John Burton's father Joseph came to Cornwall, from Stockport, Lancashire, in 1830. He married a Miss Clemo at Launceston and they had eight children, although two died.
John was born on 10th November 1839, at Summer's Hill, Lostwithiel.
When about six months old the family moved to Bodmin where his father set up a china and glass shop. As he grew up John helped in his father's business. However aged 22 he left home and went to Falmouth where he eventually became the founder of what became the world famous Old Curiosity Shop.
Burton's Stile located on the public footpath between Porth Bean Road and Well Way, Newquay
In 1857 one of John's pranks caused a change in his mode of life. There is still to be seen at St. Columb Porth a memorial of it to wit, a Cornish stile known as the Burton stile. On one side there is an inscription : BURTON'S STILE, 1857. On the other side is a carving of a gin bottle, a water jug, and a glass, with the legend beneath : THE FALL OF MAN.
In his autobiography, the late proprietor of the Old Curiosity Shop thus tells the story of his "fall," which resulted in his migration to Falmouth : "My father, Joseph Burton, was a wholesale china and glass merchant at Bodmin, who kept over fifty hawkers, who used to travel with baskets of crockery on their heads (this was before there were any railways in Cornwall).
In September, 1857, being a youngster, I had a few words with my late father, left him, joined one of his hawkers named Paul Mewton, at St. Columb, and started carrying a basket of china on my head (which I am to-day proud of). Paul called at Porth on the late Mr. Ephraim Stephens, did business with him, and complained of the toothache when such was not the case, in order to get a glass of gin, which was served to him, and a thumper it was. The servant also was requested to serve me the same, which I at first refused, but afterwards drank it, to the surprise of Paul, who thought to have the second glass himself.
Afterwards, in crossing the stile between Porth and Lower St. Columb, crash went my basket of china. A countryman passing through the field at the time saw the accident, and knowing Paul was one of Burton's men, quickly spread the news through the village. The stile has ever since been known as 'Burton's Stile.' The present one I erected there in commemoration of the event. In conclusion I may say I am neither a narrow-minded blue ribbonite, as reported, or a 'drunken Radical'."
One of 19th-century Falmouth's most memorable inhabitants was John Burton who, with little education but much spirit and "flair," in 1862 set up in a china business in Falmouth with capital of 30 shillings. Times were hard, but he hawked crockery and scraped a living. Later he was bold enough to spend all his available money in buying some alligators from sailors in Falmouth, selling them in turn to herbalists.
Soon he acquired the reputation among sailors as a keen purchaser of anything unusual; and his shop gradually filled with curios. He moved to Market Street next to the Royal Hotel (now the Midland Bank). He travelled Cornwall for stock, advertised on hoardings, by catchy phrase and by verse; and was always sensitive to trends.
When H.R.H. the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) visited Falmouth in 1887, it was arranged he should "call upon this 'character'". Unfortunately the Prince was prevented, and Cavendish Bentinck wrote to Burton asking him to send wares for the Prince's inspection. John replied to the Prince direct:
"Respected Albert Edward,
I much regret to find you are indisposed. If I were to fetch to Kerris Vean (a Fox home, now part of the Art School) a Pickford's wagon load of samples it would be utterly impossible to convey the remotest idea of my ponderous conglomeration of curios; but if I could possibly prevail upon your Royal Highness to go through my shanty, I would give you local wit and humour which would throw you into a state of laughter, and there is every probability it would counteract your cold.
Yours untill we meet in the next hotel, JOHN BURTON."
The Prince laughed, and subsequently made some purchases by commission.
Such was Burton's impact on the business and personal life of Falmouth that when he died on 28th May 1907 the Cornish Echo issued a full-page supplement to his memory.
Burton offered £500 for Smeaton's Lighthouse when the new Eddystone lighthouse was erected, and the offer was seriously considered by the Trinity Brethren. His attempted purchase caused the City Fathers of Plymouth into action to retain it for the Hoe. Ultimately the Lighthouse was given to Plymouth on condition that the town paid the cost, estimated at £1,600, of removing it and re-erecting it upon the Hoe.
He bid for the Old Penryn stocks and Corporation brass weights and scales, and when, in a thoughtless moment, the Penryn Council authorised the Mayor to sell this "lumber" for £7 2s there was a howl of protest. Burton wrote to the Press, offering: "If three of those grumbling Town Councillors will consent to be placed in the stocks outside my show here next Monday to get their photos taken in the stocks, I will present the said stocks to the Borough of Penryn to prevent further grumbling." The offer was not accepted, and the stocks were sold to a Devizes antiquary, but they are now back home in Penryn
In the year 1884 the country was horror stricken by the recital of a story of cannibalism at sea. The yacht Mignonette, which was bound from Southampton to Sydney, sank at sea. The crew, after being in an open boat nineteen days and nights without provisions, cast lots among themselves as to who should be killed and eaten. It fell to the lot of a boy named Parker to be sacrificed, and he was accordingly killed and eaten.
When the crew landed at Falmouth they were arrested and charged with murder, being committed for trial at the Assizes. No one would stand bail for them, so John Burton undertook the responsibility for the appearance of Captain Dudley in the sum of £400, £400 for Mr. Stephens the mate, and £200 for Brooks the seaman - £1,000 in all.
For this act the citizens of London [freemasons] presented Mr.Burton with an inscribed gold snuff box, which he naturally treasured very much. Dudley and Stephens were originally sentenced to death at the Central Criminal Court, London, but the sentence was subsequently commuted to one of six months imprisonment each. Brooks, who turned Queen's evidence, was acquitted.
Taken from 'Mr John Burton Sixty Four - An Eventful Career' published in The Guardian, November 1903
Following the absence of a regular column by 'The Linnet', which covered news from the Roche area, the following item appeared in May 8th 1903 edition of The Guardian.
Sir, I have often wondered what has become of The Linnet on the Rock. I hope he is not dead, but sleeping. Or is it that his talent is exhausted? If it is wit and humour that he requires, I should strongly advise him to spend afew days here with me, when I could instil into his mind a direction of both, and when issued in the "Guardian" it would make the readers laugh until their ribs ached. My advice to your readers is to laugh and grow fat, and show their enemies they don't care for them.
"A little nonsense now and then
Is relished by the wisest men."
Yours until I meet The Linnet,
JOHN BURTON Falmouth, May 4th 1903
One week later this reply was printed
Dear Sir, Sorry Mr.Burton will worry me when he knows it is nesting time. Perhaps it is true, as the Old Curiosity Shop says, that the store of wit is exhausted and could no doubt be replenished at Falmouth, to which place The Linnet is not averse to going if "John" can see his way clear at making a nest for him.
Yours till then,