BURNS, Sir James (1846-1923)


BURNS, Sir James (1846-1923)
founder of Burns Philp and Co. Ltd and philanthropist
the son of David Burns, an Edinburgh merchant, was born near that city on 10 February 1846. He was educated at Newington academy and Edinburgh high school, and at 16 years of age went with an elder brother to Queensland, arriving at Brisbane, then a very small town, in 1862. He immediately went to the back country to get colonial experience, and afterwards joined his brother in a business at Brisbane. Hearing of the gold discovery at Gympie Burns rode 120 miles and was the first to arrive on the field. Before he was 21 he owned stores at Gympie, One Mile Creek, and Kilkivan. In 1870 his father having died he sold his interests and returned to Scotland. Two years later he was established at Townsville as a storekeeper, where he was joined by Robert Philp (q.v.). In 1877 Philp was left in charge of the Townsville business while Burns made a new headquarters at Sydney. From there a line of sailing ships and steamers was established trading between Sydney and Queensland ports. This became the Queensland Steam Shipping Company Limited. Much competition followed with the Australian Steam Navigation Company, and after a few years Burns negotiated terms under which the Q.S.S. Co. took over the A.S.N. fleet. In 1883 Burns Philp and Company Limited was formed by amalgamating the various businesses in Sydney and Queensland carried on in the names of James Burns and of Robert Philp and Company. With Burns as chairman of directors the company expanded rapidly and lines of steamers were run to the Pacific islands and the East Indies. Its activities were not confined to shipping, and the trading business became one of the most varied in Australia. Burns also took up pastoral interests and was a director of many important companies. In his private life he took much interest in the old volunteer movement in which he was a captain in 1891. In 1897 he was in command of the New South Wales lancer regiment with the rank of colonel, and he was afterwards in command of the 1st brigade of the Australian light horse until his retirement in 1908. In that year he was nominated to the legislative council, and during the war of 1914-18 he brought forward a scheme for the insurance of men with dependants to which he contributed £2000 a year during the duration of the war. Another activity was his interest in the Caledonian Society, of which he was president for nearly 20 years. During the last years of his life the Burnside Homes for Scottish orphans near Parramatta, for which he gave the land, and very largely founded, were a great interest to him. He died at Parramatta on 22 August 1923. His wife had died some years before and two sons were killed in the war. His third son, James Burns, who also went to the war and was mentioned in dispatches, succeeded his father as chairman of directors of Burns Philp and Company. He was also survived by three daughters. He was created K.C.M.G. in 1917.
Burns was a man of great activity and vision; a true empire-builder. He did much in the development of Queensland, and his courage, shrewdness and hard work earned the admiration and respect of all his associates. Somewhat thin and austere in appearance, he had great sympathy for those in need. As a young man he had helped in the relief of Paris after the Commune in 1871. In his later days he contributed something like £100,000 to the Burnside Homes, an avenue of cottages housing about 200 orphans.
The Sydney Morning Herald, 23 August 1923; The Brisbane Courier, 23 August 1923; The Bulletin, Sydney, 30 August 1923; A. B. Paterson, The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 March 1939.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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