In my last post I highlighted a bizarre article about electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) on the Science Museum website. In this post I shall turn my attention to another misleading article on their website, this time about Harold Nelson Burden.
I wrote about Harold Nelson Burden in this post ten years ago. At that time I described him in the following terms:
“Harold Burden was a bankrupt cattle-dealer turned mission worker and curate who somehow amassed a fortune while running institutions where people deemed “mentally deficient” were detained.”
I haven’t come across any information since then to make my change my mind about him. The Science Museum however gives him an entirely different biography. Firstly it described him as a “philanthropist”. That description had me reaching for a dictionary to check that I had the right understanding of the word “philanthropist”. The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary tells me that a philanthropist is “a rich person who helps the poor and those in need, especially by giving money”, a definition that does not apply to Burden, as he was a relatively poor person who made a lot of money out of setting up institutions where people were locked up. At least, that is what he appears to have done: when he died in 1939 he was worth £150,000. Here is how his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography puts it (in an article by P.K. Carpenter)
“Harold Burden did well financially from running the institutions he created, leaving an estate of almost £150,000—although exactly how he managed to amass this wealth remains obscure.”
The Science Museum however have invented a rather different biography for him, replacing his first career as a cattle dealer, with “theological studies in Cambridge”.
“Reverend Harold Nelson Burden was born in Hythe, Kent on 20 March 1860. After completing his theological studies in Cambridge and being ordained in Carlisle in 1888, Burden moved to East London to perform charitable work in slum areas. There, he met his first wife, Katherine Mary Garton (1856-1919), whom he married on 26 September 1888.
In fact, it wasn’t until his return from Canada that Burden studied at Cambridge. Just as it starts on a misleading note, so the Science Museum biography ends on one, referring to Burden continuing his “philanthropic work” for a decade after the death of his first wife. During this time he was running Stoke Park Colony, an institution where people were detained under the powers of the Mental Deficiency Act 1913, which hardly qualifies as philanthropy, especially as it appears to have generated considerable personal wealth for Burden.