Thomas Burt, M.P.
Transcription of Sketch in the Primitive Methodist Magazine by M. Johnson
The career of Mr. Thomas Burt is a powerful antidote to cynicism. Without any of the adventitious aids which are usually regarded as indispensable pre-requisites to success, he has been able to reach a high position in the realm. The latest honour conferred upon him has given universal satisfaction. From no quarter has there been heard a single note out of harmony with the chorus of world-wide approval. To Primitive Methodists his becoming a Privy Councillor was specially gratifying. For though he has never been in actual membership with us, he is certainly by origin, training, and sympathy one of the finest products of our Church. He was cradled in it, and there is probably no Church for whose work he has a higher admiration. The sentiments of the poet Cowper are in harmony with his own:
“’Tis not my boast that I deduce my birth
From loins enthroned and rulers of the earth:
But higher far my proud pretensions rise,
The son of parents passed into the skies.”
Mr. Burt had a godly parentage, and that fact is among his most cherished memories.
He was born on November 12th, 1837, at a small group of cottages known as Murton Row, not far from North Shields. How well we know the spot! It is redolent of early associations to ourselves. Soon after his birth his parents removed to Whitley. But an explosion during the course of the year in the mine where his father worked, necessitated a further removal to Seghill. During the five years of their residence here, Thomas was sent to a dame’s school, the only school then open to the children of working men, and subsequently to one kept by the Messrs. Anderson (father and son). His progress in learning was steady and successful. If he did not show special aptitude in acquiring information, he was, at any rate, plodding and persevering, and retained what he had been taught. It was here that he had his first experience of labour troubles, as they are called. It was an object lesson which has never been effaced from his memory. It was an epoch-making year for miners, the year of the famous and disastrous strike of 1844. We have heard the old men talk about it with a hush in their voice and a fervour in their tones which were indicative of the tremendous significance they attached to this never-to-be-forgotten industrial conflict. All the miners who lived in colliery houses were ejected from their dwellings, the furniture and belongings being deposited by the turnpike side or on any available vacant ground, the only shelter from the elements being sheets of canvas stretched over their furniture. Their cooking was done over burning sticks which they had gathered, as fires they had none. These scenes, and the sufferings associated with them, can be better imagined than described. True is it “that man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn.”
The Burt family fortunately secured shelter in a cottage at the Avenue Head, Seaton Delaval. Mr. Burt, senior, having taken so prominent a part in the strike was refused work when it was settled, and the family migrated to the County of Durham. They lived for about a year at the Brickgarth, Easington Lane, then at Haswell, Sherburn, and South Hetton. Meanwhile Thomas was attending school, the father intending him to do so for some time longer, but the boy deemed it his duty to try and increase the family income, and at ten years of age went to work in the mine. It was here that as a “putter” he was engaged in taking the small trucks (locally called “tubs”) to and from the “hewer,” Peter McKenzie, who afterwards became the famous Wesleyan minister, and was noted far and near for his rich vein of wit, humour and pathos. Who at that time would have predicted that the hewer was destined to become a distinguished preacher of the Gospel, and the putter-lad a member of His Majesty’s Privy Council? Verily “fact is stranger than fiction.”
Returning to Seaton Delaval in 1851, Thomas Burt associated with several youths who were like-minded, earnestly bent on acquiring knowledge. In the path of self-culture he was making considerable progress. Among the books studied were those of Shakespeare, Milton, Scott, Burns, Mill, Carlyle, Emerson, and Channing. These youths knew, at any rate, who were the Masters, and most willingly sat at their feet! It is very suggestive that at least two other M.P.’s who were once miners have drunk deeply at the same streams. Apt, striking and unhackneyed quotations from the great poets being by no means infrequent in their case as in Mr. Burt’s. The prose works of Milton and the “Life of Frederick Douglas” also made a deep impression on young Burt. He had the warmest admiration for the heroic efforts put forth by Douglas for the emancipation of his race.
While his struggle for self-culture was going on Thomas Burt was engaged thirteen hours a day in the pit, and it took him another hour to get to his work and back home again, making fourteen hours in all; leaving but little time for meals and sleep, to say nothing of study. Only a youth of vigour and character could have found time for self-improvement in such circumstances. In other matters he was also taking a firm stand. Though a companionable youth, he could not be induced to accompany his associates to a public-house. One reason for this probably was the example of prudence and abstinence set by his father, who was a member of the Order of Rechabites. But the question was really fought out independently by young Burt. And a lecture on temperance he heard at the time simply gave decision to a purpose he had been long cherishing; he finally signed the pledge, a rule of conduct he considers “calculated to develop whatever was best and highest in a man.” He has all through life strenuously adhered to this golden rule of total abstinence. We have seen his pledge card, and have used facsimiles of it in our temperance work.
Another factor making for and developing character was his father’s religious connections. Peter Burt was not only a consistent member but also a local preacher in the Primitive Methodist Church, a church which has done more than any other for the intellectual, moral, and spiritual uplifting of the toiling millions of our country. He was a remarkable man – honest, brave, intelligent, true, and while faithful in all respects to his Church, he was at the same time a most tolerant man, and won the respect and esteem of all sorts and conditions of men. When his interment took place in Jesmond Cemetery, Newcastle-on-Tyne, the character of the deceased might have been inferred from the composition of the huge crowd that gathered at the grave. Every sect was represented, and there were also present not a few who acknowledged allegiance to no creed or church whatever. His wife was a fine-tempered, wise, and saintly woman. They kept a “Prophet’s Chamber,” their house being the home where the Primitive Methodist travelling preachers were entertained and lodged regularly when they were planned at Seaton Delaval. Thomas learned much from their visits. Their advice and counsel meant a good deal to him, and their stimulus and example even more. How tenderly we have heard him talk about the old preachers!
The year 1860 found the family at Choppington. He was now twenty-three, and took to wife his cousin, Mary Weatherburn, a union which has proved to be one of the happiest and most satisfactory. Choppington is in Bedlingtonshire, a district not more celebrated for its terriers than for its Radicalism. What a galaxy of stirring, robust, broad-minded and level-headed men rise before one’s mind as he thinks of the district. There were Dr. James Trotter, Messrs. Glassey, Lawther, Fairbairn, Robert Elliott, the brothers Grieves, and many another scatterer of good seed and pioneer of institutions, whose fruits are with us still. Thomas Burt belonged to this circle, and was soon in active social work among them. He became secretary of the District Temperance Society, and also of the School Management Committee, which consisted of an equal number of miners and colliery officials. This office indicated that he enjoyed the confidence of both parties.
In 1864 he was elected delegate to represent the miners of Choppington on the Northumberland and Durham Miners’ Associ.ation. Later still he proposed the resolution for the dividing of the two counties for Trade Union purposes, and the separate organisation followed as a consequence. In 1865 he was elected Secretary of the Northumberland Miners’ Association, an office which he has continued to fill with great credit to himself and great advantage to the workmen. At the time of his taking office there was a serious “strike” in operation, and the affairs of the Union were under a cloud. By indefatigable labour and wise management he was able to place the organisation on a sound and healthy foundation. He had displayed in his official capacity so much knowledge, tact, and business capacity that in 1872 a movement was set on foot by the gentlemen previously named for the purpose of sending him to Parliament. Few of the miners then had votes, and it required an incessant agitation, for two years, to secure the privilege of voting. But when secured the miners were masters of the situation; and at the election of 1874 Mr. Burt received a practically solid vote, returning him to Parliament with an overwhelming majority over his gentlemanly and courteous opponent, Major Duncan. He was the first working man to enter the House of Commons. The movement thus brought to a successful close found constant and powerful support in the late Mr. Joseph Cowen, M.P., orator and patriot, whose great newspaper, “The Newcastle Daily Chronicle,” championed this and every other worthy enterprise of that day. The poet of the movement was Councillor Robert Elliott, now of Low Fell, Gateshead (who has been one of Mr. John Johnson’s most ardent supporters in his two elections for that borough). He produced many songs and poems setting forth in the Northumberland dialect the aims contemplated, the best known of which was entitled “The Pitman Gahn to Parleemint.”
For the long period of thirty-two years Mr. Burt has represented the borough of Morpeth, and that he retains the confidence of his constituents is abundantly evident in the magnificent majority they accorded him at his election on the 13th of January last. By his conspicuous fairness and impartiality, by his breadth of tolerance and sympathy, by his unflinching and courageous adherence to principle at all hazards, and by his sterling unimpeachable Christian character he has won the admiration and respect of all classes of the community.
His grand old leader, Mr. Gladstone, appointed him to the position of Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade in 1892, a position which he held till the dissolution in 1895. A Conservative Government sent him to represent this country in the Berlin Labour Conference convened by the Emperor of Germany; he was also elected President of the Trades Union Congress which met at Newcastle-on-Tyne in 1891; for years he was President of the Miners’ National Union; and he has taken part in all the International Miners’ Conferences. He wields a facile and graceful pen as may be seen in his occasional articles in the “ Primitive Methodist Quarterly,” “The Nineteenth Century,” “Contemporary,” and “Fortnightly” reviews, and in his brochure on a visit to the Transvaal. In the last-named he passes under review the various labour questions of the Colony, especially that of Chinese Indentured Labour.
The King, when Prince of Wales, designated him one of the six governors (within His Royal Highness’s appointment) of the Imperial Institute, and now he has received the distinguished honour of being made a member of His Majesty’s Privy Council. All honours sit lightly upon him, for Nature herself ennobled him. He is still the same unassuming, simple-hearted man that he has ever been. No honour has elated him, no dignity has changed him; and his humblest constituents find him the same easily approached, large-souled counsellor, guide and friend. One of his own favourite quotations may fittingly close our sketch:
“Honour and shame from no condition rise;
Act well your part, there all the honour lies.”
Thomas was born to parents Peter Burt, a miner, and Rebecca Weatherburn.
He married Mary Weatherburn (1842-1926) in early 1860 in the Morpeth Registration District, Northumberland. Census returns identify eight of twelve children.
- Rebecca (1860-1916) – a dressmaker (1881); a housekeeper (1901)
- Mary Hannah (abt1868-1900)
- Thomas John (abt1870-1927) – a pattern maker (1901); a farmer (1922)
- Peter (1872-1937) – an engineer (1922)
- Jane Stella (abt1875-1908)
- Theodora Ann (1877-1933) – married William White, a sub-postmaster (1911), in 1898
- Wilfred (1879-1932) – a railway clerk (1901); a mining engineer (1922)
- Robert (1882-1906) – a painter (1901); died in South Africa
Thomas retired from politics in 1918.
Thomas died on 12 April 1922 at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Northumberland.
Primitive Methodist Magazine1906/282
Census Returns and Births, Marriages & Deaths Registers