It is almost impossible to say anything of any depth about Frederick Burnaby in such a short article, but if interested, you’ll find quite a lot about his life online. Throughout any week, thousands of people pass across Birmingham Cathedral square. Many of them will go past the Burnaby Memorial. Few will take that much notice of it. Fewer still will take on board the words on it. There is a relief bust with the name BURNABY, and the dated place names of KHIVA 1875, and ABU KLEA 1885. All names that stood out at a particular time in history. But who was Burnaby? What is a memorial to him doing on the square?
Frederick Burnaby by Jean Jacques Tissot, oil on panel, 1870, courtesy of National Portrait Gallery.
Most of us think that celebrity is a modern notion. It’s not! Colonel Frederick Gustavus Burnaby to give him his full name and title was in every way the biggest celebrity of his day. A larger than life character who was known by many across the country. No mean feat considering the lack of modern communication methods.
The son of a clergyman, Fred, as he was known, was a tall man with a big physique. He joined the army at 17. He was known as the strongest man in the British Army with party tricks that included jumping from a standing start over a snooker table and also picking up under his arms two donkeys. On top of this, he was an insatiable traveller (his books ‘On Horseback Through Asia Minor’ and ‘A Ride To Khiva’ are still available today and well worth a read) and also the first man to cross the English Channel in a Hot Air Balloon. He was intelligent; he spoke several languages. He found life in the officer’s mess somewhat boring and he managed to combine his love of travel with a bit of spying on the side. Fred was in every way a national name and a national hero. But why Birmingham? He had a brief and unsuccessful flirtation with politics and stood for parliament here in Birmingham against Joe Chamberlain. It’s worth pondering how things may have been different had he won! There certainly wouldn’t have been any problem of putting Birmingham on the map if he had won!!!!! Politics was not the sanitised stage-managed thing that it is now in those days. Several times on the platform when he spoke he had to contend with mobs. He didn’t need minders. He was more than able to handle himself!
From The London Illustrated News
He eventually went back to soldiering serving in the Blues (The Royal Horse Guards). When the authorities finally sent help to the siege at Khartoum, where General Gordon was holding out, Burnaby was part of the initial force sent to relieve them. It was too late and on their way there they were to face overwhelming odds at a watering hole named Abu Klea. Burnaby died a hero’s death at the age of 42. There was national mourning with a rumour that even Queen Victoria had fainted on hearing the news. The London Times had an obituary of some 5000 words. In such a short life, Burnaby had become a national hero. I walk past his memorial every day and often think of this extraordinary man. I ponder too, as the memorial is often a meeting place of many different groups, some who sadly treat it with disrespect, leaving their graffiti on it what the great man would do? I like to think he’d simply pick them up like donkeys and drop them somewhere else!
Colonel Frederick Burnaby. Traveller, man of letters, adventurer, soldier, almost politician, national hero and adopted Brummie!