Burns, Sir George, first baronet 1795-1890, shipowner, youngest son of the Rev. John Burns (1744-1839) of Glasgow, younger brother of John Burns (1774-1850) [qv.] and of Allan Burns (1781-1813) [qv.], was born in Glasgow on 10 Dec. 1795. At the age of twenty-three, in partnership with a third brother, James, he commenced business in Glasgow as a general merchant, and in 1824, in connection with Hugh Matthie of Liverpool, established a line of small sailing vessels trading between the two ports. Belfast was soon included in their operations; sailing vessels gave place to steamers; in 1830 they joined their business with that of the McIvers, and for many years held a practical monopoly of the trade between Liverpool, the north-east of Ireland, and the west of Scotland, the McIvers managing the Liverpool business, and James Burns that of Glasgow, while George devoted himself more especially to the control of the shipping. In 1838, in conjunction with Samuel Cunard [qv.], Robert Napier (1791-1876) [qv.], and others, they founded the celebrated Cunard Company, which secured the admiralty contract for carrying the North American mails, and in 1840 made their start with four steamers of the average burden of 1,150 tons, with a speed of 8— knots, and making the passage in fourteen or fifteen days. From that time to the present the history of the Cunard Company would be the history of the growth and development of steam navigation, in the very van of which it has all along been distinguished by the excellence of its ships and of the general management. The original shareholders were gradually bought out till the whole was vested in the three families of Cunard, Burns, and McIver, and so it continued for many years, the Cunards managing its affairs in America, the brothers David and Charles McIver in Liverpool, and George and James Burns in Glasgow. Having acquired a princely fortune, George retired from the active management in 1860, purchased the estate of Wemyss Bay, and spent the remainder of his life mainly at Castle Wemyss, where he died on 2 June 1890. The year before he had been made a baronet. To the last he preserved his faculties, could read without spectacles, and took a lively interest in public affairs, as well as in the management of his own. He married in 1822 Jane, daughter of James Cleland [qv.], by whom he had seven children, of whom only two—sons—survived.
John, the elder son, succeeded his father in the management of the business; and when, in 1880, it was converted into an open limited liability company, he was appointed its chairman. In 1897 he was raised to the peerage as Lord Inverclyde; he died on 12 Feb. 1901, and his wife Emily, daughter of George Clerk Arbuthnot, on the following day, both being buried on 16 Feb. at Wemyss Bay.
Men of the Time (12th ed.)
Times, 3 June 1890
Fortunes made in Business, ii. 330 et seq.
Lindsay's Hist. of Merchant Shipping, iv. 179 et seq.
Contributor: J. K. L. [John Knox Laughton]