William Burkitt's Life and Career

William Burkitt, who was born in 1825 in Chesterfield , the oldest of six children of William Burkitt a maltster and his wife Ellen. He went into his father's business as a corn merchant and maltster. By 1851, he had moved to King's Lynn in Norfolk, while one of his younger brothers, Samuel (born in 1830) stayed behind to run the Chesterfield end of the business, and eventually went into partnership with William under the name of W. & S. Burkitt.

Only a few details of the business activities of W. & S. Burkitt survive. Their principal premises were in Purfleet Place and Queen Street in Lynn, Saltergate in Chesterfield and Langwith, Nottinghamshire, the last-named having a railway siding connected to the Midland and Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railways. They imported grain and feedstuffs; the steamer "Wick Bay" went aground near the Daisley beacon in December 1889 while approaching Lynn with a cargo of cattle cake and maize from Baltimore for them. The Burkitts would also have been well placed to meet the growing demand for malt from the industrial-scale breweries of the East Midlands, and with a siding off the King's Lynn docks railway were able to serve their customers by either rail or barge.

William Burkitt's adopted hometown of Lynn is situated in the middle of the Fens where the river Great Ouse enters the Wash. It had once been an important port, but in the early decades of the nineteenth century had experienced a period of genteel decline. This was rudely shattered by the opening of railways to Ely in 1847 and to Wisbech and Dereham in 1848, all of which were amalgamated into the Great Eastern Railway in 1862. The Lynn and Sutton Bridge Railway, opened in 1866, was the start of a long-drawn-out campaign to break the Great Eastern's near monopoly in East Anglia, eventually forming part of the Midland & Great Northern Joint Railway. The railways, according to correspondents in the local press, opened a "breach in the town walls" to admit "a new race of bustling individuals" who supplanted the former "gentlemanly merchants".

William Burkitt was certainly one of those "bustling individuals". Recognising the importance of cheap transport for his business, he was one of the promoters of the King's Lynn Docks & Railway Co. in 1865. He remained a director of the company until 1888, during which time it dredged out the old river channel to take larger ships, built the Alexandra Dock (1869) and the Bentinck Dock (1883), owned warehouses and mills, and laid down a three-quarter mile branch railway connecting with the GER, which worked the docks railway by agreement. William Burkitt also served two terms as mayor of the Borough of King's Lynn (1863-64 and 1886-87) and was a magistrate and a director of the local gas company. He married in 1881 at the age of 56 Emma Rodwell Durrant; his wife, ten years his junior, died in 1892 and William Burkitt paid for the restoration of the Trinity Chapel of St Margaret's Church, of which he was a churchwarden, as a memorial to her.

William Burkitt himself died at the age of 81 on 7 June 1906, leaving an estate valued at 219,501, a very substantial sum in those days.

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