BURNABY, ROBERT, commission merchant and legislator; b. 30 Nov. 1828 at Woodthorpe, Leicestershire, Eng., fourth son of the Reverend Thomas Burnaby and Sarah Meares; d. a bachelor, 10 Jan. 1878, at Woodthorpe.
Robert Burnaby came to British Columbia at the end of 1858 as an experienced civil servant from Her Majesty’s Customs Office in London, and with a personal introduction to Governor James Douglas from Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Burnaby’s first year on the Pacific coast was a busy one: he spent a short time as private secretary to Richard Clement Moody*, commander of the Royal Engineers at New Westminster; he explored for coal with Walter Moberly at Burrard Inlet; and he made a short visit to San Francisco.
During this year he also founded the firm of Henderson and Burnaby, commission merchants, in partnership with Edward Henderson, an old school friend from Christ’s Hospital and a man of means, who managed the London office. This type of business was precarious since the distance from sources of supply and risks in transportation encouraged overtrading and excessive speculation. The death of Henderson in 1865 and the general economic depression in Vancouver Island and British Columbia brought the firm to an end – a failure caused in part apparently by unwise investment in real estate. Burnaby then embarked upon a real estate and insurance business of his own. The exigencies of a mercantile career seem to have overwhelmed this man who, by upbringing and training, was more suited to a position in government service.
Robert Burnaby was intensely interested in the welfare of Vancouver Island and British Columbia, and did all in his power to promote stable economic conditions. Before the end of his second year in Victoria he was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Vancouver Island for the districts of Esquimalt and Metchosin, and he served his constituents well for five years. He was one of the founders of the Victoria Chamber of Commerce. During an 1866 visit to London on private business he attended a meeting of prominent Victoria merchants and officials who strongly favoured the union of the two colonies and other measures for developing and improving their economic prospects. This group carried its resolutions to the secretary of state for the colonies.
Burnaby was an active freemason and helped found the First Victoria Lodge in 1860. Among his recreational pursuits was a love of drama, and in 1863 he served as president of Victoria’s Amateur Dramatic Association. Burnaby numbered among his intimate friends Colonel Moody, Arthur Thomas Bushby, Henry Pering Pellew Crease*, Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie*, Edward Graham Alston, and Thomas Elwyn*. In 1869 severe ill health caused Burnaby’s retirement and five years later his return to England. Friends arranged for him to travel in the Hudson’s Bay Company bark Lady Lampson; they later presented her captain, James Gaudin, with a generous purse in gratitude for the attention he had paid the ailing Burnaby during the voyage.
Early in 1878 news reached Victoria that this “prominent and much respected merchant” had died. An honest, conscientious man of spirit, a clear-headed thinker, a “power” in his masonic lodge, a lucid speaker, full of fun, and clever, Burnaby has been fittingly commemorated in a number of place names in British Columbia including a lake, a strait, an island, a municipality, two mountain ranges, and finally Burnaby Mountain, the seat of Simon Fraser University.
PABC, Robert Burnaby correspondence; Edward Bulwer-Lytton to James Douglas, letter of introduction, 8 Oct. 1858, testimonial re: Robert Burnaby. “Robert Burnaby and municipality,” Art, Historical, and Scientific Assoc. of Vancouver, B.C., Museum and Art Notes, I (September 1949), 19–21. W. M. Draycot, “Early history of the Burnaby family,” Art, Historical, and Scientific Assoc. of Vancouver, B.C., Museum and Art Notes, I (September 1949), 11–14; “The early history of the Burnaby family,” Burnaby Advertiser, 17, 24, 31 July, 7 Aug. 1947. George Green and G. H. Slater, “The biography of Robert Burnaby,” Burnaby Advertiser, 21, 28 Aug., 4 Sept. 1947. “Journal of Arthur Thomas Bushby” (Blakey Smith). R. L. Reid, Grand Lodge of British Columbia A.F. & A.M.: historical notes and biographical sketches, 1848–1935 (Vancouver, n.d.), 7–8. G. H. Slater, “Robert Burnaby . . . ,” Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Ancient, Free and Accepted Masons of British Columbia, Proceedings, 1944, 137–53.