Thomas Burke 1769 – 1870


Edward Burt sent me an interesting email in July 2016 saying, “Hi Paul, Whilst researching my family tree, I discovered that my 3x great-grandfather Thomas Burke lived in Blantyre village; The 1841 census gives Front row, west end as the address. Thomas is cited in David Livingstone’s journals as one of two people who inspired him, the other being a David Hogg.

The 1851 census gives the address as Fore Street. Thomas was apparently a soldier who had fought in the Peninsular wars (Portugal & Spain) before being wounded in a battle in the run up to Waterloo. He was in the 42nd regiment (later the Black Watch) so the battle was probably Quatre Bras.

According to Livingstone he became a Christian evangelist on his return to Blantyre and set up a prayer group and rang a bell on sunday mornings encouraging village folk to attend. He also apparently entertained people with stories of hairsbreadth escapes during his time as a soldier. These accounts are mainly linked to David Livingstone’s journals and accounts about D.L. What I was wondering was whether you have heard anything about Thomas’s activities as it would seem he was one of the Blantyre village “characters” until his death in october 1870. His eldest son Isaac, moved to Finnieston, Glasgow and changed his surname from Burke to Burt, hence my surname, Regards, Edward Burt.”

Thankfully, I was able to answer Edward in some detail, as Thomas Burke is a Blantyre man I have some good notes on. Let’s go back to the start.

Thomas Burke was born in Midlothian in 1791 the child of John Burke (25) and Ann Gardiner (25). Incredibly, Thomas Burke served in the military briefly in September 1800 when he was just 11 years old, but the experience taught him discipline and perhaps gave him a taste for the honour of what it was to serve for one’s country.

By 16 years old he was working at the mills in Blantyre (presumably moved their with his family). He was balloted in Hamilton to join the army, but rather than being pressed into a unit not of his choice, he fled to Glasgow to sign up with his preferred 42nd Regiment. He was prepared for the hard work ahead of him and a few weeks later left with many others to fight in the Peninsular wars from 1807 to 1914.

Just before he left, when he was still only 18 years old, he married his sweetheart, Edinburgh girl, Elizabeth Rhind on August 28, 1807, in Blantyre, Lanarkshire, where they both decided to settle. Elizabeth pursued work in Monteith’s Mills. They were to have four children in 23 years. His daughter Christian was born in October 1808 in Blantyre, Lanarkshire.

Thomas fought in the Peninsular wars in Spain and Portugal right up to Waterloo (18th June 1815) in the 42nd Highland Regiment (which would later become the Black Watch). Perhaps inspiring Livingstone, Thomas was awarded the War Medal with 7 clasps, although overall he had been in 9 major battles. He was present at the Great Retreat at Corunna when Sir John Moore fell. He served under Sir Thomas Graham, afterwards Lord Lyndoch at Rarossa. He was at the siege of Badajos under Lord Wellington. He was also present at Cuidad-Rodrigo, Salamanca, Toulouse. As an indication oft he rough life of a soldier of the Peninsular wars, for 5 years he never slept in a bed, the hard field all he had to sleep upon.

Son Isaac was born on May 1, 1821, in Blantyre, Lanarkshire. By 1822, Henry Monteith was expanding Blantyre Village and build Waterloo row and other terraced homes. Perhaps he called the buildings as such after hearing of Thomas’s triumphant return to his factory, certainly something that would have been a talking point.

Son James was born in 1826 in Blantyre. Finally, daughter Elizabeth was born in 1831 also in Blantyre.

Even by the time of the first census in 1841, he and his wife Elizabeth (nee Rhind) were both 50 years old that year and had settled for many years already in Blantyre employed by the Village works mills. Their home was at the western side of Blantyre Village works, facing out on to what was to become Station Road, at Fore Row (census lists it as Front Row). Today, this would have been opposite the entrance to the David Livingstone Centre at modern day Anderson Gardens. With them were children James (15) and Elizabeth (10). With them was daughter Christian Wheeling and her 4 children, so it was certainly a busy household! Thomas and Elizabeth were both employed by Monteith working a short distance away at the nearby Cotton works.

For a great many years, he was a teacher in the Sabbath School in Blantyre Village works, conducting a weekly prayer meeting, ringing the bell as he marched through Blantyre streets most loudly each Sunday.

It is said David Livingstone as a young man found Thomas and his fellow Sabbath School teacher David Hogg, 2 of the most inspirational men he had ever met. Truth told, it was probably not just faith, but Thomas’s well travelled exploits around the world and tales of this, that David would have most likely have found exciting.Thomas preached sanctification and lived it. One story in particular was relayed many times at his sermons. During tho Crimean War the regiment he was in was called to take part in some duty far away. It was winter, snow on the ground and although the cold was very severe, they ran short of provisions, and were becoming exhausted. They felt they could proceed no further, when suddenly they came on a large concentration of sugar canes, which saved them. Thomas Burke always spoke of it as a Divine interposition. Methodism was a great spiritual power in these days in Blantyre

By 1851, Thomas was still working at the cotton factory, aged 61. His children now grown up, had left home. His grandson Thomas Whelan (11) lived with them looked after each day by Elizabeth Burke, his wife whom by then had given up her employment.

When David Livingstone returned home and spoke at the Literary and Scientific Association meeting in the old schoolhouse at the end of 1856, he actually named Thomas Burke from the platform, when he said “There was another word he wished to say, having special reference to the young present, and that was, that in his time when a man became religious people looked upon him and said, “O, he is too holy,” or perhaps they might say he was a hypocrite. He wished them to become thoroughly religious, and cordially to embrace the offers of mercy. There was nothing mean in a man bowing down and seeking the favour and friendship of God through Christ. It was manly to do so. Those who gave themselves up to bestial and sottish habits looked down on a Christian with scorn, and said he was a hypocrite; but when they came to be laid upon a bed of sickness, they sent for Thomas Burke (alluding to an aged Methodist preacher in the village). He urged each of them to close with the offers of mercy. God had plenty of work for every man to do — he had need of servants. It was not necessary that every one should go abroad. Every one could do good in his own particular sphere, in his own family, and among his own friends. His advice to them was to begin to be thoroughly religious that night, and suppose they might never meet again in this world, they should meet in heaven, the place of everlasting joy.” (Loud cheers.)

In his later years, Thomas enjoyed a pension, not only for being a war veteran, but also enjoyed a decent pension from Henry Monteith for being in service for so long. His faith was strong and he was connected to the Wesleyan Methodists, by whom he was held in high esteem.

By 1861, Thomas and Elizabeth were 72 years old. They had moved by this time to 3 Cross Row, most likely due to their retirement. Thomas’s profession is noted for being a war veteran , noted as a Chelsea Pensioner. Another grandson, this time young WIlliam Allan (6) was living with them. His wife Elizabeth passed away on November 22, 1868, in Blantyre at the age of 83. They had been married 61 years.

Thomas Burke died shortly after on October 18, 1870, in Blantyre having lived a long life of 81 years. His departure was felt in the Sabbath School, which struggled on without him, until pupils moved a few years later to the new school on Glasgow Road.

Thomas was buried a day later on Thursday October 19, 1870, close to his home at the quiet, simple little graveyard of Blantyre Works. Members of the 44th Blantyre Vounteers came out in force and recognised the military man by giving him a full military send off funeral. The men lined the path leading to the cemetery remembering the man who had served so well for the British Army in one of its most trying times. They believed to bury him not with a cloak around the coffin like some great chief, but instead to send him off with military music and the sound of musketry gunfire, which would have been so familiar to Thomas in his younger days.

The volunteer members of the corps beforehand had met with Thomas’s friends and family nearby in the old School/church room. The minister of St Thomas was absent, so Mr McArthur of the Glasgow circuit of Wesleyans conducted the small intimate service. The firing party, pall bearers and mourners formed a procession under the command of Ensign Ness (later to become Major and well known teacher). They marched down the short distance to the house of the deceased Thomas Burke where the corpse was received in full military form. The processions then marched off to the solemn music of the band towards the cemetery where the old soldier was laid to the dust. Prayers were offered and the volunteers fired a volley of gunfire over the grave before retiring.

Pictured is Quatre Bras, one of the Napoleonic Battles that Thomas Burke fought in.

From “Blantyre Explained” (c) 2016 by Paul Veverka

wollen battle of Quatre bras


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  1. Thank you so much for this information, my grandmother is Helen Burt the 3rd great granddaughter of Thomas Burke. James Burt Sr immagrated to America and we are decendants of his line. Thank you again!

  2. HI I am a cousin of Edward Burt and live in New Zealand, interesting finding out some of the family history I never knew from my father. Was there a coat of Arms for the Burke family? My mother obtained one for the Burt family which now appears to be wrong for my ancestry.

    1. Im sorry Ron. Finding this out would be quite a specialist thing and beyond my ability. It may be worth checking or asking with the National Library of Scotland. Thanks for taking an interest in Blantyre Project.

  3. Hi Paul, Two new records have come to light on the ‘ScotlandsPeople’ website. Thomas Burke & Elizabeth Rhind had two more children;
    George Burke, 02Nov1815 at Blantyre works.
    Thomas Burke,19Nov1817 at Blantyre works.( Thomas possibly went to India and married there, but I have not fully verified this at present.)
    Regards, Edward Burt.

  4. Excellent article as Thomas Burke is my Great x4 grandfather finding all this information is a godsend and I never expected to find so much out about a long distant relative.

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