The John Burns Collection

21st November 2005 – 23rd December 2005

The John Burns Collection comprises much of the political, social and economic content of the library of John Elliott Burns (1858-1943), labour leader and Liberal minister. The Collection was purchased from John Burns’ estate by the Amalgamated Engineering Union (known subsequently as the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union and then Amicus) in 1944. It was originally lodged with the Library of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), and in 1996 the Collection was deposited on indefinite loan in Senate House Library (SHL). Throughout his life, John Burns had been an avid collector of books, pamphlets and periodicals, amassing a considerable personal library. The other part of his library, including major holdings on London history and Thomas More, was auctioned in three sales between December 1943 and April 1944, raising the sum of £25,000. Catalogues of these sales are available in the Library.

The John Burns Collection in the SHL consists of over 5,000 items: around 3,000 books and serial volumes, about 2,100 pamphlets and several manuscripts. The Collection is particularly strong in books, pamphlets and periodicals relating to labour and socialist movements and trade unions in the United Kingdom during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For example, there are runs of important journals of the period such as Justice (published by the Social Democratic Federation). Although most material relates to the United Kingdom, Burns’ time in Africa is represented by a strong collection of often scarce pamphlets on African and Chinese labour in Africa. There are also pamphlets on the South African (Boer) War, which Burns opposed.

John Burns’ eventual role as President of the Local Government Board reflected his interest in the social conditions of the period, and many publications in the Collection deal with this subject. Material on the Poor Law, pensions and temperance (Burns was a lifelong abstainer), for example, features strongly in the Collection. Works on wider political and economic ideas are present. The history of radicalism, the co-operative movement and socialism feature significantly and include good holdings on and by Robert Owen and William Cobbett, the latter being represented in the manuscripts. John Burns annotated many of the books.

The cataloguing of the John Burns Collection began with the recording of some 2,000 pamphlets, which were catalogued as part of the RSLP CURL 19th century pamphlets project (see 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 manuscript material in the Collection has also been listed, and can be located via the Senate House Library Archives & Manuscripts Catalogue.

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