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Sir Lewis Charles Burne (1898–1978)

by Mark Richmond

This article was published:

Sir Lewis Charles Burne (1898-1978), master builder and employer representative, was born on 14 January 1898 at Leederville, Perth, third child of William Charles Edgar Burne (d.1945), a contractor from Victoria, and his English-born wife Sarah Ellen, née Prior. After nine years in Western Australia, William returned to Victoria with his family. In 1907 he established the building firm which in 1925 became W. C. Burne & Sons Pty Ltd. He served three terms as president of the Master Builders' Association of Melbourne.

Lewis was educated at Christian Brothers' School, Perth, and Xavier College, Melbourne (1907-14), where he performed better athletically (particularly in running) than academically. After Lewis had unsuccessfully attempted the junior public examination, William sent him to learn carpentry and joinery with Bowen & Pomeroy in North Melbourne. On 11 June 1918 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force and was posted to the Australian Flying Corps, Laverton, with the rank of 2nd class mechanic. Discharged on 24 December, he joined his father's firm. On 22 February 1922 at the Church of Our Lady of Victories, Camberwell, he married Florence (Florrie) Mary Stafford.

W. C. Burne & Sons specialized in hospital construction, working to designs by such architects as (Sir) Arthur Stephenson, Ellison Harvie and J. S. Gawler. The firm built or extended St Vincent's, the Mercy, the Prince Henry (first section), the Royal Melbourne, the Women's, part of the Queen Victoria, the Heidelberg Repatriation, and the Eye and Ear hospitals in Melbourne, and several in the country, as well as undertaking other major projects, among them the Corpus Christi Seminary, Glen Waverley. From 1953 Burne was sole managing director of the family firms which included Burne Brothers (Builders), and their hire and building-supplies subsidiaries.

Like his father, Lewis Burne developed an active interest in industrial relations. His presidency (1941-44) of the Master Builders' Association of Victoria began a period during which he was to hold offices at State, federal and international levels: employer representative (1945-61) on the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme, president (1947) of the Master Builders' Federation of Australia, committee-member (1941-48) of the Building Industry Congress, foundation member and fellow (1951) of the Australian Institute of Builders, executive-member of the Victorian Employers' Federation from 1943 (president 1948-50 and 1953-61), and president (1957-58) of the Australian Council of Employers' Federations. He was a frequent employer delegate to the International Labour Organization from 1950, and a member of its Asian advisory committee (1951-66) and of its governing body (1957-66).

Throughout these various facets of his public life, Burne exhibited a consistent set of attitudes and values: a belief in well-regulated free enterprise and freedom of association, and in co-operation between employers and employees; a dislike of governments as inherently socialistic and bureaucratic; and an anti-communism natural to a staunch Catholic in the Cold War years.

In his work with the M.B.A., Burne was concerned with the problems of shortages of materials in wartime and the demand for postwar construction. He supported the claims of private contractors and incentives against the inertia of the public sector and its day-labour system. His major contribution was—with Ellison Harvie of Stephenson & Turner—to finalize in 1953 the rise and fall agreement for building contracts to be adopted by the M.B.A. and the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects.

Soon after assuming the presidency of the V.E.F. in 1948, Burne criticized the increasing leftist tendencies of the Chifley Federal government, but was confident that a responsible employer body could prevail, particularly if it worked and consulted with union leaders. It was partly through such consultation that a large number of initiatives were taken by the V.E.F. during the 1950s. These included a campaign for staggered working hours, an overseas scheme for prizes for top local apprentices, the employment of physically and mentally handicapped people, the Over-Fifties Association, the Secretaries' Club, a scheme to train industrial relations officers, a council to review workers' compensation, a push for decimal currency, and sponsorship of the Develop Victoria Council and the Premier Town contest. In addition, there were internal V.E.F. initiatives, such as the creation of an insurance research division, staff superannuation and investment companies, and the agreement to develop the Princes Bridge Station area and to construct the Princes Gate buildings, part of which would become the new V.E.F. headquarters.

Although he was at or near the helm throughout these initiatives, Burne would later condemn some of them as unwise or too expensive. His last years with the V.E.F. were marred by a bitter feud with the long-time secretary, recriminations against other associates and a battle with a younger leadership group which culminated in 1970 when Burne and two other 'old-guard' ex-presidents were replaced on the executive. Nevertheless, he continued to chair (1955-73) the V.E.F.-owned Federation Insurance Ltd and in 1973 was elected the V.E.F.'s first life member.

Sceptical of the 'twaddle' from government representatives at the I.L.O., Burne also thought that the organization was 'misused for sordid opportunism', notably Soviet communist propaganda. He saw the role of Catholics and other anti-communists—especially after the admission of the Soviet Union as a voting member of I.L.O. in 1954—in terms set out in Albert Le Roy's The Dignity of Labor (Maryland, U.S.A., 1957). Le Roy had linked the proposition in the I.L.O.'s Declaration of Philadelphia (1944)—that 'Labor is not a commodity'—with Rerum Novarum (1891) and, by inference, with Quadragesimo Anno (1931), encyclicals which were fundamental to Burne's beliefs. Communist States posed a threat to the tripartite composition of the I.L.O., and more so to Burne's own group, in that their 'employer' representatives were perceived as being government spokesmen. The lack of freedom of trade unions in these countries was another recurrent concern. In Europe Burne found opportunities to pursue personal, business and semi-political goals; he had a papal audience, met leading building contractors and obtained information about Catholic Action from local priests.

Appointed C.B.E. in 1955, Burne was knighted in 1959. He belonged to the Victoria Golf, the Victoria Racing and the Melbourne Cricket clubs. Survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters, Sir Lewis died on 22 February 1978 at Hawthorn and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at $382,411. Shirley Bourne's portrait of Burne is held by the V.E.F.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Thomas, Challenge (Melb, 1985)
  • Building and Construction (Melb), 13, 20 Mar 1945
  • Australian Builder (Melbourne), Apr 1950, Mar 1978
  • Age biography file (State Library of Victoria)
  • W. C. Burne & Sons Pty Ltd collection (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • Building Industry Congress collection (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • Burne family papers (University of Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

Mark Richmond, 'Burne, Sir Lewis Charles (1898–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 14 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


14 January, 1898
Leederville, Perth, Western Australia, Australia


22 February, 1978 (aged 80)
Hawthorn, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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