on market-day, I saw a large assemblage transacting business in the provision and corn trade. In the midst there was a man inside a large empty sugar hogshead, and the people were rolling him about. I asked what this meant, and was told in reply, ‘Oh, they are making a broker of him!’ It seemed to be the custom, if the people were not satisfied with the treatment they received from a proposed broker, that they brought him to hook in that fashion.

I proceeded to Westport, Sligo, Galway, and other western ports, travelling in a chemise until we reached Londonderry. When we were there, I announced my intention of going to see the Giant's Causeway. Mr. Hodgson thought this was extremely foolish, and when I joined him on the route afterwards, he said, ‘ 1 did nut think a sensible young man like you would do that.’ We returned by Newtownards, Coleraine, &e., to Belfast, from whence I had started. I then went on with him to Dublin, and there ended our circuit, where he told some friends of mine ‘we had a very pleasant journey, and I have nothing to complain of in the young man but two things—first, that he would not travel on Sunday, and next, that he struck off to see the Giant’s Causeway.’

That is a brief outline of the tour, recalled to memory sixty-six years after it was taken. Quotations from letters to Miss Cleland will fill in some of the details that are worth recording.

Cork, Sept. 21, 1820.

I went to bed about 8, and slept till 1 a.m., when 1 had to get up for the Cork coach, which sounded its horn. I had along with me as passenger a Mr. Hodgson, of Liverpool. To Cork we jogged on, where we arrived about nine o’clock. We washed, dressed, and breakfasted, and each set out on his own pursuits. Now 1 shall tell you the connection I have formed with ray travelling companion. He is a Liverpool merchant, going on precisely the same business and precisely the same route as myself. I met with him accidentally (providentially I should rather say) at Youghal, and as neither of us was certain of getting seats in the Cork coach, we proposed, if both should be disappointed, to post the journey; so that I shall probably have a companion now for the greater part of the route before me. This will by no means be uncomfortable to me nor to you.

Cork, Sabbath, Sept. 24, 1820.

I have much reason to bless Got! that this day I enjoy great quietness and comfort; I have been at church this forenoon, and in a very few minutes intend returning. If 1 seldom hear any sermon that breathes of the love of Christ, I at least have a service of prayer and praise in which I can join with comfort ; and experience that, when I hunger and thirst after communion with God, He abundantly satisfies me with His presence. He alone can put life and Spirit into his own ordinances, but prayer for the influence and grace of the Holy Spirit was never offered up in vain ; we have a merciful High Priest at the right hand of God, who knows all our exigencies, who is able to relieve them, and who has undertaken to do so. Oh ! that with a lively faith both of us could be continually looking to Jesus, and peace should be with our spirits, even a peace which passeth all understanding, which, like oil on the waters, can still the troubled mind, and fill it with thankfulness when else it would be filled with continual heaviness. To abide strictly to the determination of turning aside neither to the right hand nor to the left in following out all the revealed will of God, is the surest way to possess it. May the enlightening Spirit of God show us with operative effect how alone this can be done; even by going at all times between our own emptiness and Christ’s fulness—keeping alive a spirit of deep humility—conscious weakness, constant watching—self-distrust, perpetual dependence upon Divine aid. I am at present, by God’s mercy, reaping the blessed fruits of having been enabled in some small degree to follow out the line of conduct I have been describing. I have been at church again, where prayers alone were said, and no sermon. I have dined also, and now resume with pleasure my epistolary interview with my beloved wife.  I have hitherto contrived to arrive at a new place always on a Saturday evening, so that, being an entire stranger in it, I have been able to spend the Sabbath day according to my own mind ; but here I have been obliged to remain over the Sabbath, and consequently have had several temptations thrown in my way by pressing invitations to spend the day in amusement or to drive out. . . .

Mr. Hodgson went on to-day; his disposition to travel on the Sabbath is the only thing I am afraid of in having him as a companion, but I trust in the strength of Christ that neither interest nor convenience will ever lead me willingly to offend in this particular. In return. I believe that adhering to what I see to be right is a great cause of my enjoying so much comfort as I have this day had. Most of the people lodging in the hotel having gone to enjoy themselves in the country, I dined in the public room quite alone, and have also been enabled to evade every person who knew me. For all the mercies with which I have been visited, I desire humbly to render thanks to that quarter where they are due. My dear, mueh do I hope that you have had sweet enjoyment of our Heavenly Father this day. I love you sincerely; and oh ! how unboundedly thankful should we both be that we are permitted to entertain the pleasing belief that we not only are sharers of God’s bounties here, hut heirs tot/ether, and joint heirs with Christ of eternal glory hereafter. I have been reading the Olney Hymns, and delight to see the entire coincidence of mind that subsists between us, which is indicated by the passages you have marked. I hope by God’s goodness we shall yet have it in our power to sing them together to His praise, in a quiet dwelling-place of our own. Hut let us be careful for nothing, hut in everything by prayer and supplication let our requests be made known to our God. I desire to place, with entire confidence, yon and myself, and all our concerns, into His keeping, and at His disposal, and whilst we trust every deep-felt care of ours to Him, may we feel our minds unburdened of their anxieties.

The long quotation given above is a specimen of one of George Bums’ ordinary “love-letters.” It is “out of the fulness of the heart that the mouth speaks,” and to both of them the spiritual life was the true life of their being. It was as natural for them to write of their religious hopes, aspirations, and experiences, as it is for those whose chief end lies in politics, business, amusements, or fashion, to write of such things. Their union of heart was based upon “the one foundation.” They considered the future of their spiritual history to he of more importance than business or social position, and gave it the foremost place in their thoughts and utterances.

George Burns’ letters to the one he loved are singularly ingenuous. He opens his heart upon subjects which, as a rule, young men seem most anxious to avoid. If any apology were needed for bringing to light these old letters, which have never again been seen by the writer since the dates on which they were written, it would he amply found in this, that they may well he taken as models for the use of young men of to-day. Unhappy marriages are, in nine cases out of ten, the result of incompatibility of tastes, temper, or pursuits. If those who are to spend all life together, would throw aside the gloss and glamour of mere prettinesses of expression, and tell each other of those hopes and fears, those foundations of faith and principle, which build up and establish character; if they would seek to gain strength from one another for the real work and interest of life; they would find marriage to be what George Burns found it, the “most blessed estate of man.”

From taste, from a sense of duty, as well as from the results of early training, George Burns found it good for him to “rest on the seventh day according to the commandment.” To carry out what he found to be good, exposed him sometimes to the ridicule of his companions and to the sneers of men with whom he was anxious to stand on a friendly footing. On this matter, as on all kindred matters, he opens his mind freely to his future wife.

Galway, Saturday Night, Sept. 80, 1820.

I left Limerick yesterday afternoon m company with Mr. Hodgson, and reached Ennis between seven and eight o’clock, where we slept, and this morning got up at half-past four, and proceeded to this place. Mr. Hodgson, I suppose, thinks that in me he has got linked to a more obstinate person than he had any idea of at first sight. He sees that it is in vain to expect me to travel on the Sabbath, and his interest must lead him to submit to the effects of what I am sure he considers a piece of sanctimonious and unnecessary strictness. Arriving here to-day, I have been subjected to invitations for to-morrow. I need not say that I declined accepting them: one, however, gave rise to a very tough argument on the subject, between Mr. Hodgson, an Irish gentleman, and myself. I spoke my mind very freely, feeling myself forced to defend my principles, but, as might be expected, without being able to produce conviction in either, who were both my opponents. The burden of their reply was, ‘ God is very merciful, and knows our failings; ‘He looks to the intentions, and not to mere forms,’ &c. It is easy to see the futility of such arguments, but it is impossible for human power to storm the strong citadel of the heart; the work belongs to the Spirit of God alone.

I must tell you how delightful a thing it has been to me to receive the communion on both occasions that I have done so.

I love the English mode of administering it, and hope that whilst on ml knees I received the symbols of the Blessed Body that was broken, and the Blood that was shed for me, I received nourishment and strength to my soul.:

Sligo, Friday, Oct. 1, 1820.

I left Galway in company with Mr. Hodgson on Monday (2nd Oct.) forenoon. As you would hear by my last letter, we proceeded to Westport by Tuam, remained there all Tuesday, left it next morning at six, drove to Castlebar, Ballina, Killula. From Killula back to Ballina, where we remained all night, and next day came to this place, where I received, the same evening, the letters. We shall leave this on Monday for Ballyshannon, Strabane,

*Here is a vivid reminiscence, in 1880, of his first communion according to the English mode :—“At Waterford I arrived on a Saturday evening, and my letters of introduction as usual remained undelivered until Monday. On the Sunday I went out at eleven o’clock, the Scotch hour for sendee, in search for a church, but found no appearance of church-going. At last I came to a gateway leading to a Primitive Methodist Church, and was trying if the gate was open, when a gentleman looked from a window, and said ‘I see you are a stranger,’ and asked me what I wanted. I told him, and he kindly invited me to join him. I found he was the minister of the church inside the gate, and he informed me that in his church there would not be service until the evening, as the Primitive Methodists did not interfere with the times of service in the Established Church ; that he was going to the cathedral at twelve, and asked me to accompany him—which I did. When the sendee was concluded, he asked if I would like to remain with him to the communion. I replied yes, but I had not a ‘token’—fancying such would be necessary, as in Scotland. He explained that it was not required, so I stayed. It was my first communion according to the English service.”

Londonderry, Coleraine, Belfast, Newry, Dundalk, Drogheda, and Dublin, from which I return to Belfast on my way home.

Sligo, Sabbath, Oct. 8, 1820.

Went to church, taking Mr. Hodgson along with me. It was an Independent Meeting House we attended, and we heard an evangelical sermon.

Oct. 11, 1820.

... I am about to leave Coleraine for Fame by the Causeway. I should be in Fame to-morrow, and in Belfast next day. . . .

It may perchance be thought that some of these details are trivial, and scarcely worth recording-after the lapse of nearly three-quarters of a century. We think not. They exhibit principles upon which a young man was building his life, and to which he remained steadfast till death. He would not violate what he regarded as a binding obligation—the sanctity of the Sabbath; he would not make himself so much the slave of business as to pass by wonderful and beautiful scenes in Nature without making an effort to see them.

Not to Ireland only, but to London and Liverpool, and other large cities, George Burns had to make somewhat frequent visits for the purpose of working up business. Leferring to these times, he says

When in these early days I had occasion to visit Liverpool, London, and other places, I had letters from Mr. Wright, introducing me to various people, and among them to Mr. Dixon, who was at that time a leading man in Carlisle, and a very devout Christian, asking him to guide me to a church where I should hear evangelical preaching. He did so, and named that of the Rev. Mr. Fausset, to whom he introduced me. About the same time Dr. Milner, joint author with his brother of ‘ Church History,’ was Dean of Carlisle. He had been delivering a series of lectures in the cathedral on Regeneration, taking for his text the words spoken to Nicodemus, ‘Ye must be born again.’ One day when walking along a street in Carlisle, there were two young clergymen coming towards him, and he heard one say to the other, ‘There goes old Born-again.'  Milner quietly halted, and, looking over his shoulder, said, ‘Are ye masters in Israel, and know not these things?’ and then passed on.

On my visits to Liverpool, I became acquainted, through my good friend Mr. James Gilfillan, with many leading men in that city. He also introduced me, by letter, to his friend Mr. Coats-worth, in London, who brought me into acquaintanceship with many people there, amongst others, Mr. and Mrs. Richard Gray, of Camberwell, at whose house I met Dr. Irons, the celebrated Nonconformist, and the Rev. Mr. Howells, of Long Acre Church, a very conspicuous evangelical preacher, a Welshman, and somewhat eccentric. I went frequently to his church, at different periods; once, at the time when the Reform Bill was creating much agitation, both in and out of Parliament. Some of the members were accused of forsaking their principles, and of passing from one side to the other in the party strife. They were called ‘Ratters,’ and I heard Mr. Howells make an announcement, after his sermon, to the effect that the church very much required repairs, and that a collection for that object would be set on foot; adding In his own quaint manner, ‘A little animal, well known in a House down the way, has got into the foundations of the church, and by burrowing, is undermining it.’

On another occasion I heard him give out an announcement as follows :—‘It is my habit to tell you of the various Christian objects for which I receive contributions, and I do so for two reasons: first, That I may stimulate you to make proper exertions; secondly, That I may make known what I get, and so prevent myself from becoming a thief.’

To another of his introductions he refers in a letter to Miss Cleland :—

S<opt. 7, 1820.

I dined yesterday with Mr. William Rathbone, and had the pleasure to meet the celebrated Mr. Roscoe, the Liverpool luminary—he is a delightful old man. I had many internal laughs at the brief consequence with which I was invested. I sat at the head of the table on the one side of Mrs. Rathbone, and old Roscoe on the other, while 'my betters ’ sat below.

Mr. Roscoe was at that time at the height of his popularity. His two great works, the “Life of Lorenzo de Medici,” and the “Life and Pontificate of Leo X.,” had given rise to much adverse criticism, although they had established Roscoe’s literary reputation. At the time George Burns met him, he was passing through the press his “Illustrations, Historical and Critical, of the Life of Lorenzo de’ Medici,” in which, after many years of silence, lie replied to his various critics.

Mr. Roscoe greatly admired Dr. Chalmers, and was very inquisitive to know from George Burns everything he could tell him of the thoughts, habits, and style of life of the great preacher.

We do not propose to follow George Burns step by step through his business career. It will be enough to say here that he was sufficient^ successful in his labours to enable him to take a step on which his heart had long been set. On the 10th of June, 1822, “George Burns, Merchant, in this Parish of Barony, and Jane, lawful daughter of James Cleland, Esquire, Superintendent of Public Works there, having been three several times lawfully proclaimed in the Barony Church,’’ were married. Good old Dr. Burns performed the marriage service, and George Stevenson, the cousin and soldier-friend of George Burns, acted as his best man. In recalling the events of that memorable day, Mr. Burns said, "At the time of our marriage it was usually the custom to perform the ceremony in the evening, and follow it with a wedding-supper. It was so in our case, and when we went home to our house in John Street, our servant received us. She was a Christian woman, and we began our domestic life with family worship.”

A year before the event, George Burns had written to Miss Cleland :—

May the Lord in His infinite goodness, grant that having brought us into the endearing connection with each other in which we abundantly rejoice, we may he made instrumental in mutually assisting and encouraging to the pursuit of all good. My darling Jane, how can we best express the tender love and regard we have for each other’s interests, than by earnestly imploring that the God of all peace and consolation maj be the God of us both, and may grant us His peace ; and how can we best secure a continuance of our affection, but by making supplication to our Heavenly Father who conferred it. Let us nt>t forget these things, dear and beloved Jane. I trust you have enjoyed much of the kindness and countenance of the Lord this day in His sanctuary, and in your retirement. His name be praised for all His goodness. I have winch of it to acknowledge.

It was in this spirit, und with these feelings, that the holy bond of matrimony was entered into. The two were one in everything—and henceforth, for over fifty-live years, every joy and sorrow’ of life, every hope and aspiration, they were to share together.


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