John Burns (1858- ), English politician, was born at Vauxhall, London, in October 1858, the second son of Alexander Burns, an engineer, of Ayrshire extraction. He attended a national school in Battersea until he was ten years old, when he was sent to work in Price's candle factory. He worked for a short time as a page-boy, then in some engine works, and at fourteen was apprenticed for seven years to a Millbank engineer. He continued his education at the night-schools, and read extensively, especially the works of Robert Owen, J.S. Mill, Paine and Cobbett. He ascribed his conversion to the principles of socialism to his sense of the insufficiency of the arguments advanced against it by J.S. Mill, but he had learnt socialistic doctrine from a French fellow-workman, Victor Delahaye, who had witnessed the Commune. After working at his trade in various parts of England, and on board ship, he went for a year to the West African coast at the mouth of the Niger as a foreman engineer. His earnings from this undertaking were expended on a six months' tour in France, Germany and Austria for the study of political and economic conditions. He had early begun the practice of outdoor speaking, and his exceptional physical strength and strong voice were invaluable qualifications for a popular agitator.
In 1878 he was arrested and locked up for the night for addressing an open-air demonstration on Clapham Common. Two years later he married Charlotte Gale, the daughter of a Battersea shipwright. He was again arrested in 1886 for his share in the West End riots when the windows of the Carlton and other London clubs were broken, but cleared himself at the Old Bailey of the charge of inciting the mob to violence. In November of the next year, however, he was again arrested for resisting the police in their attempt to break up the meeting in Trafalgar Square, and was condemned to six weeks' imprisonment. A speech delivered by him at the Industrial Remuneration Conference of 1884 had attracted considerable attention, and in that year he became a member of the Social Democratic Federation, which put him forward unsuccessfully in the next year as parliamentary candidate for West Nottingham. His connexion with the Social Democratic Federation was short-lived; but he was an active member of the executive of the Amalgamated Engineers' trade union, and was connected with the trades union congresses until 1895, when, through his influence, a resolution excluding all except wage labourers was passed.
He was still working at his trade in Hoe's printing machine works when he became a Progressive member of the first London County Council, being supported by an allowance of £2 a week subscribed by his constituents, the Battersea working men. He introduced in 1892 a motion that all contracts for the County Council should be paid at trade union rates and carried out under trade union conditions, and devoted his efforts in general to a war against monopolies, except those of the state or the municipality. In the same year (1889) in which he became a member of the County Council, he acted with Mr Ben Tillett as the chief leader and organizer of the London dock strike. He entered the House of Commons as member for Battersea in 1892, and was re-elected in 1895, 1900 and 1906. In parliament he became well known as an independent Radical, and he was included in the Liberal cabinet by Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman in December 1905 as president of the Local Government Board. During the next two years, though much out of favour with his former socialist allies, he earned golden opinions for his administrative policy, and for his refusal to adopt the visionary proposals put forward by the more extreme members of the Labour party for dealing with the "unemployed" question; and in 1908 he retained his office in Mr Asquith's cabinet.