This Primary assembly focuses on acts of charity and people who use their wealth for good causes, using Brian Burnie and Elizabeth Fry as examples

During his life, Brian Burnie, 64, has built up a large fortune. Now he intends to give it all away to two cancer charities, and intends to ‘die penniless’.

A five pound note

Can you see what I’ve got here? Yes, it’s a five pound note. It’s got a picture of the Queen on one side and a picture of Elizabeth Fry on the other side. She was a very famous woman who lived over 150 years ago. She was very rich, but that’s not why she was famous. We’ll come back to her story in a moment.

Every week, millions of people play the lottery, each hoping to win lots and lots of these five pound notes. People enjoy playing the game, ‘What would I do if I won the Lottery?’ Some people think about buying large houses, or fast cars, or even their own private aeroplane.

Everyone has a different idea of what they’d do if they had a lot of money. Today we’re going to hear the stories of two people who had strong ideas about how they were going to spend their money.

Brian Burnie’s story
Brian Burnie is going to be 65 in the next few days. Oh, don’t you know the name? Well, he’s not very famous, but he ought to be. Here’s his story.

Brian was born in a small terraced house in Newcastle. There was no central heating and the toilet was outside: which wasn’t that unusual. Only a few people had indoor toilets in the 1940s.

Brian left school when he was 15 years old. Lots of children left school at that age in those days – the leaving age had been put up from 14 to 15 the decade before and very few stayed on for further education. Many children left school early to earn a living and help out their families.

His first job was as a grocery delivery boy. Today we see big lorries delivering shopping that people order online, but originally boys like Brian rode bicycles with small trailers on the back, and cycled around delivering fruit and vegetables people had ordered from the village shop.

Brian was ambitious and wanted to go on to achieve great things, but he was determined not to forget where he’d come from.

‘My mam told me “never forget your roots”. Provided you’ve got an inside toilet and central heating, what more do you want in life?’

That wasn’t the only lesson his mum taught him:

‘I was a lad when my mother told me to carry the soup into a neighbour, an elderly lady in an old person’s flat who was poorly. In those days, a meal for four easily became a meal for five, even if only mashed potatoes. That attitude rubs off. I asked why she did it. She said it was the least anyone could do, and if she didn’t do it, someone else would.’

When Brian met his future wife, Shirley, she shared his ideals. When they got married, they asked for people to make donations to charity instead of buying them presents.

As it happens Brian went on to have a lot more of the good things in life. He worked hard and became very rich. But he made sure he shared his wealth. He and his wife have given thousands of pounds to charities, invited hundreds of war veterans home for meals and spent Christmases treating the less fortunate.

Five years ago Shirley became very ill with cancer. Happily, with the help of doctors and nurses, she survived. Both Brian and Shirley were very grateful for all the help and support they’d had – and so they made a big decision. This is how Brian put it:

‘My ambition is to die penniless! I laugh at millionaires who just take. They can’t take their fortunes with them. We come into this world with nothing and we should leave with nothing.’

So Brian and Shirley decided that they would start giving their money to charity.

A lot of their money will soon go to support Macmillan Cancer Support and Marie Curie Cancer Care. Their money will be used to buy and run cars and minibuses to help patients get to and from hospital.

As Brian says, ‘I am very proud of what we have achieved. I would love to see other people following what we are doing. I really hope they do. We live in a me, me, me society and it has always been important to me to think of others.’

Elizabeth Fry’s story
Elizabeth Fry would certainly agree with that. She’s the lady whose face appears on those five pound notes that Brian is giving away so happily.

Elizabeth was born over 200 years ago into a wealthy family. Her mother was part of the Barclay family that had set up Barclay’s bank. Her mother died when she was 12 years old and she grew up helping to look after her younger siblings.

When she was 18 she heard a man preaching about looking after the sick and poor. She was so moved and inspired by the things he said that she started a Sunday school and taught poor children to read.

Soon after this she visited a prison and was horrified at the conditions in which prisoners were held. In those days if a child’s parents were put in prison, the child had to go too – there was no-one else to look after them.

She asked the government to make things better but for a long time they ignored her. However, Elizabeth didn’t give up and eventually they began to listen to her and made some important changes

That wasn’t Elizabeth’s only success: she set up a shelter for homeless people in London and organised teams of volunteers across the country to visit the poor and help them as much as possible. She also opened a training school for nurses – something that inspired a certain Florence Nightingale. Another admirer was the young Queen Victoria who donated money to her many good causes.

She was a truly remarkable woman at a time when women weren’t expected to do much more than look after children.

Since 2002 Elizabeth Fry has had her picture on five pound notes. She would probably have been very proud of Brian and Shirley Burnie and what they are trying to achieve with their incredible donations to charity.

But in some ways these people’s message of giving and helping is more important than the money they helped to raise. And that’s a message we can all take with us: the value of helping other people, as we can, when we can.

PrayerDear Father,

Today we pray for the many people who give their time to helping others and helping charities. Help us to help others as they do and to continue their work when we grow up. Amen.

Charities need money to keep them going but they also need volunteers to help run the charities. Even if you have no spare money to give to charity, your time will always be valuable.

Further information

  • Macmillan Cancer Support
  • Marie Curie Cancer Care 

This e-bulletin issue was first published in May 2009

About the author: Jane A. C. West