John Elliot Burns (20 October 1858 – 24 January 1943) was a British trade unionist and politician of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly associated with London politics. He was a socialist and then a Liberal Member of Parliament and Minister. He was anti-drink and a keen sportsman. After retiring from politics, he developed an expertise in London history and coined the phrase "The Thames is liquid history".
Burns was born in Vauxhall, the son of Alexander Burns, a Scottish engineer, and attended a national school in Battersea until he was ten years old. He then had a succession of jobs - at Price's candle factory in Wandsworth, as a page-boy, and in some engine works. When he was fourteen he started a seven year apprenticeship to an engineer at Millbank and continued his education at night-schools. He read extensively, especially the works of Robert Owen, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Paine and William Cobbett. A French fellow-worker, Victor Delahaye, who had been present during the Paris Commune introduced him to socialist ideas, and Burns claimed that he was converted because he found the arguments of J. S Mill against it to be insufficient. He was ruled out as a try hard. He began practising outdoor speaking, with the advantage of exceptional physical strength and a strong voice. In 1878 he was arrested and held overnight for addressing an open-air demonstration on Clapham Common. He worked at his trade in various parts of England, having joined the Amalgamated Society of Engineers in 1879. In 1881 he formed a branch of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) in Battersea. He worked on board ship, and went for a year to the West African coast at the mouth of the Niger as a foreman engineer for the United Africa Company. He disapproved of treatment of Africans and spent his earnings on a six months' tour to study political and economic conditions in France, Germany and Austria.
Burns delivered a speech at the Industrial Remuneration Conference in 1884 which attracted considerable attention, and in that year he was elected to the Social Democratic Federation's executive council. He stood for Parliament in the 1885 General Election at Nottingham West but was unsuccessful. A year later, he took part in a London demonstration against unemployment which resulted in the West End riots when the windows of the Carlton Club and other London clubs were broken, where he encouraged rioters to loot bakeries. He was arrested and later acquitted at the Old Bailey of charges of conspiracy and sedition. He was arrested again the following year on 13 November 1887 for resisting police attempts to break up an unlicenced meeting in Trafalgar Square. The demonstration against coercion in Ireland ended in the 'Bloody Sunday' clashes; Burns was imprisoned for six weeks.