Wednesday, December 9, 2020

The "dilapidated baronet": Sir Charles Wentworth Burdett (1835-1892)


Fourteen days hard labour in Mt Eden Gaol in Auckland for the theft of some roses. Such was the sentence in 1888 for Sir Charles Burdett, Baronet. 

Sir Charles Wentworth Burdett, 7th Baronet of Burthwaite, was born 4 November 1835 in India. His father, also Sir Charles Wentworth Burdett, was an officer in the service of the East India Company, and died in 1848 when his son and heir was only 13. 

 The younger Sir Charles went in for a military career, rising to the rank of lieutenant in the 54th Foot, and arrived in New Zealand in the early 1860s. Here, he served as a captain in the Waikato Militia, and later in the armed constabulary for nearly 11 years, discharged in 1874. In 1864 he married Betsey Higginson in Onehunga, then Grace Grant in 1871. He and Grace had three children. His son Charles Grant Burdett succeeded him as 8th Baronet. His father-in-law Matthew Grant was described as a well-to-do Pakeha-Maori frontiersman. 

According to Australian sources at the time of his death, Sir Charles had a heated argument with the Minister of Defence, Thomas Russell in the 1860s, insulting the other man, and that this led to Sir Charles being cashiered, then rejoining the militia just as a private, followed by the armed constabulary. It might also have been linked with rumours that he was to be an aide to Governor Sir George Grey. According to the same sources, Sir Charles’ downward spiral was assisted by his “strong affection for the bottle … He soon sank [after his stint with the AC] to the level of cook in surveyors camps, and to even more menial employment.” (Queensland Times, 2 June 1892) 

According to the Otago Witness, “In the Australian colonies he had been known for many years as a veritable "Jack-of-all-trades." He picked up a precarious living by stripping bark from trees, cooking for bushmen, and doing odd jobs about squatters' stations.” (Otago Witness, 7 November 1889) 

Sir Charles ended up as an inmate at the Auxiliary Old Men’s Refuge in Auckland in 1886, aged just 51. In April that year, he wrote to the Hospital Committee applying for the job of manager of the refuge. The Committee members responded that if Sir Charles was capable of managing that institution, he was capable of making his own living, and therefore had no need to be in a refuge, living on charity. 

Then in November 1888, the “dilapidated Baronet” was charged with stealing two roses and other flowers from Albert Park. 

“For some time past the flowers and plants in the Albert Park have been systematically purloined, and the police having been on the watch for weeks to discover the perpetrators of such mean and contemptible thefts, yesterday Constable McCoy was coming down Victoria-street, when he encountered Sir Charles Burdett, who was carrying a handkerchief full of roses and other flowers. As the worthy baronet was known to the constable he accosted him, and asked him where he obtained them. He first of all replied at a place in Hobson-street, and afterwards changed the locality to the cemetery. The constable, as the outcome of their conversation, invited Sir Charles to accompany him to the police station. The custodian of the Park was communicated with, and it being seen that some of the roses in the Baronet's bundle were Duke of Wellington roses, the custodian looked over the bed where these had been planted. It was discovered that several of the roses had been plucked. Owing to the drizzling rain making the volcanic soil plastic, a footmark was noticed in the bed, and on taking one of the boots of Sir Charles to the spot, it was found to correspond with the footprint in the bed. He was accordingly locked up on a charge of larceny of the flowers.” (NZ Herald 8 November 1888) 

He was found guilty, and sentenced to 14 days hard labour at Mt Eden Gaol. 

He was admitted into the Costley Home at Epsom on a trial basis in 1890, but ended up staying there until his death two years later. He was buried at Purewa Cemetery, his burial registration giving his occupation as “gentleman”. His son, Sir Charles Grant Burdett, died in 1918, and was buried at Eltham. 

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