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Sir James Burns (1846–1923)

by G. J. Abbott and H. J. Gibbney

This article was published:

Sir James Burns (1846-1923), businessman, shipowner and philanthropist, was born on 10 February 1846 at Polmont, Stirlingshire, Scotland, son of David Burns, merchant, and his wife Margaret, née Shiress. Educated at Newington Academy and the Royal High School, Edinburgh, he migrated to Brisbane in 1862 with a brother, worked as a jackeroo on stations, and in 1865 combined with his brother in Burns & Scott, Brisbane storekeepers. He joined the Gympie gold rush in 1867, made large profits from three stores of his own and, after the death of his father in 1868, returned in 1870 to Scotland through the United States of America. From Scotland he briefly visited war-torn France as an observer.

Burns brought his mother, sister and two brothers to Queensland in 1872 and opened a store at Townsville, supplying all the North Queensland goldfields. On 8 February 1875 in Brisbane he married Mary Susan Ledingham, who died in May next year, leaving a daughter. The schooner Isabelle, which he had chartered in 1873 to ensure supplies from Sydney, became the nucleus of an eventual fleet. Prominent in promoting coastal shipping services and inland trade, he was a member of an 1876 expedition seeking a route from the Hodgkinson goldfield to Trinity Inlet (Cairns), but at the end of the year he was induced by constant attacks of malaria to settle in Sydney. He financed his Townsville manager (Sir) Robert Philp as a partner in a new firm under Philp's name. On 1 April 1877 Burns opened as a merchant under his own name in Sydney. At Elsternwick, Victoria, on 31 March 1880 he married with Presbyterian forms Mary Heron Morris (d.1904).

Concentrating initially on a regular shipping service between Sydney and Townsville, Burns moved rapidly from sail to steam, and in 1881 joined the British India Steam Navigation Co. Ltd in promoting the Queensland Steam Shipping Co. Its aggressive competition soon forced the Australasian Steam Navigation Co. to sell out. He played an important part in the negotiations for sale and subsequent creation of the Australasian United Steam Navigation Co. in 1887, and his company became their agents at Sydney, Townsville and other North Queensland ports.

In 1879 Burns had expanded into a new trading firm in the Gulf of Carpentaria and by 1880 had compelled his main rivals, Clifton & Aplin, to accept his monopoly of the trade of Normanton and thus later of the Croydon goldfield. He established a store at Thursday Island at the same time, giving the firm entry to the pearl-shell industry and enabling it to participate in the exploitation of New Guinea from the beginning of government in 1884. Branches were established during the 1880s in most of the major North Queensland ports. The firm also controlled the Townsville lighter fleet and in 1883-85 flirted with the Pacific island labour trade. Always uneasy about the trade, Burns withdrew when some members of the crew of his Hopeful were prosecuted for malpractice.

The firms in Sydney, Townsville, Charters Towers, Cairns, Thursday Island and Normanton were amalgamated in April 1883 into Burns, Philp & Co. Ltd. Burns initially held 43 per cent of the shares and remained chairman and managing director until 1923. Although senior staff became shareholders, he remained in strict and unsentimental control; when Philp left the firm in 1893, it was the enterprise of Burns alone that guided its expansion: during the 1890s branches were established at Geraldton and Fremantle in Western Australia, and at Port Moresby and Samarai in Papua.

In 1889 Burns became a shareholder in the Australasian New Hebrides Co. Ltd; and the A.U.S.N. Co. dominated New Hebrides shipping. Following mismanagement and failure of its settlement scheme, the New Hebrides Co. was reconstructed in 1893 with Burns Philp as managing agents, and was later taken over. With subsidies from the Victorian and New South Wales governments and the Presbyterian mission to the New Hebrides, the firm became the principal instrument for Australian imperialism in the group; it also held extensive mail contracts and received an extra subsidy to run its steamers under Australian industrial conditions. When the French government began actively promoting the settlement of its nationals in 1901, the new Commonwealth government accepted a proposal by Burns to provide land and passages for British settlers in return for a new extended mail-service contract. The venture seemed to be commercially sound since the proposed settlers would be practically tied to the company, but it was never very profitable because of labour problems, Australian tariffs and the uncertainties of international administration. Burns and his Pacific manager W. H. Lucas corresponded regularly and maintained personal relations with Commonwealth leaders for over twenty years, often through Atlee Hunt.

The firm's interests slowly extended throughout the Pacific islands as far east as Samoa. Its interests in the South Pacific were linked by its extensive line of steamships — by 1907 operating to the New Hebrides, Solomon, Gilbert and Ellice islands and Papuan ports. In addition Burns took a particular interest in their service from Sydney through Java to Singapore. In 1905 a company ship trading at Jaluit in the Marshall Islands had been charged what seemed outrageous port-dues by the German authorities on the ground that the company was exempted from internal charges borne by resident Germans. The case aroused Burns's Imperial fervour. Asserting that the claim breached international law, he used his government friends to seek compensation of £17,500 through the British Foreign Office. When negotiations concluded in 1910, the Germans paid £4100. Complaints from New Hebrides settlers of rapacity and inefficiency brought an investigation of the firm's activities by a Commonwealth royal commission in 1915. The complaints were rejected.

Diverse in his business interests, Burns was chairman of the (North) Queensland Insurance Co. Ltd in 1886-1923, the New South Wales Mortgage, Land, and Agency Co. and the Solomon Islands Development Co. Ltd; he was also a director of the Australian Mutual Provident Society, the Sydney Exchange Co., the Bank of North Queensland, and various collieries. He was a member of the Union Club, Sydney, from 1896. Much of his spare time was devoted to the volunteer defences: having joined the Parramatta troop of the 1st Light Horse Regiment (New South Wales Lancers) as a trooper in June 1891, he was immediately promoted captain, and major in January 1896. From September 1897 to June 1903 he commanded the regiment as its lieutenant-colonel and, promoted colonel, the 1st Australian Light Horse Brigade from July 1903 to January 1907, when he retired because of age. Through his efforts and financial aid, detachments of the Lancers attended Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897 and the Aldershot Tattoo in 1899; he also helped the same detachment join the first British armies in the South African War. His deep personal interest in his men and 'quiet gentlemanly manner' made him 'more beloved than any other of the regiment's commanders'.

In 1906 Burns served on a royal commission of inquiry into railway administration and in 1908 was appointed to the Legislative Council; that year he was a commissioner for the Franco-British Exhibition, London. Proud of his Scottish descent, he was president of the Highland Society of New South Wales in 1903-23 and probably helped finance its journal, the Scottish Australasian. From the late 1880s he lived at Gowan Brae, near Parramatta; the Lancers had their rifle-range in a gully of its extensive grounds. In 1910 he gave land at North Parramatta to endow the Burnside Presbyterian Homes for Children and was chairman of its board for ten years. A trustee of the Australian Museum, Sydney, he collected Australian minerals, especially opals, Pacific island shells and curios, and some artefacts for his own museum at Gowan Brae.

During World War I Burns helped establish a scheme for insuring enlisted men with dependants. At the same time he was quick to establish a shipping service to Rabaul and to profit from the Australian military occupation of German New Guinea. He became a close friend of the governor-general Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson, a fellow Scot, and sometimes lent him Gowan Brae. During World War I Burns supplied him with confidential information on Japanese movements in the Pacific. Greatly concerned about the 'swarm of Japanese coming South', and their danger to Australian and British political and trading interests, he repeatedly urged Munro Ferguson and the Commonwealth government to make it clear to the Japanese that they must hand over their recently acquired gains. He also devised a scheme for a Pacific island federation and a single administration for British possessions in the Pacific. In 1915 he went to London and, with three sons on active service, he was able to visit France — he wrote an account of the trip on his return: his youngest son Robert was killed in France in 1916 and his second son died in 1921 as a result of active service. He was appointed K.C.M.G. in 1917.

Burns died of cancer at Gowan Brae on 22 August 1923 and was buried there in its private cemetery. He was survived by a daughter of his first marriage, and by his eldest son James, managing director of Burns Philp in 1923-67, and by two daughters by his second wife. His estate, valued for probate at £227,604 in New South Wales and £8853 in Queensland, included bequests to the Burnside homes, the Presbyterian Church, various hospitals, Presbyterian colleges and the Salvation Army. Gowan Brae is now the site of The King's School.

A shrewd and tough businessman, Burns was willing to make his headquarters in Fiji, if necessary, to compete with the Japanese; in 1915 he told Munro Ferguson that 'So far as my own company is concerned we can look after ourselves, though very loath to leave the Commonwealth or to have any truck with Asiatics'. Generous in private, he was a stern and somewhat unapproachable father, and would allow no Sunday amusements. Tolerant of other Protestant denominations he was suspicious of the political motivation of the Roman Catholic Church.

Select Bibliography

  • P. V. Vernon (ed), The Royal New South Wales Lancers, 1885-1860 (Syd, 1961)
  • P. Yeend, Gowan Brae (Syd, 1965)
  • N. L. McKellar, From Derby Round to Burketown (Brisb, 1977)
  • G. C. Bolton, ‘The rise of Burns, Philp 1873-93’, A. Birch and D. S. Macmillan (eds). Wealth and Progress (Syd, 1967)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1914-17, 5, 665
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9 July 1908, 4 June 1917, 23 Aug 1923
  • R. C. Thompson, Australian Imperialism and the New Hebrides, 1862-1922 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1970)
  • Atlee Hunt papers and Novar papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Philp papers (State Library of Queensland)
  • Prime Minister's Dept, Pacific Branch, CRS A1108, vols 1, 2, 6, 58 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

G. J. Abbott and H. J. Gibbney, 'Burns, Sir James (1846–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


10 February, 1846
Polmont, Stirlingshire, Scotland


22 August, 1923 (aged 77)
Parramatta, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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