Burns Annotations

The John Burns Collection comprises much of the political, social and economic content of the library of John Elliott Burns (Oct. 20, 1858 – Jan. 24, 1943), labour leader and Liberal minister.

The cataloguing of the John Burns Collection began with the recording of some 2,000 pamphlets, which were catalogued as part of the RSLL CURL 19th century pamphlets project. The Library has now embarked on cataloguing the remainder of the collection, starting with the monographs before moving on to deal with the periodicals.

The collection holds a small number of 17th century items, and a fair number of 18th century publications, some of these hidden in later bindings. The subject coverage of the collection is wider than might be supposed, including works of literature and art. It rapidly becomes clear that this is a personal library much used by its owner, and built up over many years. The collection also includes family books, as evidenced by a copy of Jules Verne’s Around the world in eighty days, inscribed :”John Edgar Burns from his mother 12 August 1907″ –a gift to John Burns’ only son, born on 16th August 1895.

It would be feasible to build up a chronology of the growth of the collection, as Burns noted the dates of acquisition in his books, and employed what appears to be a code to indicate the bookseller from whom the books were purchased. Some are quite clear – one assumes that CX indicates a purchase from the Charing Cross Road. Other abbreviations, such as CP, K and H remain to be identified.  Burns also acquired a number of books from the Cobbett family, possibly from the library of John Cobbett, in what appears to be a single purchase, as all the books are dated by Burns 24 September 1919.

Burns was in the habit of marking his books as he read them, mostly by vertical lines in the margins – and as a good bibliophile, always in pencil. There are often manuscript annotations to the text as well. But most striking are the annotations on the endpapers of the books, sometimes almost in the style of diary entries, and very revealing of the character of the writer. A touching note that reveals the gentler side of Burns is found in James Farrer’s The monarchy in politics, London: Fisher Unwin, 1917: “Read again Oct 17 1936. Whilst keeping watch & ward over my good wife seriously ill but slightly better than yesterday. A sad letter from Tom Mann …, a good fellow, and a devoted servant of the common people. A comrade of mine for 54 years. A pleasant talk with Selden on Tyndale Erasmus & Richard Savage.”  Mrs Burns died at the end of that same month.

There is also a sincere appreciation expressed in Select charters and other illustrations of English constitutional history : from the earliest times to the reign of Edward the First , arranged and edited by William Stubbs. Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1888.  : “This book belonged to my worthy “Private Secretary” Walter Jerred than whom a Minister never had a saner guide, and the public a better servant. Given to me by his widow March 1920 at Dulwich”.

In We, the people by Leo Huberman, London: Gollancz, 1940, there is a graphic diary annotation: “”On September 8 1940 Saturday read after a visit to Elephant & Castle Theobald Street and others to see Raid Explosions at the Docks Surrey E. India Wapping Tower all night the glow vivid at Clapham Common fights over head all night a bomb at Bat Pk Rd. and all the time “very devils from the sky dropping down mischief”.

Other notes place books in the context of Burns’ various activities. Alfred Yarrow, his life and work by Lady Yarrow, London : Edward Arnold, 1928, is annotated by Burns “… on a visit with Sir A. Yarrow to a children’s home at Broadstairs”, and inscribed by Yarrow “Broadstairs October 18, 1928. To the Right Hon. John Burns from a Friend & Fellow Enquirer A.F. Yarrow”.

Edgar Snow’s Red star over China, London : V. Gollancz, 1937, is annotated: “October 8th 1937 After a visit to British Museum to give “Beehive” to its collection”  (Beehive was the title of a newspaper:,The Bee-Hive. A weekly newspaper of general intelligence and trades, friendly society and co-operative journal. )

Burns’ more trenchant views are also well documented. In Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg’s Reflections on the World War. Part 1. London : Butterworth, 1920, is the inscription: “To John Burns during a visit to M. on October 23 1922, and after a long and serious conversation in which we both confirmed the prescience and wisdom of our protest against our entry into the great war”.

Is war now impossible? by Jan Bloch, London : Grant Richards, 1899 has copious forceful notes by Burns, including “I lent this book to several Generals & others before the war” and  against a passage in the text: “Nov 3 1918 How true this is, how stupid it was for statesmen not to realise the wisdom & prescience of this. I did & resigned”. (Burns resigned from the government on 2nd August 1914, objecting to the country’s involvement in the Great War.)

Burns definitely did not agree with the content of all the books he acquired. W. H. Mallock’s Aristocracy & evolution: a study of the rights, the origin, and the social functions of the wealthier classes, London : A. & C. Black, 1898 signally fails to impress: “This book is broadly composed of two elements. Sophism Snobbery J.B.”

Burns was moved to eloquence by Sir Ian Hamilton’s Compulsory service: a study of the question in the light of experience. London : John Murray, 1910. “A lad only gets the military measles once in his life. If he has it as a Boy Scout Boys Brigade or in any other way when young it rarely recurs when he is of service age. This view was expressed so far back as 1892, and since by J.B. … Civilianise the army is the only way to [render?] it really martial …”  He also reacted strongly to Privilege and democracy by Frederic Clemson Howe, London : T. Fisher Unwin, 1910: “Since Domesday there has been no greater distribution of ownership of land than between 1916 & 1920-4 Rates, Taxes, Cost of Living, Economies have during & after War deposed the landlord, distributed his land, diffused his wealth and given to millions what was the appanage of the peer or the perquisite of the Church. On balance very good for nation … JB Nov 5th 1920”.

It is possible to identify the books that were important to Burns, in that he tended to note the dates when he re-read them. Some have as many as 6 entries for “Read again …” He was also an enthusiast – one can hear the joy of his discovery of E.S. Creasy’s  The rise and progress of the English constitution, London : Richard Bentley, 1877: “This excellent book was uncut from 1877 to Aug 3 1922 when I cut it, and read it right through.”

The picture that emerges is of a man of strong opinions and wide interests, whose books were his companions. The revealing notes that bring him so much to life were presumably made for his personal use, and with no intention that they would ever be read by others. However, they are a rich resource for anyone interested in the personality of the man, and further insights are anticipated as cataloguing progresses.