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Charlie Burns, King of Bacon Street

May 11, 2010
by the gentle author

You may not have seen Charlie Burns, the oldest man on Brick Lane, but I can guarantee that he has seen you. Seven days a week, Charlie, who is ninety four years old, sits in the passenger seat of a car in Bacon St for half of each day, watching people come and go in Brick Lane. The windscreen is a frame through which Charlie observes the world with undying fascination and it offers a deep perspective upon time and memory, in which the past and present mingle to create a compelling vision that is his alone.

For a couple of hours yesterday, I sat in the front seat beside Charlie, following the line of his gaze and, with the benefit of a few explanations, I was able to share some fleeting glimpses of his world. The car, which belongs to Charlie’s daughter Carol, is always parked a few yards into Bacon St, outside the family business, C.E. Burns & Sons, where they deal in second hand furniture and paper goods. Carol runs this from a garden shed constructed inside the warehouse, and lined with a rich collage of family photographs, while Charlie presides upon the passage of custom from the curbside.

Many passersby do not even the notice the man in the anonymous car who sits impassive like Old Father Time, taking it all in. Yet to those who live and work in these streets, Charlie is a figure who commands the utmost respect and, as I sat with Charlie, our conversation was constantly punctuated by a stream of affectionate greetings from those that pay due reverence to the king of Bacon St, the man who has been there since 1915.

The major landmark upon the landscape of Charlie’s vision is a new white building on the section of Bacon St across the other side of Brick Lane. But Charlie does not see what stands there today, he sees the building which stood there before, where he grew up with his brothers Alfie, Harry and Teddy, and his sister, Marie – and where the whole family worked together in the waste paper merchants’ business started by Charlie’s grandfather John in 1864.

“We lived on this street all our life. We were city people. We all grew up here. We were making our way. We were paper merchants. We all went round collecting in the City of London and we sold it to Limehouse Paper Mills. There was no living in it. Prices were zero. Eventually we went broke, but we still carried on because it was what we did. Then, in 1934, prices picked up. We were moving forward, up and up and up. We carried on through the war. We never stopped. This was my life. We used to own most of the houses in this street. They were worth nothing then. They couldn’t give them away.”

Once the business grew profitable, the family became involved in boxing, the sport that was the defining passion of the Burns brothers, who enjoyed a longstanding involvement with the Repton Boxing Club in Cheshire St where Tony Burns, Charlie’s nephew, is chief coach today.

“Somehow or other, we got into boxing and then we were running the Bethnal Green Men’s Club and then we took a floor in a pub. We were unstoppable. We used to box the Racing Men’s Club. We used to box at Epsom with all the top jockeys. We made the Repton Boxing Club. I was president for twenty years and I took them to the top of the world. When we joined there was only one boy in the club. (He still comes over and sees me.) We built them up, my brothers, myself and friends. They all done a little bit of boxing.

We had some wonderful boxers come here. They were all poor people in them days, they were only too glad to get into something. We used to take all the kids with nothing and get them boxing. They played some strokes but they never did anything bad. Everything we done was for charity. We were young people and we were business people and we had money to burn.

All of the notorious people used to come to our shows at the York Hall. We had the Kray brothers and Judy Garland and Liberace. I remember the first time I met Tom Mix, the famous cowboy from the silent films. We met all the top people because this was the place to be. I had a private audience with the Pope and he gave me a gold medal because of all the work we did for charity.”

You would think that the present day might seem disappointing by contrast with vibrant memories like these, but Charlie sits placidly in the front seat of the parked car every day, fascinated by the minutiae of the contemporary world and at home at the centre of his Bacon St universe.

“This place, years ago, was one of the toughest places there was, but one of the best places to be.” he announced, and I could not tell if Charlie was talking to himself, or to me, or the windscreen, until he charged me with the rhetorical question, “Where else can you go these days?” I was stumped to give Charlie a credible reply. Instead, I peered through the windscreen at the empty street, considering everything he had said, as if in expectation that Charlie’s enraptured version of Bacon St might become available to me too.

Charlie reminded me again,“We were paper merchants. We were moving forward.”, as he did several times during our conversation, recalling an emotional mantra that had become indelibly printed in his mind. It was an incontestable truth. We were King Lear and his fool sitting in a car beside Brick Lane. Becoming aware of my lone reverie, Charlie turned to reassure me. “I’ll get some of the boys round for a chat and we’ll go into it in depth,” he promised, with quiet largesse, his eyes glistening and thinking back over all he had told me,”This is just a little bit for starters”.

On the wall of Carol’s shed, in the yellowed photo at the centre, taken in Bacon St in 1951, you can see Charlie’s brothers Alfie and Teddy, with Charlie on the right.

The Burns family in 1951, with Charlie again in the right.

The redoubtable Carol Burns in her shed with the photo of her Uncle Tony, president of the Repton Boxing Club, being honoured by the Queen.

Charlie’s good friend and neighbour Asad Khan sent in this photo of the two of them together.

51 Responses leave one →
  1. May 11, 2010

    Well, I am honored to be the first to leave a comment on this post.

    Please do let Mr Burns know that his view of life has been appreciated by a reader of yours all the way from New York. I would call Mr Burns a true historian. I would call you a sensitive seeker of treasure.

    Best wishes.

  2. 'liza permalink
    May 12, 2010

    Fantastic that such a tremendous character is being recognised and recorded. Thanks to Charlie and to the reporter for these wonderful memories

  3. Garry Hoppe permalink
    May 13, 2010

    I can definitely state that this is such a wonderful article.
    Passing by Brick Lane and Bacon St virtually on a daily basis I have seen the ‘World Of Burns’ in action.
    So many diverse East End characters passing by and never failing to stop and show respect for the King Of Bacon St.
    An audience with the Pope how utterly enthralling what an honour and boy oh boy can Charlie Burns go down Memeory Lane and tell his stories of times gone by.
    Carol Burns is a tough chip off the block that never misses a trick.
    She often plays her ‘I dont know anything’ card but believe me she is so clued up and wise to most.

    Keep writing and fill he world in with all this wonderful buzz of the Lane.

  4. ASAD KHAN permalink
    May 14, 2010

    It was April 2000, when i moved in next to this old man yard. My Land Lord told me that next door are very nice people. It was my first introduction with Burns family.
    When ever i went to that side of bacon street i saw old man sitting and sharing his food with his lovely cat Micky sitting next to him.it was routine to say hello to both of them.

    But it was not until July 2004 when i met old man closely.
    I lost my job and was worried about new one.Next day i was passing through when old man noticed that expression of worry on my face.

    He asked me if i need help?, he asked me if i need money?. I thanked to old man and told him that its not money , its about job that i am worried about.
    Old man than send me to a Stationary wholesaler , when i gave them Charlie reference, i got job on spot. I learn later there was no vacancy but it was charlie reference that they honored. Even one old employee complaint later that he is asking for his brother job for long time, but they refused because of no vacancy available.

    That day of July 2004 will always stay in my memory. In today’s world how many of us cares , that why are you worried for?. Specially when you don’t know some one.

  5. Anita Burns permalink
    May 15, 2010

    It’s great to see a true Eastender still working in Brick Lane. This man has seen so much history going on in the East End. It’s just a shame that all He has seen is the East End. He has worked 7 days a week for probabaly all his life and made work his No1 priority. The best thing that Charlie Burns ever did was marry a fantastic, lovely, kind ,honest, caring Lady My Nan Sarah Burns.

  6. October 13, 2010

    What a wonderful story,I too was born and bred in Stepney and lived all my life in Great
    Eastern Bldgs opposite Trumans Brewery theres no other place like it true east enders are
    diamonds give you the earth if they could they say it like it is and call a spade a spade.
    I moved out in 1986 and though Ive lived in Surrey all these years its stories and pictures
    like these that keep my memories of the east end alive.

  7. Brian Dresch permalink
    December 16, 2010

    CHARLIE BURNS, I am so pleased to read that he is still going strong, he was a friend of my father who died some years ago, I met Charlie lots of times, the first time he lent me the money to start my own business, ( I wonder how many over the years he did this for), he deserves every accolade that any man can be given for being a really good and nice person, all the best Charlie and may you have many more years.

  8. sue merry permalink
    January 15, 2011

    thank you so much mr burns for sharing your memories with us of brick lane as a little girl my dad use to take me down there i use to love it . mr burns is a true eastender now ive moved out of london to basildon there is alot of the older generation here i do volunteer work with age concern and i just love listening to them and there memories of the eastend so thank you again

  9. Lisa Summerfield permalink
    March 17, 2011

    What a lovely piece on one the greatest characters I’ve known virtually all of my working life. I met Charlie over 20 years ago when I began working for Land Securities. I’ve not seen him for years but still employ his boys for work that I know will be done professionally,courteously and on time, every time. I always ask about Charlie and speak to Carol sometimes. The whole of the Burns family are lovely real people – something you don’t always find these days. Charlie (and any of his family) is just one of the people in life that you meet that if you’d never met him, you’d be the one missing out. Long may he reign, is what I say x

  10. grahame thrussell permalink
    April 28, 2011

    my grandmother gladys price lived on bacon street 1912 approx

  11. August 23, 2011

    charlie is a great character i fitted a lot of my house out with some of his gems! never ending supplies of loo roll and other extremely useful items one of the great traders…i still love popping in to see the place and what surprises it might hold

  12. HeardinLondon permalink
    September 1, 2011

    I saw this yesterday http://instagr.am/p/L1yaC/ and was directed to your blog. Amazing post, thanks for writing it.

  13. Charlie Wilson permalink
    October 9, 2011

    My name is Charlie Wilson I used to work in Blackmans shoe shop in Cheshire Street, Charlie used to call me Jock I worked their for 15 years, Charlie could get you anything you wanted or tell you where you could get it I know his boys and Carol well, I live in Thailand now I have even met people over here who talk about Charlie my best wishes to all the Burns family,

    from Jock Charlie Wilson from Blackmans Cheshire Street

  14. dean coles permalink
    October 24, 2011

    this is my nans dad never met him but heard alot about him my great grandadad

  15. billyboy logan permalink
    December 20, 2011

    still going strong uncle charlie i have the greatest respect and fondest memory s for you and your family have a great christmas and a happy new year bill logan (marie,s son)

  16. Bev permalink
    January 6, 2012

    My ex husbands nan and Sarah were sisters and I met Charlie & Carol quite a few times over the years, I remember Carol very well and with great fondness she was a good laugh and as down to earth as they come, we had her son James to stay with us when Auntie Sarah came down to Wales to vist nana once and he was a joy and i’ve often wondered what happened to him.

    I heard all the old stories about brick lane from nana who used to go and stay quite reguarly with Charlie & Sarah and used to come back laden with goodies from what I think was called the Persian market, I never got to vist them but my mother & father in law did now & again, I seem to remember my brother in law Alan staying with them and loving that they lived near some sports ground.

    I remember when Charlie came down and found out I was learning to drive he offered me a mini if I wanted to go and collect it, never ever passed my test but I still remember his kindness, he could be a bit brash but was a very generous person, hope he’s still doing ok.

  17. Lainey permalink
    March 26, 2012

    Rest In Peace Grandad, A true Legend…

  18. Asad Khan permalink
    March 26, 2012

    Today is an other sad day of my life. My dear friend and a man I respect like grand father passed away. God may bless him with all his good things. He will stay in my heart for ever.

  19. Leanne coles permalink
    March 26, 2012

    Sadly this legend passed away early this morning! He was a great age of 96 and lived his life fully!! RIP Charlie Burns! xx

  20. Bernard Burns and Family permalink
    March 26, 2012

    You was the best dad and Grandad in the world. Thank you, and thank you for your education and your experience.

  21. Terry and Gary permalink
    March 26, 2012

    Godbless grandad forever in our hearts . .Love as always grandsons terry and gary x x RIP x

  22. Rod Green permalink
    March 26, 2012

    God bless Charlie. Was a honour to know you and a pleasure to work for you. May you rest in peace never to be forgotten x x Rod

  23. March 26, 2012

    Will Never forget you and nanny xx RIP

  24. Charlie bull permalink
    March 26, 2012

    R.i.p great grandad… A true legend

  25. billyboy logan permalink
    March 26, 2012

    R.I.P UNK !

  26. Asad Khan and family permalink
    March 28, 2012

    I don’t want to believe this fact that I cannot see you again. Every single day coming out of home and taking your blessings is over. You would always be remembered .

  27. Darren Castle permalink
    March 28, 2012

    Never got to meet the great man but heard plenty of stories from ‘the boys’ on their many visits to our office. RIP Charlie.

  28. Jan Portch permalink
    March 30, 2012

    Farewell my old friend.

  29. declan o dowd sweeper permalink
    March 30, 2012

    good luck charlie will miss your wave from the car and at least one more cup and brown bag to sweep up god bless CHARLIE

  30. JIMMY BURNS (SOUTHEND) permalink
    March 31, 2012

    R.I.P GRANDAD CHARLIE BURNS. HE WAS A HARD MAN I WORKED WITH HIM FROM A YOUNG KID HE WAS A REAL MONEY GETTER AND GREAT BUSINESS MAN HE NEVER STOPPED WORKING . I HAVE A GREAT BUSINESS AND GREAT FAMILY VALUES AND ALWAYS REFER TO CHARLIE AS A BUSINESS ROLE MODEL IN MY LIFE .GREAT MEMORIES THANK YOU XX

  31. April 4, 2012

    Rest in peace Uncle Charlie with your two other sisters, my lovely Aunt Rose and Minnie.

  32. Fran (nee Smith) permalink
    April 4, 2012

    Many years ago I was good mates with Carol , and spent many hours at the ‘yard’, in the company of Charlie and Co….with some very good memories .
    My thoughts are with the family at this sad time
    R.I.P. Charlie.

  33. Brian and Sharon smith (and family) permalink
    April 5, 2012

    A true legend You will be sadly missed. Thinking of you Carol in our prayersxxxxx
    Brian and Sharon.

  34. Zoe smith permalink
    April 5, 2012

    I was ten yeas old, Charlie burns gave me a job working down the yard on a Sunday, I will never forget him for the valuable lesson that he taught me. One Sunday I was sitting down,well there were no customers….. Charlie shouted what you doing I don’t pay you to sit down. Sweep the floor so I said ” I have already swept the floor” “sweep it again” he said. Im not paying you to sit down. I didnt get why on earth I would sweep a clean floor. But I get it now xxxxx

  35. Malcolm Unsworth permalink
    April 7, 2012

    Dear Charlie, I met you 48 years ago and you are one of the kindest people I ever met. My thoughts are with Carol and the boys. Goodbye old pal, I’ll never forget you.

  36. April 8, 2012

    Always be missed…Love you.

    David Burns

  37. Terri Smith permalink
    April 12, 2012

    RIP Uncle Charlie – I worked for my Aunty Carol (who is actually my dad Brian’s cousin) down the yard when I was about 12 and loved it! Charlie was always keeping an eye on things. I liked going to Uncle Charlie and Aunt Sarah’s house as she always used to tell me that my Nan Rose would have loved me (she died before I was born)

    My love goes out to Carol, Terry and Gary.

  38. Paul O'Flaherty permalink
    April 14, 2012

    living away in Norfolk, I lost touch with the people I grew up with (Carol) on the Collingwood estate, and it’s many years since I have been back. Charlie was such a great personality and one of life’s true gentlemen I have such fond memories of him and his family. He gave me my first job on a Sunday when I was 11 years old, and it was a pleasure to see him work the crowds of shoppers in the market. I am the better for having known him, and the East End will never have another like him.

  39. April 14, 2012

    The end of an era..the king is dead!

    I will miss you uncle Charlie. RIP

    Paul Burns

  40. May 11, 2012

    RIP – thanks for all the help and business

  41. Fred & Yvonne (Mrs Fred) permalink
    June 19, 2012

    Called in today from the depths of North Essex to find sadly, that Charlie had passed away. We were looking forward to a chat in the car with Charle. A real character and one of the original and best eastenders. Our condolences go out to Carol and Bernie and all other family members we have not met. Our future visits will not be the same. x

  42. June 27, 2012

    I feel honoured to have had the pleasure of knowing this man.(and his family from the boxing connections at St Monicas and The Repton)……I used to fly about Brick Lane up to no good….and he knew it……
    “Oi Davey…you behave yaself ”
    and I took notice……….what a lovely man….what you saw is what you got, a typical old skool gent….no frills and no bull……just a diamond.
    God Bless Fella.
    x x x

  43. June 27, 2012

    PS……

    what lovely comments via Mr Asad khan……top stuff.

  44. Kelley permalink
    July 23, 2012

    Godbless Uncle Charlie, RIP……….I remember visiting you & Carol in the factory with my son Josh & husband John in 1998 visiting from Australia, what a laugh with you and Uncle Harry a true East End experience.

    The memory of a legend in Brick Lane will live on forever

    Kelley, John, Josh
    Western Australia

  45. ASAD KHAN permalink
    April 14, 2013

    Old man its time to leave this lovely neighbour hood one year after you. Its fact that place is no longer like before as it was in your time and it will never be!

    We people leave, places stay. Others take over your place.
    But some time
    We people leave, places stay. But no body could take over your place.

    your are that second kind of people old man.

  46. Daniel permalink
    June 22, 2013

    Great grandad, even though you are gone and i didnt see much of you. I am still so so so proud of you and how you followed on from your grandfather and then your father and their bussiness!!!!

    I love you so muchXXX Rest in peace charlie

  47. lisa Allison permalink
    May 13, 2014

    Charlie burns was a lovely man and will be greatly missed by everybody xxxx

  48. September 27, 2015

    Just chanced upon this and saw Charlie’s face still recognisable from the days when my dad would deal with him. My dad is sadly no longer with us but he always spoke of charlie and tony. Rip charlie .

  49. anne permalink
    November 2, 2015

    I remember Charlie well he used to pick up waste paper from my office I was the young cockney girl thirty years ago that sat at the reception desk. He always cracked a joke and took the micky out of my very posh boss that made quite an impact on me as it made me realise that my boss was just the same as everybody else. RIP xx

  50. Vicki Burns permalink
    April 1, 2016

    This man has made me the woman I am today!
    Such an inspiration, he always encouraged me to work hard for whatever I wanted as nothing ever come easy or for free.
    My Granddad was and still is a very respected man, one of a kind and you will never get a legend like him again.
    I hope I am doing you proud Granddad, we miss you like mad!
    See you on the other side, I bet your even working 7 days a week up there!!

    I could sit here and write forever with stories about you, sleep tight xxxxx

    Vicki

  51. Frank Johnson Jr permalink
    May 22, 2016

    The best days of my life was living and playing in Bethnal Green when i was a kid.
    I lived on the corner of Kerbella Street and Busby Street, where we had a coal shop, just opposite Bacon Street.
    I always remember Charlie with fond memories. He was a hard and shrewd business man, but an extremely kind person to anybody in need. I would go as far as to say he was the best loved character in the East End of London.

    R.I.P Charlie Burns
    xx

    Frank Johnson.

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