Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Burns, James (1881–1969)

by Ken Buckley

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

James Burns (1881-1969), businessman, was born on 30 December 1881 at Point Piper, Sydney, eldest of five surviving children of (Sir) James Burns, a Scottish-born merchant, and his second wife Mary Heron, née Morris, from Victoria. Given an austere Presbyterian upbringing, Jimmy attended The King's School, Parramatta, and in 1898 entered his father's firm, Burns, Philp & Co. Ltd. He spent 1902 in the London office, was assistant-manager (1904) of the Geraldton branch in Western Australia, joined the company's fleet of small steamships based in the New Hebrides, then returned to head office in Bridge Street, Sydney.

Six ft 1 in. (185 cm) tall, with brown eyes and dark hair, on 27 March 1913 Burns married Vida Emily Mills at St Mark's Anglican Church, Darling Point; they were to have four children. He was commissioned in the Australian Imperial Force on 24 April 1916. After training in England, he was promoted lieutenant in September 1917 and next month was attached to the 14th Light Trench Mortar Battery in France. He was commended for 'coolness and skill under heavy fire' on 29 July 1918. Wounded in action on 25 August, he recuperated in England and returned to the front in November. He worked in Burns Philp's London office before coming home to Sydney where his A.I.F. appointment terminated on 11 September 1919. His youngest brother Robert had been killed in France in 1916 and his brother John was to die in 1921 as a result of war service in the Mesopotamian desert.

Appointed a director of Burns Philp in 1919, James took over as chairman and managing director on his father's death in 1923. In addition, he became chairman or a director of other companies with which his father had been associated, among them Burns, Philp (South Sea) Co. Ltd, the Queensland Insurance Co. Ltd, Bankers & Traders Insurance Co. Ltd, Bellambi Coal Co. Ltd, Choiseul Plantations Ltd and the Solomon Islands Development Co. Ltd. Apart from the times he travelled abroad, he was also a director of the Bank of New South Wales in 1923-32.

Although less forceful than his father, Burns was a hard negotiator and kept a sharp eye on the operations of his companies which constituted an extensive Australian mercantile, shipping, insurance and copra-producing network. Burns Philp was a powerful force in the South Pacific. The status of Burns and several senior company executives as ex-servicemen enabled the firm to purchase important plantations in New Guinea that were previously German-owned. He opposed attempts by German business interests to move back into New Guinea. In 1934, on being invited to become associated with the London-based Anglo-German Trade Association, he flatly refused, and added: 'I think it would be better for you to get representatives who did not participate actively in the late War'.

Proud of his father's achievements, Burns believed that he should simply do the job, honourably and intelligently, that fortune had provided for him. In the 1930s he developed a chain of some forty retail stores known as 'Penneys', entered the trustee business (Burns, Philp Trustee Co. Ltd was registered in 1938) and later acquired holdings in 'old established country retail businesses', including Mates Ltd and Charles Rogers & Sons Pty Ltd.

Although conservative-minded, modest and cheerful, Burns was regarded by the administration in Papua-New Guinea as a commercial pirate who sought to use political influence to gain monopolies. He preferred independent, Australian insurance companies to their huge, English-based competitors; the QBE Insurance Group Ltd is a monument to his endeavour. Less involved in business affairs after World War II, he continued to attend the Sydney office several days a week, travelling by train from his property at Bowral, until age and illness eventually induced him to retire as chairman and managing director in 1967.

In Sydney, Burns stayed at the Australian Club; he belonged, as well, to Royal Sydney Golf and the Union clubs, and enjoyed trout-fishing at Thredbo with his friends Tom Rutledge and (Sir) Edward Knox. He served on the board of the Burnside Presbyterian Orphan Homes for over forty years and made generous gifts to that institution. Predeceased by his wife, Burns died on 5 August 1969 at Bowral and was cremated; his estate was sworn for probate at $1,045,194. He was survived by a daughter and by his son David who succeeded him as chairman of Burns Philp.

Select Bibliography

  • K. Buckley and K. Klugman, The History of Burns Philp (Syd, 1981)
  • K. Buckley and K. Klugman, The Australian Presence in the Pacific (Syd, 1983)
  • Sunday Mirror (Sydney), 11 Feb 1962
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 6 Jan 1963
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Aug 1969
  • K. Buckley, QBE: A Century of Australian Insurance (manuscript, held by author)
  • Burns Philp papers (Australian National University Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

Ken Buckley, 'Burns, James (1881–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/burns-james-9638/text17003, published in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 24 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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