A Big Send-Off For Charlie Burns
Every seat in St Matthew’s Bethnal Green was filled by East Enders who had come to give Charlie Burns a big send-off, while overhead, the clouds gathered in equally dark attire as the coffin of the grand old man was carried into the church. Born as one of thirteen children in Butler’s Buildings off Brick Lane, Charlie was carried from the house at one day old to escape a bomb dropped by a Zeppelin in 1915. And between these two events – the carrying-in and the carrying-out – he was a living presence in Bacon St for ninety-six years.
The exceptional nature of Charlie’s longevity was indicative of the strength of the life force in one who at the age of six was put in a halter by his father, to pull a barrow as they went around the City collecting waste paper. Yet the halter never held him back, it served to steel Charlie’s determination to make his way in life. “We went broke, but we still carried on because it was what we did.” he confided to me once, speaking of the grind he endured to make a success of the waste paper business started by his grandfather John Burns in Bacon St in 1864.
Through perseverance, Charlie came out of the poverty and the struggle of the Dickensian East End to achieve glamorous success and universal respect as the patriarch of the Burns family, celebrated for their endeavours in boxing. “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.” Charlie told me, “We were young people and we were business people and we had money to burn.”
In spite of Charlie’s declaration that money was his religion, the man had a quality that transcended the material and, as we all stood in silence in the church, brought together by our connection to this remarkable figure, his presence was tangible. His children were there, his grandchildren were there and his great-grandchildren were there. His employees and customers were there, his neighbours and relations were there, his boxers were there, his friends were there and maybe his enemies were there too. The audacity of Charlie’s ripe age filled us all with humility and encouraged modest reflection on how we had spent our meagre years. By living so long, Charlie became the last representative of a distant world and through the depth of his perspective in time, recalling his parents and grandparents, he was our living link to the nineteenth century.
At the culmination of the short service, the heavens opened and the dark clouds let their tears fall in a heavy shower upon St Matthew’s, Bethnal Green, as Charlie Burns’ coffin was carried from the church into the waiting hearse from W. English & Sons. “Goodbye Charlie!” called one of a cluster of women lingering outside in the rain, speaking in a plaintive tone as if she expected to be heard by him. The congregation reached the church door and stood there prevented from leaving by the shower, waiting and looking ahead to where Charlie had gone before. They paused and gazed skyward and frowned and recognised the solidarity of the bereaved, isolated together in the moment of loss.
Soon enough, the rain eased off, tempered by April sunshine and the crowd surged forward in collective relief, greeting each other and appreciating the brief conviviality of the moment before they climbed into the cars decked with elaborate wreaths, spelling out “CHARLIE” and “GRANDAD.” Then the procession set off as the clouds broke up to reveal the sky, and the cortege entered Bacon St with the priest and the mourner walking in front. They passed the building where Charlie grew up. They crossed Brick Lane, and they came into the part of Bacon St where C.E. Burns & Sons is located.
Here, where for years and years, he sat every day in the car, observing all those coming and going from his premises, Charlie had taken possession of the place. The hearse with Charlie’s coffin slowed down at the spot where he used to sit at the kerb each day, where recently a street artist painted his portrait upon the wall. For a moment it seemed as if the hearse might park – in strange re-enactment of the daily ritual – allowing Charlie to occupy the position in death that he had occupied in life. But then the hearse pulled away, leading the line of cars onwards to the City of London Cemetery where Charlie was to be interred alongside his wife Sarah. And finally, after ninety-six years, Charlie Burns left Bacon St forever.
After ninety-six years, Charlie Burns’ farewell to Bacon St as he is driven through in the hearse.
Apple blossom in Bacon St.
You may also like to read my portrait of Charlie