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George Burns, His Times and Friends
Chapter X. In London and Elsewhere

It was stated in the preceding chapter that although Air. Burns remained at Glasgow to superintend the management of the affairs of the Cunard Company, he frequently paid prolonged visits to London in connection with Admiralty and Treasury negotiations. These negotiations have little interest for the general reader, who will probably prefer to know more of the personal history of Air. Burns and the friends by whom he was surrounded.

Notwithstanding the increase in his work, he continued the habit of writing daily to his wife, and as those letters supply the place of a diary, we select a few extracts to show the current of his life and thoughts.

G, Pall Mall East, London, May 15, 18-11.

... It is now past three, and up till this moment we (Mr. Cunard, Mr. Maclver, and myself) have been sitting here as busy as possible preparing our statements for the Government, which are just completed; now Mr. Cunard is away to deliver them, and Maclver away to ask if our American ship has arrived, and both will be back soon. Meanwhile I remain to snatch a moment for my dear Jane.

Sir Edward Parry is on his way to Glasgow, and had I been at home I should have asked him to take a quiet dinner with us. I have seen a strictly confidential note and report from him in our favour, and I hope by God’s blessing we shall succeed. . . . We yesterday saw the Queen and Prince Albert in the Park; and Mr. Maclver and I, after writing hard all day, went out before dinner to take a walk to Sloane Street, and, in going up Constitution Hill, met the Duke of Wellington walking; he is looking much firmer, and I never before got so thoroughly good a view of him.

London, May 18, 1841.

. . . There will be no division till Friday, and every day the present Ministry remain in is of consequence to us, as paving the way for our moving with their successors. I called on Mr. Colquhoun the other evening, and he returned my call yesterday, and was very friendly. . . .

Maclver and I went to the back of the Horse Guards yesterday morning at ten to see the review, which was a very fine sight. We had an admirable view of the Prince Albert, Duke of Wellington, Duke of Cambridge, and the whole of the Staff.

Lord John Russell and other ministers were groaned as they passed slowly along, whilst Sir Robert Peel and the Duke of Wellington were cheered. Beside the Duke in his carriage sat his son and his wife ; she is very pretty. In the afternoon we dined at Yevey’s with Napier, to his great discomfort at getting a French dinner—tell John this. In the evening we took Mrs. Gordon and Miss Napier with us in a coach, and drove round the streets, looking at the illuminations, in honour of the Queen’s birthday.

Albion Hotel, Sabbath, May 28, 1841.

... It has pleased our Heavenly Father to give me another opportunity of visiting his house of prayer in comfort, health, and peace. When I was engaged in the service, I thought of you and our children as probably employed in the same spiritual exercises and hearing the same portions of God’s Holy Word, and it was my prayer that you might be enjoying the Divine presence. . . .

Walking home from church, we strolled through Christ Church buildings at the back of St. Paul’s, and went into the large hall, which is a very fine one, where we saw the blue coats and yellow stockings at dinner. I wished John had been there to see so fine a sight. Afterwards we walked slowly on and went into the park at the back of our hotel, and had a nice stretch of ourselves upon the beautiful grass under a hot summer sun.

May 20.

We are going in two carriages to Richmond at two, to walk about and dine, and I am much disappointed Montgomery has neither made his appearance, nor given us the least clue where to find him. We would have taken him with us. . . .My heart sickens at the delay here, but I desire to tarry the Lord’s leisure. . . .

At this period, Mr. Burns made many friendships which were of life-long duration. In a letter, from which we have given a quotation above, he refers to Sir Edward Parry, who in that year was engaged in a survey of the Caledonian Canal. All the world knows Sir Edward Parry, but there are certain traits of his character unfolded in his friendship with Mr. Burns which may not be so universally known.

At the age of thirteen Edward Parry made trial of a sailor’s life, and liked it. His progress was rapid. Before he was twenty-four, he engaged in a successful boat expedition which ascended the river Connecticut as far as Pellipague Point, and destroyed several privateers and other vessels, in all about twenty-seven, valued at £50,000, with the loss of only two men killed. A few years later he entered upon that wonderful series of Arctic expeditions in which he so greatly distinguished himself. From the day when he offered his services to the Admiralty, sajdng that “ he was ready for hot or cold, Africa or the Arctic regions,” until those days, when he and -John Franklin received from George IV. the honour of knighthood, and had the degree of D.C.L. conferred on them by the University of Oxford, Parry’s life was full of stirring adventure, with which everybody is familiar from his own interesting personal narratives, and from his biography written by his son.

It is recorded that when Parry’s expeditions returned to England there was not a man on hoard who could not read the Bible; and there was not one who did not testify to Parry’s unfailing power of combining instruction with amusement. He made “Virtue” his watchword, but he cherished a pure and simple religious faith, and through all the arduous years of his life never neglected a constant study of the Scriptures. How that faith ripened into rich experience, comes out in his correspondence with George Burns. From April, 1837, to December, 1846, Sir Edward Parry was Comptroller of Steam Machinery for the Royal Navy and it was in his official capacity that Mr. Burns first became acquainted with him. But the acquaintance very soon ripened into friendship (which lasted till Parry’s death at Ems, in Germany, in 1855), and in the autumn of 1841 we find him a guest in Mr. Burns’ house in Brandon Place Glasgow. An interesting reminiscence of the visit is given in the following correspondence, and dates the beginning of the “higher friendship ” :—

Sir Edward Parry to Mr. Burns.

Royal Hotel, Sunday Evening Nov. 11 1841

I do not think I shall be desecrating the evening of this holy (and to me happy) day by endeavouring to express to you the obligation under which I feel to you for vour kind attentions previous to, and during, my stay in your beautiful city. Not less indebted do 1 feel to you for my introduction to your excellent lady and pleasing family, and the privilege I have enjoyed in the acquaintance and ministry of Mr. Montgomery. For all these advantages I desire to thank God, and you as His instrument. I have indeed passed a most delightful, and, I humbly trust, not unprofitable Sabbath.

Yours sincerely obliged,

W. E. Parry.

Mr. Burns to Sir Edward Parry

Branlhjx Place, Glasgow, Nov. 18, 1841.

I shall not soon forget the pleasure derived from your short visit here — short in point of time, but one that I believe will be remembered in eternity. Individuals who, but for the connecting bond of Christian love, would have known nothing of each other, except through the veil of outward courtesies, have been introduced into a relationship through their Redeemer that makes their spirits acquainted, and that will endure for ever. For my own part I can truly say that during the whole of the day after you left us I was solemnised even to the borders of depression. Xot that I was unhappy, but too happy, yet not unprofitably so I trust. But I was glad in the possession of your notes addressed to my wife and to myself on the evening of the Sabbath on which we had enjoyed a rest according to the commandment, inasmuch as they afforded to my mind, as it were, a material evidence of the reality of that union with Christ of which we had been conversing, and which will survive every temporal separation which the providence of God may ordain. It is not unusual to meet from time to time with people who must be acknowledged as belonging to the family of God, and who as such are entitled to our esteem and respect, and yet little more ensues. We cannot penetrate within the circle of some cold influence that surrounds them, and checks and prevents the interchange of Christian love. On the other hand, we are enlivened occasionally by meeting with those with whom in a very limited time we have much spiritual intercourse, with very few words to express it. Such I have just felt to have been my privilege, and were I not assured that I shall not be misunderstood when I give utterance to these sentiments, I should not venture on their expression. I will not say you will pardon, for I believe you will do more, you will appreciate the frame of mind that prompts them.

Yours very truly,

G. Burns.

Parry did appreciate the frame of mind prompting this letter, and the intercourse which ensued was a mutual help and comfort.

Separations between George Burns and his family were sometimes long and tedious. He was tenderly attached to his children, and everything that concerned them had a deep interest for him.

As no man’s character can be truly known until his family life stands revealed, a few passages from the letters of his wife and of his two sons, John and James Cleland, written in their boyhood, will illustrate the freedom of the family affection.

The following characteristic letter was written by John Burns when on a holiday visit to his father in London :—

London, March 8, 1843.

Honoured Sir,—When I was walking alone the Strand, ‘West’s Optical, Mathematical, and Philosophical Instrument Maker’s’ shop caught my eye, and, going to the shop window, I saw articles of every description, at least such as engaged my interest. There was a very powerful magnet in the shop, which drew me inside, and there I saw, to my delight, a very nice galvanic battery, which was offered at the low price of twelve shillings. I felt my pockets, but could lay my hands upon but a single halfpenny. Fain would I have converted the copper into gold, but I had not chanced to bring the philosopher’s stone with me, so that the halfpenny still retained its original value, that is, the two hundred and eighty-eighth part of the required sum. Honoured sir, my case is hard, but I think it enough to have laid before you the above statement of facts, and therefore do not make any further appeal. You know what I want, and hoping that you will dowhat 1 want,

I remain, honoured sir,

Yours respectfully,

John Burns.

PS.— The article, it may be proper to observe, is portable.

March 20, 1844.

I have very sorrowful news to tell you concerning poor pussy. I think it is on the point of death; it has not tasted food for three days and looks very ill. . . . Maggie and Cousin Betliia went to Aunt Ritchie’s last night to tea, and they went down both of them in one sedan chair.

J. C. B.

March 21, 1844

As I was standing up in the class to read a quotation from Dryden, I what we call  stuck,’ and I was laughed at.

‘Thus one fool lolls his tongue out at another,
And shakes his empty noddle at his brother.'

I must tell you also that we are afraid the cat is dying; the poor brute has not touched food for four days, and is very weak. It got a spoonful of castor oil yesterday, and Uncle B. recommended it a glass of wine. J. B.

The letters of Mrs. Burns are full of tender and appreciative love, and the heart of her husband was made lightsome and glad because of them. We cull merely an expression or a phrase from one or two letters, but these will be sufficient for our purpose :—

My dear kind George, Brookfield is very cheerless without you; even the forenoons are dull, as they are not gladdened by anticipations of your arrival in the evening. . . .

You are God’s truest gift to me. . . .

If kindness can spoil me I must be spoiled, for never did wife receive a greater share of unremitting tender kindness than I do. . . .

It was the 'delight of my heart’ to hear you were cheerful. My dear husband, You can scarcely form an idea of my dependence upon you for happiness. I hope that I am not forgetful, that it is by the Lord’s permission, that I am given this enjoyment, nor that it can be continued a moment without His blessing. . . .

The “gospel of the grace of God” was the burden of much of the correspondence between Mr. and Mrs. Burns. It was everything to them. All family joy was brighter because of it; all business was based upon its principles; all hopes and aspirations for themselves and for others were in subjection to it.

It was the silver thread with which the whole pattern of their lives was woven.

Among the friends of George Burns were many distinguished preachers of the day, and in his letters he never failed to give an account of his personal intercourse with them. Thus he writes :—

Morlky’s Hotel, London, Sabbath, Sept. 18, 1812.

I have been at Camden Chapel, Camberwell, and truly enjoyed the refreshing service there, and heard a sermon from Mr. Melvill upon the words, ‘Coming boldly to the throne of grace.’ He drew a fine distinction between infirmities and sins, showing that in the former our Saviour partook, although not in the latter. . . .

We met Mr. Melvill on going to church. He took us into the vestry, and Mrs. Melvill went and procured us seats. We afterwards dined with them, and they would hear of no denial to our coming hack to dine to-morrow.

Mr. Melvill was greatly distinguished for his eloquence as a preacher, and was at that time at the height of his popularity. He was very intimate with Mr. Robert Napier, at whose house at Shandon Mr. Burns first met him.

Referring to these times, Mr. Burns said to the present writer:—

After hearing him preach in Camberwell, we sometimes went home with him to dinner at one o’clock. He said, ‘I make a point of always letting my congregation out in time to dine at one o’clock, and the way I manage is this: If the lessons and other parts of the service are long, I read quicker, and manipulate my sermon to bring it down to the exact time I have prescribed for myself.’

When he was appointed by the Duke of Wellington to the chaplaincy of the Tower, he immediately called on us at Fenton’s Hotel, St. James Street, saying be intended we should be the first to bear it. ‘I could not conceive,’ he said, ‘what the Duke had wished or meant in sending for me. When I went to Apsley House be told me that he was going to confer the vacant chaplaincy on me, and in very terse language be expressed what were my duties towards the soldiers; and then he added: “I give no instructions whatever with regard to the spiritual duties you have to perform, but leave this matter entirely untouched in your own bands.”

When Mr. Melvill was appointed Principal of the East India College at Haileybury, Hertfordshire, he repeated what he bad done on his appointment to the chaplaincy of the Tower, and informed us, first of all, of the honour that had been conferred upon him. It was on the ground of our intimacy with him that he wished these notifications to be made first to us.

In this year Mr. Bums was brought a good deal into contact with Mr. Thomas Crofton Croker, of the Admiralty, and soon the acquaintance ripened into friendship. Croker was worth knowing. He started life in a merchant’s office in Cork, where he made acquaintance with the people and scenery of Ireland, and collected their songs and legends. Tom Moore in 1818 expressed his obligation to him for his valuable researches. Subsequently Croker published several interesting and important works on Ireland, one of which was illustrated by Maclise, then, as Croker states, “a young Irish artist of considerable promise.”

In 1819, Croker became a clerk in the Admiralty with a salary of £2 a week, which speedily rose as he distinguished himself for his services. At that time John William Croker, the author of “Croker’s Memoirs,” was Secretary to the Admiralty. He was a friend of the family, but in no way related to Crofton Croker.

A very interesting man was Crofton; he knew everybody, and could talk with good sense and judgment on everything. Sir Walter Scott, in his diary, describes him thus: “Little as a dwarf, keen eyed as a hawk, and of easy, prepossessing manners, something like Tom Moore.” Choker was well known in the learned societies. He was early elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, and he took an active part in the formation of the Camden and Percy Societies, and edited some of their works. Among other subjects that occupied his attention was that of buttons, which he considered to he characteristic of various ages, and in support of his theory had made a remarkably good collection. Moreover, he was perpetual president of the club of antiquarians called “The Society of Noviomagians.” Every year this society gave a dinner at Wood’s Tavern, in Portugal Street—“dinner on the table at half-past four for five precisely”—to which, in 1843, he invited George Burns. There, among other notable people, he met Mr. S. C. Hall, with whom he soon became friendly. Ten years later, when staying with his wife at Vichy, Mr. Burns again met him, this time in company with his clever wife, and thereafter they became intimate. At Vichy, Mr. S. C. Hall appeared in a character with which his memory is not usually associated.

There was no English clergyman in the place (says George Burns), and so Mr. Hall supplied the vacancy. He read the prayers most impressively—which is more than many trained clergymen can do—and also an excellent printed sermon.

Crofton broker (who died at his residence in Old Broinpton, London, in 1854) was an excellent correspondent, and some of his letters to Mr. Burns are of considerable interest. We give one specimen. It relates to Mr. Francis Nicholson, the painter :—

Admiralty, March 18, 1844.

... I send you two or three copies of ‘Croker’s Chronicle' and at any time will be happy in forwarding another supply, or attending to any alterations which you may suggest for its improvement. Mr. Maclver left town on Friday; I saw him only once or twice, and he appeared to me very far from well. I cannot help having considerable sympathy for him, as I think he has been somewhat overworked, which I assure you is my case. Many a night when I have laid down my head on the pillow and tried to sleep, I have found my thoughts as to what I had to do the next morning going round and round like the wheel of a steamer, flap-flap, flapping away. Add to a heavy press of official business and calculations without end, the melancholy duties which devolve upon me as executor to my poor father-in-law, Mr. Nicholson, and you will understand what mental and bodily occupation is mine. I remember our speaking, more than once, of Mr. Nicholson; he died on the 6th instant, at the age of ninety-one, and it is a touching incident that on the Friday previous to the day of his death, he caused himself to be helped up on a table to retouch upon the dark ,sky of a favourite picture, and to put in a bright cloud. His mind was clear to the last moment of his life, and he died, as lie had lived, in peace.

Yours very sincerely,

T. Crofton Croker.

The year 1843 was memorable in Scottish Church history, hut it would be foreign to our purpose to tell of the troubles in the Church known as the Ten Years’ Conflict, or of the Disruption that rent not only the Church but the Presbytery of Glasgow in twain.

Dr. Burns of the Barony had passed away, and George Burns and his family were absent from Glasgow during the whole of the stormy period when the controversy was raging. But he took a deep interest in it, and felt its effects, as all persons did, for classes did not come together as formerly, and all social and religious relations were strained. His friend and co-worker at St. Jude’s, Mr. W. F. Burnley, was a constant correspondent, and wrote fully upon the subject which was stirring the hearts of most men at this time.

For Mr. Burnley, George Burns entertained the warmest regard. In a letter to Mrs. Burns, written in the previous year, when domestic trial was distressing his friend, he said :—

1 feel the most affectionate interest in poor dear Burnley. Never any friend held a dearer place in my heart. No couple have ever possessed more of my tender regard than lie and his affectionate wife. 1 never cease commending them to the all-wise protection and love of their Saviour, who is alluring them into the wilderness that He may speak comfortably to them, however painful may he the steps on the way.

In many a well-fought battle, as we shall see hereafter, George Burns was to fight shoulder to shoulder with his friend Burnley. Meantime they watched together the struggle that was going on in another held, concerning which Mr. Burnley writes :—

Glasgow, May 4, 1843.

My dear Mr. Burns,— . . . Things are in a state of great confusion and peril in this part of the world. There is a degree of obstinacy on both sides, and want of Christian forbearance, that is lamentable. I have made a point of studying the subject carefully, and I trust prayerfully, which I think every Christian is bound to do, and I have come to the conclusion, so ably advocated by the ‘Record,’ that it is a question of expedience, and not one of principle, and, as such, I think the duty of those who love the Church of Scotland is, not to leave her, but to remain in her, and do what they can, by legal and constitutional means, to purify her. There can be no doubt that unrestricted patronage is bad; but I think unrestricted popular election is worse. Our good friend Dr. Muir is getting dreadfully abused, but he quietly pursues the even tenor of his way, preaching Christ and Him crucified, totally disregarding all that is said against him.

He came and took tea with us the week before last, and gave us a most wonderful exposition from Isaiah. His meat and drink seem to be to proclaim Christ wherever he goes; he never enters a house without saying a word for his Master, and such should every faithful watchman do. To-day is appointed a day of prayer and humiliation by the Church, and in the evening the churches are to be opened, and every minister, I believe, is clearly and explicitly to give his opinion—at least such Dr. Muir intends doing. A secession is now inevitable. . . .

Your sincere friend,

William F. Burnley.

That inevitable secession came. Dr. Muir remained in, but, as George Burns was wont to say years afterwards when the old differences were, happily, to a great extent forgotten, “No doubt the four hundred who came out had amongst them the best men."

At the Disruption, James Burns, the partner in business of George Burns, joined the Free Church, and became one of her staunchest and most liberal supporters. He wais long a member of Free St. Peter’s, under William Arnot and Hugh Macmillan.

One who took a somewhat active part in the struggle was Mr. Burns’ friend, the Rev. Mr. (afterwards Dr.) Smith, of Cathcart, who in his old age summed up his view of the story of the conflict and its issues in these words : —

The work of planting a church in every needy locality, of bringing the means of grace within the reach of every family in Scotland, was to all appearance on the very eve of being accomplished. It was then that there came the sudden and sad crash of 1848, and their Church was thrown back into weakness. He saw it more feeble than he had ever seen it before. A calamity the most deplorable had befallen them. A blow was struck, under which their sacred fabric shook to its centre, It fell not; the rock on which it stood was unshaken. The light of their burning bush was dimmed for a season, but the fire within that bush was not extinguished. Their numbers were suddenly reduced, but they were not dismayed. They were designated, in bad taste, by some of those who left them, murtuum cajmt, but neither head nor heart was dead. They were scoffingly named a mere residuum, but in that residue there was a vitality that soon showed its power. Not one of their missionary enterprises—the best of all symptoms—though crippled, was abandoned. There were left to the Church better leaders, with their cool counsel and experienced wisdom, to aid them in repairing the breaches in their broken walls ; mill there came forth, too, at the same time, young and gallant champions to successfully maintain their cause on every field of conflict. From the very day that sad secession took place in 1843, their progress, then commencing, went nobly onward. From that day until this, everything, by God’s blessing, had prospered with them. They had seen their Church not only rise from its weakness and regain its position, but attain a higher place in point of influence, numbers, and efficiency, than it ever held before. He thanked God that he had witnessed it before he died, and he thanked God for the hope that was before him that the National Church of Scotland, the glory of our fathers, would continue to be the pride of their patriotic children for generations yet to come.’"

Between the brothers George and John (Dr. Burns), there was the strongest mutual affection. Each had gifts and graces of character which the other admired, and both were in complete agreement in religious matters. It was usual for them in times alike of joy and sorrow to open their hearts to one another, and very beautiful are the affectionate expressions in their letters.

In 1813, the light of Dr. Burns’ life went out. He was devotedly attached to his son, Allan, a young man of exceptional ability, who, with an intimate knowledge of medical science and a strong love of anatomical pursuits, was rising fast into eminence, when intermittent fever, contracted in the prosecution of his duties, ended his career, after a short illness, in the thirty-fourth year of his age.

In this sore trial Dr. Burns used to write long letters to George almost every day, in which he poured out his grief, and, in his weakness, clung to his brother’s strength.

I am weak, and my thoughts are wandering; pray for me that I may be strengthened and kept steadfast in the faith. I do not wish to take any false cordial. I hope to go down sorrowing to the grave—not with a repining, but a meek, sanctified sorrow, which shall, by the blessing of God, keep me closer to Himself, and more weaned from the world. He has promised to send the Comforter to His people. I know He can only be the Comforter where He is the Sanctifier.

On Christmas Day in the same year, Dr. John Burns wrote :—

My dear George,—I am much obliged to you for your kind letter, and hope that I shall see you soon. I am satisfied with my own situation, at least I hope so, for I trust that the affliction is from a Father in mercy. I realise more the prospect of death than I did in any former tribulation. Without attributing this to any premonition or intuition, I wish to be prepared. I am older, more lonely, and my temporal arrangements and ties to life are broken and scattered as they never were before. I have less to do, so far as I see, in this life. Now, if I concluded here, it would appear that I was taken up altogether with myself; but I wish to look to others also, and although you have not had the sore trials I have had, yet for some time past you have had vexation of spirit, which 1 doubt not will be blessed. We do not prize affliction, disappointment, and crosses, as we ought to do ; they are to the children of God precious gifts. Remember me affectionately to all.

J. Burns.

The death of his nephew Allan was a great blow to George Burns, who loved him almost as a son; and it was a sore trial to him that the business upon which he was detained in London kept him away not only from his brother, but also from his wife, who at the same time was seriously ill, and was mourning the loss of a child. Many letters of sympathy reached him. One from Lord Sandon—afterwards the Earl of Harrowby, whose name is connected with so many good and philanthropic works—was greatly appreciated.

Lord Sandon to George Burns.

Dee. 8, 1843.

I sincerely sympathise with you in the various afflictions with which you have been visited, during your protracted stay in London. I hope you may have the strength to bear them with as much resignation as you displayed patience and cheerfulness under the protracted annoyances to which the prosecution of your affair with the public offices has exposed you.

Believe me,

Yours very truly,


Mr. Burns would never lay claim personally to honours which he could share with others. In the difficult and delicate negotiations in which he was engaged with the Government respecting Postal and other services, although the great burden of responsibility lay upon his own shoulders, he received from time to time important assistance from others. Thus in the matter of the St. Lawrence Service (the conveyance of the Canadian mails by coach-contract between Halifax and Pictou in which the Chancellor of the Exchequer decided against him, he wrote to the Company through his brother James :—

I would be doing great injustice to my sense of what is right, did I not emphatically state the obligations I consider the Company are under to Mr. Edward Cunard, for the influence he has brought to bear on the subject of our mission, and for his able and assiduous co-operation with me in following it out.

The Company will, I have no doubt, readily admit that we have devoted ourselves to the work, and have not abandoned any point while a ray of hope remained; but the more we have laboured, the more deeply sensible am I that without the blessing of God all our efforts would have been in vain.

The ten months’ detention of Mr. Burns in London was not, however, without tangible results. Among other successes, he had made a representation to the Government, through the Hon. Sidney Herbert, that the service performed by the Cunard Company entailed a loss to them; and Mr. Burns effected an arrangement whereby he secured an addition of £10,000 a year to the existing contractI

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