Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James Burston (1856–1920)

by Paul H. De Serville

This article was published:

James Burston (1856-1920), businessman and soldier, was born on 1 May 1856 at Kilmore, Victoria, son of Samuel Burston, formerly of Somerset, England, and his wife Sophia, née Keith, from Cambridgeshire. Samuel, a successful storekeeper and later a pastoralist, moved to Melbourne where by 1871 he had bought the maltings of J. Gough & Sons in Flinders Street, trading as Samuel Burston & Co. Although he had no previous experience as a maltster, he became one of the leading innovators in the trade. After a visit to Europe, in the early 1880s he rebuilt the Flinders Street Malthouse, using the new Saladin or pneumatic process for making malt. The product proved a success and he was soon exporting it to all the colonies.

James joined the business at 14. In the years preceding his father's death in 1886 he ran the business with his younger brother George William (1859-1924). It became a limited liability company in 1890, with James as managing director. After a disastrous fire the factory was rebuilt in 1892. Later the firm took over the maltings of the Victoria Brewery Co. and in 1912 merged with Barrett Bros, its chief competitor, to form Barrett Bros & Burston Co. Pty Ltd with James as one of its four original directors. Samuel Burston & Co. Ltd remained separate.

James Burston's chief interest outside the business was the Victorian Volunteers. He joined as a private in 1873, was commissioned lieutenant in 1879, and promoted captain in the 2nd Infantry Battalion in 1885, major in 1889 and lieutenant-colonel in 1895. Burston's battalion won the Brassey marching and firing competition four times, and in 1897 he represented Victoria at the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in London. While in England he attended a course at Aldershot at his own expense. In 1908 he was appointed staff officer to the officer commanding the Victoria Field Force.

In 1900 Burston was elected unopposed to the Melbourne City Council, serving as lord mayor in 1908-09 and 1909-10. His concerns were the city finances, the beautification of the Yarra and the public gardens, the problem of dusty streets, and the memorial to King Edward VII. Burston wanted the memorial to take the practical form of a new wing to the children's hospital, while popular opinion favoured a statue. Melbourne Punch alleged that the wrangles over the memorial cost him a third term as lord mayor, as well as the customary knighthood. He retired from the council in 1912.

When World War I broke out Burston, who had twice been on the unattached list and was now 58, resumed active duty and was made chairman of the Officers' Selection Committee, September 1914 to April 1915. He was then appointed to the Australian Imperial Force to command the 7th Infantry Brigade, which embarked on 2 June 1915 and arrived at Port Said on 30 June. He reached Gallipoli in September where the brigade was stationed at Chalac Dere and the Apex. Despite his determined efforts the physical conditions proved too much for his health and at the end of October he was appointed officer-in-charge of reinforcements at Mudros, commanding 15,000 men at an inspection by Lord Kitchener. In February 1916 Burston went to London on special leave before returning to Australia where he was promoted honorary brigadier general and placed on the reserve of officers in September. He retired in January 1920 with the honorary rank of major general.

Burston was president of the Melbourne Permanent Building Society and vice-president of the Universal Permanent Building and Investment Society, which were later amalgamated through his efforts. He was for some years chairman of the Bank of Victoria. Conservative in tastes, Burston was upright and respectable, unswerving and hard working. While he may have lacked fire and imagination, he was untarnished by the scandals which disfigured the lives of many more colourful men of the age.

On 12 April 1883 at the Collins Street Independent Church Burston had married Marianne, daughter of James McBean, jeweller. He died of cerebro-vascular disease at his home in Hawthorn on 4 March 1920, and was buried in St Kilda cemetery; he was survived by his wife, three of his four daughters and three sons, one of whom (Major General Sir) Samuel Roy became director general of medical services, Australian Military Forces.

His brother George William remained as a director of Samuel Burston & Co Ltd until his death in 1924. His chief interest had been cycling: he helped to found the Melbourne Bicycle Club in 1878, and in 1893 the League of Victorian Wheelmen, and long remained active in cycling administration. He himself concentrated on touring and road racing, and before the introduction of the pneumatic tyre held the Australian 100-mile (161 km) road record of 8 hours 9 minutes. In November 1888, with H. R. Stokes, he undertook a world tour: they were the first Australians to do so, and among the few world cyclists to accomplish the journey on penny-farthing machines. His account of the trip was published in the Australasian and as Round About the World on Bicycles (Melbourne, 1890). He made at least three more cycling journeys abroad.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 1 (Melb, 1903)
  • Barrett Bros and Burston & Co. Pty Ltd, A Short History of the Company … 1912-1972 (Melb, nd)
  • Australian Brewer's Journal, Aug 1883, Mar 1886, Apr 1892, Nov 1906
  • Punch (Melbourne), 10 Sept 1908, 20 May 1915
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 1 Oct 1908
  • Argus (Melbourne)
  • 5 Mar 1920, 13 Dec 1924
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 20 Dec 1924
  • J. Burston file (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

Paul H. De Serville, 'Burston, James (1856–1920)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 26 June 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]


1 May, 1856
Kilmore, Victoria, Australia


4 March, 1920 (aged 63)
Hawthorn, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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