Burn, James Dawson (1801?–c.1889), tradesman and author, was born probably in Co. Down, son of a farmer surnamed McBurney. Shortly afterwards his mother took him to Scotland, begging along with an alcoholic ex-soldier, an Irishman with whom she had other children. Burn's early life was marked by extreme poverty and ill-treatment; he claimed to have been in every jail in southern Scotland. When he was 10, he lived in Co. Down with his real father, who had a second family, but he was desperately unhappy and soon ran away; he afterwards changed his name to ‘Burn’. He returned to vagrancy, but in his late teens persuaded a hatter in Hexham to take him as an apprentice. He earned his living in that trade for some years, until the new fashion for silk hats rendered his hard-won skills obsolete. He moved to Glasgow (1830), where he became a delegate of the hatters' union and soon got involved in radical politics. He was a member of the central committee of the reform association there c.1831, and helped try to elect radical candidates until about 1837, when he became disillusioned by internal strife and by the difficulties of attending to his own affairs. He apparently assisted the Oddfellows mutual society to expand in Scotland; his history of the movement remains useful, and in 1846 he was elected to the board of directors. Success still eluded him; unaccountably, he resigned from the Oddfellows and went back to a series of low-status jobs. He retired in 1881, and died in Hammersmith, west London, c.1889. The bewildering, almost picaresque sequence of his life is recorded in an autobiography, published in five editions, the first anonymously (1855), with additional material in 1882. The 1855 version was republished in 1978 with an introduction drawing attention to its value as social history and personal record. Burn published other works of social and political comment, including Three years among the working classes of the USA during the war (1865) and The history of strikes (1879). He received two small subventions from the Royal Literary Fund in 1869 and probably in 1883. His first wife, Kitty, died of typhus (1837) along with the youngest of their five children; he married again (1838) and had thirteen children. His second wife and four children also died before him.
Penny Illustrated Paper, 28 Apr. 1883; Boase supp.; Allibone; James Dawson Burn, The autobiography of a beggar boy, ed. David Vincent (1978)