He was regarded as being on the radical wing of the party and was popular with working-class electors. Defeated by Sir John Llewelyn in 1895 he was rejected as a candidate for the constituency in 1900 due to his opposition to the South African War. The family came originally from Dumfriesshire.
As a young man, Burnie worked in the railway trade and came to Swansea in 1870 when Shacklefgord, Ford & Company, the works at Cheltenham, where he was general manager, were re-located.
He became general manager of the firm in 1876. Public Burnie was elected to the Sweansea Town Council in 1877 and became active in the municipal life of the town, serving as Mayor and Chairman of the Harbour Trust.
In 1889, however, the year Swansea became a County Borough, he chose to stand down. By the 1890s, Burnie was building a political reputation beyond his adopted town.
He became treasurer of the Welsh Farmer"s Defence Fund, which was formed in light of tithe agitation, and in early 1892 he made a tour through the counties of South Wales where protests had taken place.
He came close to winning the Liberal nomination at Chelsea and also at Mid Glamorgan where he was narrowly defeated in 1890 by Samuel Thomas Evans largely. it was stated, due to Evans being a Welsh-speaking Welshman. Burnie launched his campaign at a public meeting at the Albert Hall, Swansea, where Sir Hussey Vivian presided and endorsed Burnie"s campaign in a speech resonating with references to his own father"s time as Member of Parliament for Swansea.
25th United Kingdom Parliament]
Member of Parliament for Swansea
The death of the siting member of Swansea Town, Lewis Llewelyn Dillwyn, shortly before the 1892 General Election led to Burnie being selected as candidate.