Frederick Gustavus Burnaby

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Frederick Gustavus Burnaby
Frederick Gustavus Burnaby by James Jacques Tissot.jpg
Portrait of Burnaby in his uniform as a captain in the Royal Horse Guards by James Tissot (1870)
Born 3 March 1842
Bedford, England
Died 17 January 1885(1885-01-17) (aged 42)
Khartoum, Sudan
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch  British Army
Years of service 1852–1885
Rank Colonel

Colonel Frederick Gustavus Burnaby (3 March 1842 – 17 January 1885) was an English traveller and British Army officer. Burnaby's adventurous spirit, pioneering achievements, and swashbuckling courage earned an affection in the minds of Victorian imperial idealists. As well as travelling across Europe and Central Asia, he mastered the art of ballooning, spoke a number of foreign languages fluently, stood for parliament twice, published several books, and was admired and feted by the women of London High Society. His popularity was legendary, appearing in a number of stories and tales of empire.


Vanity Fair caricature, 2 December 1876

He was born in Bedford,[1] the son of the Rev. Gustavus Andrew Burnaby of Somerby Hall, Leicestershire, and canon of Middleham in Yorkshire (died 15 July 1872), by Harriet, sister of Henry Villebois of Marham House, Norfolk (d. 1883). His sister Mary married John Manners-Sutton. Fred was educated at Bedford School, Harrow, Oswestry School, where he was a contemporary with William Archibald Spooner, and in Germany. Legend has it could carry two boys under both arms up the stairs of school house. Burnaby was a huge man: 6ft 4in tall and 20 stone when fully grown. Like so many Household cavalry his outsize personality and strength became the literary legend of imperial might. Lionized by the press for his outlandish expeditious adventures across Central Asia, Burnaby was a giant amongst men, symbolic of a Victorian celebrity, feted in London society.[2]

He entered the Royal Horse Guards in 1859. Finding no chance for active service, his spirit of adventure sought outlets in balloon ascents and in travels through Spain and Russia with his firm friend, George Radford. In the summer of 1874 he accompanied the Carlist forces in Spain as correspondent of The Times, but before the end of the war he was transferred to Africa to report on Gordon's expedition to the Sudan. This took Burnaby as far as Khartoum.[1]

Returning to England in March 1875, he formulated his plans for a journey on horseback to the Khanate of Khiva through Russian Asia, which had just been closed to travellers. The accomplishment of this task, in the winter of 1875–1876, described in his book A Ride to Khiva, brought him immediate fame. His next leave of absence was spent in another adventurous journey on horseback, through Asia Minor, from Scutari to Erzerum, with the object of observing the Russian frontier, an account of which he afterwards published. In the Russo-Turkish War of 1877, Burnaby (who soon afterwards became lieutenant-colonel) acted as travelling agent to the Stafford House (Red Cross) Committee, but had to return to England before the campaign was over.[1]

In 1879 he married Elizabeth Hawkins-Whitshed, who had inherited her father's lands at Greystones, Ireland. The previously-named Hawkins-Whitshed estate at Greystones is known as The Burnaby to this day.[citation needed] At this point began his active interest in politics, and in 1880 he unsuccessfully contested Birmingham in the Tory-Democrat interest, was followed by second attempt in 1885.[1]

In 1882 he crossed the English Channel in a hot air balloon. Having been disappointed in his hope of seeing active service in the Egyptian Campaign of 1882, he participated in the Suakin campaign of 1884 without official leave, and was wounded at El Teb when acting as an intelligence officer for his friend General Valentine Baker. This did not deter him from a similar course when a fresh expedition started up the Nile. He was given a post by Lord Wolseley, involved first in the skirmish at El Teb, until he met his death in the hand-to-hand fighting of the Battle of Abu Klea.[1]As a gap in the lines opened up the Colonel rushed out to rescue a colleague and was wounded outside the square. Corporal Mackintosh went to his rescue driving his bayonet into the assailant. Lieutenant-Colonel Lord Binning rushed out to give him some water, twice. On the last occasion he came across a private crying, holding the dying man's head. He had been struck again by a Mahdist spear through the neck and throat. The young soldier was tearful because Burnaby was revered as one of the great Victorian heroes. A uniquely courageous man of charm and supreme self-sacrifice, who was admired and respected in equal measure. Lord Binning recalled "that in our little force his death caused a feeling akin to consternation. In my own detachment many of the men sat down and cried".[3] Private Steele who went to help him won the Distinguished Conduct Medal.[4]

Cultural references[edit]

Henry Newbolt's poem "Vitaï Lampada" is often quoted as referring to Burnaby's death at Abu Klea; "The Gatling's jammed and the Colonel's dead...", (although it was a Gardner machine gun which jammed).[5] It was, perhaps, because of an impromptu order by Burnaby (who, as a supernumerary, had no official capacity in the battle) that the Dervishes managed to get inside the square. However, this seems unlikely considering the nature of the song 'Colonel Burnaby', which was written in his honour, and the fact his portrait still hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, London.[6] The report carried in The Times, admittedly unlikely to be impartial considering his previous relations with the publication, tells of the colonel falling in the act of reforming a broken British square one of only two recorded cases of a British square breaking in the 19th century.[7]

Burnaby's Ride to Khiva appears in Joseph Conrad's 1898 short story, "Youth," when the young Marlow recounts how he "read for the first time Sartor Resartus and Burnaby's Ride to Khiva," preferring "the soldier to the philosopher at the time."[8]


(both with an introduction by Peter Hopkirk)

  • Practical Instruction of Staff Officers in Foreign Armies, published 1872
  • A Ride across the Channel, published 1882
  • Our Radicals: a tale of love and politics, published 1886
  • Regular contributions to The Times, Vanity Fair and Punch from 1872 onwards


Memorial obelisk in churchyard of St Philip's Cathedral, Birmingham

A tall Portland stone obelisk in the churchyard of St Philip's Cathedral, Birmingham commemorates his life. Besides Burnaby's bust, in relief, it carries only the word "Burnaby", and the dated place names "Khiva 1875" and "Abu Klea 1885". The obelisk was unveiled by Lord Charles Beresford on 13 November 1885.[9]

There is a memorial window to Burnaby at St Peter's Church, Bedford.[10] There is also a public house, The Burnaby Arms, located in the Black Tom area of Bedford. The organ at Oswestry School Chapel was given in his memory.[11]


  1. ^ a b c d e Chisholm 1911.
  2. ^ White-Spunner, p.400-408
  3. ^ Letter of 27 April 1885, to c/o Major Lord Arthur Somerset, who commanded The Blues, HCM, AB 2659
  4. ^ White-Spunner, p.405
  5. ^ "The Battle of Abu Klea of the Sudan Campaign 1885". Retrieved January 2014. 
  6. ^ The life of Colonel Fred Burnaby by Charles P. Corning
  7. ^ White-Spunner, p.400-408
  8. ^ Conrad, Joseph. Great Short Works of Joseph Conrad. New York: Harper & Row, 1967. Page 182.
  9. ^ Roger Ward, Monumental Soldier, in Hall, Brian (2001). Aspects of Birmingham. Wharncliffe Books. ISBN 1871647673. 
  10. ^ "Bedford digitisation people Burnaby Window". [dead link]
  11. ^ Francis, Peter (2013). Shropshire War Memorials, Sites of Remembrance. YouCaxton Publications. p. 69. ISBN 978-1-909644-11-3. 


  • Alexander, Michael (1957). The True Blue: The Life and Adventures of Colonel Fred Burnaby. Rupert Hart-Davis. 
  • Corning, Charles P. The life of Colonel Fred Burnaby. UCLA. 
  •  Hamilton, John Andrew (1886). "Burnaby, Frederick Gustavus". In Stephen, Leslie. Dictionary of National Biography 7. London: Smith, Elder & Co. pp. 380–382. 
  • Mann, R.K. (1882). The Life, Adventures and Political Opinions of Frederick Gustavus Burnaby. 
  • Wright, Thomas (1908). The Life of Colonel Fred Burnaby. Everett & Co. 
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Burnaby, Frederick Gustavus". Encyclopædia Britannica 4 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  • Ware, J. Redding; Mann, R.K. The Life and Times of Colonel Fred Burnaby. 

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