The Burton Art Gallery Thomas Burton, founder of Bideford’s Burton Art Gallery, must have been one of the most useful people ever to reside in the town. Looking at the number of societies, businesses and causes he patronised, one wonders how he found the time and energy for them all.
Born in Sussex in 1875, his family moved to Warminster, in Wiltshire, where, at 19, he joined the Wesleyan Church, and at 22, passed their examination as a lay preacher.
Soon afterwards, he moved to South Molton, served an apprenticeship in Mr Tanner’s grocer’s shop, and moved to Yeovil as a shop manager for the International Tea Company at the age of 23. The same year, 1898, he moved to Bideford, “with a good stock of clothes, a good character and nothing more…” – where he met and married Bertha Bishop, the daughter of well established antique dealers in the Market Place. Their daughter, Mary, was born in 1904. After working in one of Mr E.J.Tattersill’s grocery shops, he set up his own string of grocery shops in the West Country. He then moved to London, and for nine years the Burtons lived away from Bideford. His shops were so successful that his London shops were bought by Lord Leverhulme, while MacFisheries Limited bought his West Country Stores. At the age of 44, he re-entered the business world, being associated with Meredith’s Ironmongers in the High Street. Concerned about the lack of local industry, he was elected on to the Town Council in 1923. He was a director of the North Devon Building Society, and Bideford Gas and Coke Company. He was Chairman of the Regatta and Amateur Rowing Club and the Musical Society, governor of all the Bideford Schools, and worked tirelessly for the Wesleyan Church as Lay Preacher and Circuit Steward. He was local branch Treasurer of the League of Nations, and represented the council on several Committees: Public Assessment, Bideford Area Guardians (of the Workhouse), Bideford Hospital, and organised the Health Week programmes. He also took an interest in politics, and was president and Chairman of Directors of Bideford Liberal and Radical Club, as it was known then. (He stood down during his Mayoral year.) He campaigned for British goods to be sold in Bideford shops: “….they are the finest in the world…. especially local products.” (This cry has come full circle….) In wartime he was Head Organiser for Civil Defence for the Borough. His Mayoral fund in 1931 helped ‘distressed persons’, the poor, widows, and the sick and unemployed. As his material wealth grew, so did his generosity. Many who received gifts and help from him never knew who the donor was. In his Mayoral year he was invited to the launch of the minesweeper, H.M.S. ‘Bideford’ at Devonport on the 26th November, 1931.
He was elected Alderman in 1944. When his daughter, Mary, tragically died of cancer in 1949, he and his wife decided, in view of her artistic talents, to create an art gallery for Bideford. He put this proposal to the Council anonymously to test the reaction, which was mixed, but a corner of the Park was allocated for it, and the rest is history. Some of Mary’s drawings, including one of her farther, can be seen in the Gallery. The Gallery is, a lasting memorial of Thomas himself.
This is what he said on taking office in 1931, during the Depression: “The best we can do, the best we can be, the best we can give, is the ideal at which to aim. The times demand hard labour, steady hearts and generous minds. Slackness, wavering wills and petty aims keep us in the slough in which we find ourselves. The decline has been long and steady. The incline will be equally so, but I pin my faith on the staying qualities of the average Englishmen. He is sound at heart as ever, and believing we have touched bottom, my eyes turn towards the light and the rising of the sun. The best is yet to be.” He died aged 84, in December, 1959, mourned and respected. The Gazette obituary reported: “…so much of what he was and did stemmed from his deep love of God and of his fellow men.