Saturday, 7 July 2012

Colonel Frederick Burnaby – The first Modern Celebrity?

Colonel Frederick Burnaby was a popular writer for Punch, Vanity Fair and The Times. His larger than life exploits took him across Europe, Asia, Africa and Russia. As a member of the Royal Horse Guards he saw active duty in Egypt, was wounded at El Teb in 1884 and met an untimely end in vicious hand-to-hand fighting at the Battle of Abu Klea.
Frederick Burnaby as a Captain in the Horse Guards by James Tissot

Frederick Burnaby (1842-85). Burnaby is almost totally forgotten, but in his day he was so famous that the Queen reportedly fainted at news of his death. The Times gave him a 5000-word obituary. Grown men broke down and wept in the street.

Burnaby’s exploits make Rambo’s seem a little dull. Very few people have survived frostbite, typhus, an exploding air balloon, and poisoning with arsenic. Few have explored Uzbekistan (where it was so cold, his beard froze solid and snapped off), led the household cavalry, stood for parliament, could speak seven languages, crossed the channel by air, written a string of bestsellers, commanded the Turkish army, and founded Vanity Fair; all before his early death aged 42.

Colonel Frederick Burnaby - John Jenkins Designs.

Immensely strong, with a 48-inch chest, Burnaby could break a horseshoe apart with his bare hands. His party trick was to bend a poker double round a dull dinner guest’s neck. Most famously, when fellow officers coaxed a pair of ponies into his room for a jape, Burnaby simply picked them up, one under each arm, and carried them downstairs “as if they had been cats.” Burnaby’s talents only half explain his fame. Then, as now, media attention was just as important.

In the grimy, serious society of Dickens and Brunel’s the early Victorian world a combination of societal change, a lust for adventure and Gladstone’s 1870 Education Act, brought a dramatic change in Britain. Before 1870, public support of the Empire was low, within a decade, all that had changed. Against a backdrop of Sherlock Holmes, the waxed moustache, to the beat of the oompa band, a media revolution marched forward.

Frederick Burnaby was in the right place, at the right time.

Whilst Burnaby did not suffer the indignity of the red carpet, commentary on his grooming habits, choice of attire or women with which he kept company, he still had to live up to intolerably high expectations and fame nonetheless took a terrible toll. Victorians could not see Burnaby’s, so they continued to expect the impossible. As he entered middle age, Burnaby increasingly struggled to keep up with his dashing image.

Ultimately, the weight of expectation became too much. Resolving not to die old, Burnaby set out on one last mission. Ignoring orders, he joined the attempt to rescue Gordon at Khartoum. On leaving, he wrote to his footman: “I am very unhappy and I can’t imagine why you care about life. I do not mean to come back.” Sure enough, during an ambush by Sudanese warriors, he pushed through his ranks and rode out alone, determined to meet the public expectation of heroic death. So ended the life of a Victorian icon.

The Death of Burnaby - John Jenkins Designs.

His adventures can be read about first hand in either of his books; A Ride to Kiva or On Horseback through Asia Minor.

Based on Jonty Olliff-Coopers Article ‘Victorian Celebrity’ January 17, 2009. Read Jonty’s full article here.