This now rather archaic British phrase refers to a person who has died or to something that has broken. There are many ideas as to its origin but it first came into common use in the mid-20th century. The two main contenders refer either to the beer brewed in the Midlands town of Burton upon Trent, which was and still is famous for its breweries, or to the suits made by Montague Burton, who supplied the majority of the de-mobilization suits that British servicemen were given on leaving service after WWII.
According to the brewing origin, it is said that there were pre-WWII adverts for Burton Ale where one of the characters was missing. One advert showed a football team lined up for a photo with one player missing, and the caption ‘he’s gone for a Burton’, that is he’d gone to the pub. However during WWII, the phrase was in widespread use in the RAF in referring to pilots who had crashed, especially those who crashed into the sea, that is ‘in the drink’. Having ‘gone for a burton’ was a gentle way of saying that an airman had been killed in action.
Alternatively, the phrase is said to be a euphemistic reference to an errant serviceman. ‘Where’s Private Coggins? He’s gone for a burton sir’. Private Coggins hasn’t of course gone to have a suit fitted at Burton the tailor, he’s more likely gone absent without leave.
This latter explanation however seems the less likely of the two, as it doesn’t quite match the meaning of the phrase which was used to mean dead, not merely absent, so the brewing origin seems the most likely.
Whilst the phrase is fading from general use, it hasn’t as yet quite ‘gone for a burton’.