UK grave of Burnaby namesake in sad state

Robert Burnaby’s grave is located outside Emmanuel Church in Loughborough, Leicestershire. - Sheree Nicholson/Contributed
Robert Burnaby’s grave is located outside Emmanuel Church in Loughborough, Leicestershire.
— image credit: Sheree Nicholson/Contributed

Robert Burnaby's gravesite in England is in need of a major sprucing up judging by a photo of it posted online by a passerby recently.

"I walk by it quite often and never saw it was there because it's hidden, but I went nosing around and there it was," said Sheree Nicholson, 34, in a phone interview.

Nicholson is a resident of Loughborough, Leicestershire where the grave is located on the grounds of Emmanuel Church.

In addition to being an avid photographer, Nicholson is a history buff, so was intrigued when she learned of Robert Burnaby's connection to the city of Burnaby. She posted it on an online photography forum.

The gravestone marks the resting place of Robert Burnaby, his sister Sarah, and their mother, Sarah Meares. Robert and his sister came from a family of 10 children and neither ever married.

"He was obviously quite an important character as where he is would've been quite a prime place to be buried," Nicholson said, noting that numerous other gravestones at the front of the church were removed in the 1960s and replaced with a lawn.

Robert Burnaby was born and died in Woodthorpe, a hamlet just outside Loughborough. He came from an old family that can be traced back to the 1100s. The son of a minister, Rev. Thomas Burnaby, and Sarah Meares, he was a civil servant who arrived in British Columbia in 1858 and became the private secretary to Col. Richard Moody, commander of the Royal Engineers.

Burnaby played a part in planning the settlement of the towns of Queensborough (now known as New Westminster), Hope and Yale. He also assisted in mapping Burnaby Lake, which Moody named after him. He went on to become a not-so-successful businessman and a politician, as MLA for Esquimalt and Metchosin on Vancouver Island.

Today, the city of Burnaby has a Robert Burnaby Park and Burnaby Mountain. Wikipedia sums him up this way: "The most lasting contribution Burnaby made to British Columbia may have been to simply lend his name to its maps … In all, at least 11 urban and geographical features in B.C. bear his name."

Nicholson isn't sure whether the church does much upkeep on its graveyard. "There have been a few [grave] stones that have been lost to time."

The church centre manager at Emmanuel Church did not respond to an email requesting comment.

Nicholson had no idea who Robert Burnaby was until she saw him mentioned on the history page of the church's website. "I'd never heard of him."

She was surprised to find the gravesite so neglected, particularly as there would have been a connection between the family and the church. Burnaby's father had once served as curate of the older All Saints Church in Loughborough.

"It was a bit of a shame to find out that on the other side of the world he's a man of, not some importance necessarily, but places were named after him. And it's almost like, there he is, hiding in a bush."

Nicholson noted she rushed the photo due to its setting being on the dodgy side.

"To the right-hand side of that rubbish [in the photo] was more rubbish and the two tents, and a not-very-pleasant smell which is why I thought there might be a couple of people possibly living there," she said. "I just sort of snapped and ran."

While the cities of Loughborough and Burnaby were twinned in 1986, the relationship was officially declared inactive last year by Burnaby's international relations and friendship cities committee due to a lack of contact between the two municipalities.

Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan said he was "surprised in Britain they don't keep up their cemeteries." But he was not keen at the prospect of the city contributing to the upkeep of the gravesite.

"I'm not inclined to take on responsibility for looking after gravesites halfway around the world," Corrigan said, calling it a "desperate extension of civic duties."

He also corrected the misperception that Robert Burnaby is the namesake of the city.

"The reality is that Robert Burnaby … had no relationship to Burnaby at all. He was the person that Col. Moody named Burnaby Lake after. Subsequently, when the city was named, the citizens of the city named Burnaby after the lake."

Moody was inclined to name things after people he knew, said Corrigan. He noted Moody was "entranced with a 16-year-old showgirl that came to British Columbia and her name was Lulu Sweet and he named Lulu Island after her."

Corrigan noted with a laugh that the city recently spent $15 million on a major dredging of Burnaby Lake.

"We certainly contributed to making sure our namesake survives."

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