Greystones History: Right said Fred

Like all British war heroes, Colonel Frederick Burnaby was a giant of a man of pure brawn, but also a man of fine culture and taste.

He was the strongest man in the British army and reputedly ran with a Shetland pony under each arm as a prank, but also he was fluent in seven languages and an eloquent and humourous conversationalist. He was a “true blue” of the second Dragoon guards.

Fearless he set of on epic journeys on horseback into the winter snows of the Russian Steppes when it was not exactly politically expedient to do so and incognito through Asia Minor. His sole companion was Radford who was “little other than a morose, irritating and obstructive dwarf” according to one rather cruel source.

On his return wrote erudite, sensitive and insightful prose about his adventures filled with local colour and character. His two most famous books, Ride to Khiva and On Horseback through Asia were true Victorian bestsellers. He also was a founder of Vanity Fair.

The fact that he was an adventurer of such great achievement is borne out in his feats as a balloonist. He was the first one to cross the channel in a hot air balloon and at one stage survived a near disaster when a burst balloon only saved him as it acted as a parachute.

And yet this is a man who it is alleged married for land and rumours were rife at the time that this was so. The Greystonian Whitshed family was one of the richest landowners in the area and had 560 acres in North Wicklow and 1310 acres in west Tallaght. There was no male heir and when Burnaby married the teenager Elizabeth Whitshed he inherited it all. The Whitshed Estate at Killincarrig House became the Burnaby Estate. The marriage was not a success and both were burdened by ill health and separation from one another as a consequence. She went on to herself to become a celebrated cinematographer and travel writer, mountaineer and founder of the Ladies Alpine Club most famously using her third marriage name Mrs Aubrey Le Blond.

Colonel Burnaby paid only one visit for a fortnight to Killincarrig House and never returned. He spent most of his time in a bachelor pad in London. His wife relocated to Switzerland for she had respiratory health problems, but she recovered and subsequently went on to become herself a famous alpine climber, photographer and author. She did return to Ireland briefly for the birth of her son, Harry Burnaby, who himself was plagued by respiratory illness and moved permanently to California.

Col Fred Burnaby met an untimely and ignominous end at the hands of a spear throwing dervish at the Battle of the Abu Klea in the Sudan in 1885. At the time of his death, he was trying to launch a Khartoum Relief Expedition to rescue General Gordon.

He had one son from his marriage, Henry St Vincent Augustus Burnaby who emigrated to the States.


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