Rags to Riches


1890s The Old Mill, Blantyre wmI recently told the story of Thomas Burke here on Blantyre Project, but I would like to say a special thanks to Edward Burt, a descendent of Thomas Burke, who contacted me with this remarkable story which explores Isaac , the son of Thomas. I’ve noted Edwards comments below unedited, shared here.

Rags to Riches; some unexpected family history.

“My son, who is an English Teacher, called me from the Belgium battlefields whilst on a school trip in the summer of 2015. He was standing amongst Headstones bearing our family surname and wanted to know if any family had died in the 1st World War. I replied that I wasn’t aware of any ( I had a Great Uncle who was wounded and taken prisoner in France), but realised that the “Burt” part of the Family tree was fairly minimal.

Thus in October of 2015 , I started to research my Father’s side of the tree. Dad’s father had died when he was quite young and Dad was 17 so I never knew that Grandfather and the “folk” family history was therefore very sketchy. Enter the internet. Dad always maintained that his Grandfather was a Scot, he thought from Fife. A search of the records using “Scotlands People” rapidly threw up some evidence, not of Fife, but that the Burts had lived in Glasgow and that 3x Great-grandad had lived in Blantyre (about 10 miles south of Glasgow) and his surname was Burke.

Thomas Burke worked in the Blantyre cotton mills as a cotton waste sorter according to the 1841 census. The census named his wife as Elizabeth and some of their children who were still at home. A marriage proclamation could be traced giving Elizabeth’s maiden name as Rhind, and this allowed Birth records to be traced for their children, including Isaac Burke who was born in 1821 and no longer at home in Blantyre.

The 1851 census showed that Thomas had progressed in the cotton mill and was now a “Picking Master,Cotton”. 1861’s census threw up a surprise; Thomas was now 72 and described as “Chelsea pensioner”! Was this an old man’s joke at the census taker’s expense? Thomas lived and worked in the Blantyre mill village where David Livingstone grew up.

A Google search of Thomas Burke, Blantyre, threw up an intriguing link “see the life and times of David Livingstone”. Opening the link it turned out that David had not only worked in the same mill as Thomas, but that the old soldier Thomas, had inspired the young Livingstone. David recounts in his journals that Thomas had been “a somewhat wild youth who had joined the 42nd regiment” and fought in Portugal Spain and France, right up to a few days before Waterloo when he was wounded ( probably at Quatre Bras where the 42 engaged the French just a day or so before the Battle of Waterloo). Thomas returned home and “got religion”; setting up a prayer group in Blantyre and going round ringing a bell on a Sunday morning encouraging people to attend. Livingstone notes that this activity was a bit much for most of the good folk of Blantyre, but it did inspire David and his Father to attend. So Thomas was an “out Chelsea Pensioner”!

Thomas’s son Isaac moved to Glasgow and married Margaret Bryce, but on the marriage entry he is now Isaac Burt, Engineer. The 1851 census lists him as an Engineer Finisher with wife Margaret and two young sons; Thomas age 2 and William age 1. By 1871 their family was complete, son Isaac age 18 was still in Further education, with two “scholar” sisters, Margaret age 11 and Helen age 6- no factory or mill for Isaac and Margaret’s children! Thomas age 22 is described as an Engineer and Draughtsman whilst dad Isaac is now a “Foreman engineer fitter”. Thomas Burke had died in 1870 and interesting Isaac signs the death certificate as Isaac Burke, son. All the addresses confirm that they are the same people.

By 1881 son Isaac has moved to Liskeard in Cornwall and is working as a Teacher. Son Thomas is still at home in Glasgow and is described as “marine engineer and Brassfounder employing 50 men”. Thomas worked for the firm of Steven & Struthers and in 1882 he designed an improved Steam siren & Fog Signalling apparatus for Ships with a colleague John Steven. He became a “Principle” in the firm when Struthers retired in 1906 and when Thomas Burt died in 1929 he left £29,900 (a Farm could be bought for about £5,000) and unfortunately for the Burt Family, it was mainly to the Free Church of Scotland. Thomas was unmarried and his parents and, bar Helen, his siblings had all pre-deceased him.

The younger Isaac Burt’s family continued the upward mobility of the Burt family; eldest son Bryce becoming a Scientist who was Knighted for his services to Indian agriculture as a British civil servant in the 1930’s. Leonard graduating from Edinburgh University as a Doctor/Surgeon and youngest son Reginald who also worked in India as a Civil Engineer. Leonard was my paternal Grandfather, who ended his career as a G.P. in Leigh, Lancs, as well as Medical Officer to the Manchester Collieries Ltd for one year before his death in May 1939 at the age of 53.

Thanks to “Scotland’s People” and “Ancestry” I have added about 725 relatives to our family tree with various twists and surprises but none more than the (cotton) rags to riches of Thomas Burke and the direct line of the Burts.”  

Pictured: Blantyre Village Cotton Works, illustration from 1890s.

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