“Gone for a burton” is a British expression meaning that a person is dead, or that some item is broken. “My washing machine has gone for a burton.” The term was popularised by the RAF around the time of World War II.
The phrase dates from mid-1900s Britain and the first reference to it in print is a definition in The New Statesman, August 1941: “Go for a Burton, crash.” No one is quite sure how it originated.
This definition referred to aircraft having to ditch in the sea, ending up in the drink, so the idiom was black humor implying the pilot had gone in search of a beer. At the time, the Midlands town of Burton-upon-Trent was (and still is) famous for its breweries. RAF pilots who crashed, especially those who crashed into the sea, were said to have “gone for a Burton.”
One theory as to its origin suggests a pre-WWII ad for Burton’s Ale, in which a place at table was vacant and the missing person was said to have “gone for a Burton,” that is, gone to the pub for a drink. That would be a very strong candidate if only any record of the ad were to be found. Until one does turn up, we’ll have to say this theory is just a theory.
A second theory is a reference to the suits made by Montague Burton, who supplied most of the demobilization suits that British servicemen were given on leaving service after WWII. Any serviceman who was absent could be said to have “gone for a burton,” meaning a suit. But this suggestion doesn’t quite match the meaning of the phrase.
It’s accepted that this phrase was the RAF’s gentle way of saying that an aviator had been killed in operation. RAF aircrew regarded is as bad luck to say that a man had died or was missing in action and, instead, they used the phrase “gone for a burton.” This is a plausible origin because the RAF was thought to be the source of the phrase by an author in 1941, which is when the expression first emerged. But did something inspire the RAF to think of such a phrase? Did it arise from the brewery ad, if it existed, or from the tailor Montague Burton? Or some third possibility?
In the Aeronautical Review of March 1942, the phrase is said to mean “Killed in action.” In that same month, the journal Canadian Aviation gave a similar definition. Several other journals reported the idiom the same year.
If you’re going to end up in the drink, a beer is probably a good choice.