Frederick Gustavus Burnaby, at 6 ft 4 ins tall and with broad shoulders, was a giant amongst men, symbolic of a Victorian celebrity and feted in London society. Legend has it he could carry two boys under both arms up the stairs of School House. Like so many Household cavalry his outsize personality and strength became the literary legend of imperial might.
During 1875, Burnaby travelled with General Gordon in the Sudan, and that winter he journeyed across the Russian Steppes on horseback. This extremely hazardous and dangerous venture resulted in the book 'A Ride to Khiva' which brought him immediate fame. Throughout 1876-78 he travelled through Asia Minor and Armenia, later writing about his journey in 'On Horseback Through Asia Minor'. These books are still in publication today.
Burnaby began his active interest in politics in 1880, unsuccessfully contesting a seat at Birmingham in the Tory-Democrat interest.
In 1882 he made the second crossing of the English Channel in a balloon, making him the first balloonist to cross the Channel solo, resulting in another book, 'A Ride Across The Channel And Other Adventures In The Air'.
Disappointed in his hope of seeing active service in the Egyptian Campaign of 1882, Burnaby participated in the Suakin campaign of 1884 without official leave, and was wounded at El Teb when acting as an intelligence officer under General Valentine Baker. This did not deter him from a similar course when a fresh expedition started up the Nile to relieve Khartoum and rescue General Gordon. Given a post by Lord Wolseley, Burnaby was killed by a spear wound in the hand-to-hand fighting of the Battle of Abu Klea on 17th January 1885.
In his will, reported in the Times of the 8th May 1885, it was noted that Burnaby left a personal estate amounting to £17,000 to his widow Mrs Elizabeth Alice Frances Hawkins Burnaby. One of the first lady mountaineers, and an adventurer in her own right, Elizabeth had come over from Ireland to meet Burnaby following the publication of his first book. Publishing books of her own adventures, Elizabeth and Burnaby could be said to be one of the first celebrity couples. They had one child.
The organ in the school chapel was provided by donations in his memory by fellow pupils and members of the Oswestry School community. Other memorials to Burnaby include: an obelisk in Portland stone, over 50 feet high in the grounds of St Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham - at its base is a relief portrait of Burnaby in uniform with carvings of military regalia; a marble memorial erected by HRH the Prince of Wales, Col. Milne-Home and the officers of the Royal Horse Guards in Holy Trinity Church, Windsor; and a memorial window in the Bedford Church of St Peter de Merton with St Cuthbert.
The National Portrait Gallery has a very elegant portrait of Burnaby painted by James Jacques Tissot in 1870; a copy hangs in the Headmaster's study.