The catastrophic fate of the Burns boys
Updated: Jun 8, 2022
It's often when we find ourselves in the worst circumstances, that the beauty of the human spirit shines through. This must have been the experience for two little Victorian boys when they were the victims of a catastrophic accident.
On April 21 in 1874 Thomas and John Burns at the ages of 11 and 9 respectively were on their way to school. As young boys often do, they diverted with some friends to play at a bark mill in Percy Street, Portland.
John and Thomas Burns
Thomas decided to feed the machine, housed in the mill, with bark. While John was playing elsewhere, some of the other boys were throwing about pieces of bark, momentarily distracting Thomas from his endeavours. This proved to be tragic.
Both Thomas' hands became caught in the machine's spiked rollers and instantly both arms were drawn in up to the shoulders. Young brother John, with a bravery well beyond his years ran to assist Thomas. However, his right arm was also caught up to the elbow, along with the left hand and part of his wrist.
The poor lads were left in this situation until someone came along and reversed the machine, relieving them from their precarious situation. They were taken back to their home and when a doctor finally arrived he performed a quadruple amputation of the arms of both boys.
This was the beginning of an amazing outpouring of support for Thomas and John and their family. While they survived their ordeal, money was raised to help support them for the rest of their lives, knowing they would always be dependent on others for their basic needs. Victorian schoolchildren rallied and using 'collecting cards' put their energies into gathering funds for the Burns brothers.
A number of months later a sufficient amount of money to the tune of 5000 pounds (half of that from The Argus newspaper) was raised and a plan was put in action to ensure the boys were looked after. It was reported that a small portion of the fund would be spent on providing the boys mechanical aids to help them with their daily lives. The remainder of the money would pay the boys interest to look after them, until John turned 21, whereby they would receive the principal of the money for their own advancement.
Thomas suffered with his mental health and throughout the following years was admitted to the Ararat Lunatic Asylum, charged with being a lunatic and unfit to be at large. He died at the age of 60 in 1923.
John Burns' grave at North Portland Cemetery. Courtesy Findagrave
John lived until he was 88 years old when he died due to ailing health. He was a devout worshipper at All Saints' Church, and being possessed of a remarkably rich voice, sang in the church choir for many years. He was survived by his brother Harry who cared for him using the funds raised for both John and Thomas 70 years earlier.
'Mr John Burns', Portland Guardian, Monday 5 September, 1949, Page 1
'The Burns Catastrophe', Ovens and Murray Advertiser, Saturday 20 June, 1874, Page 4
'Lunacy', Portland Guardian, Friday, 18 October, 1895, Page 2
'Thomas Burns', Births, Deaths, Marriages, Victoria, accessed 6th May, 2022, Family history results | Births deaths and marriages Victoria (bdm.vic.gov.au)