This May 22, 1896 cover with a strip of three 1884-94 blue 2½d overprint on 6d stamps of St. Helena (S.G. #40) paid the triple rate to Sydney Australia. It was backstamped both in London and Sydney, and it was addressed to Norman Burdekin Esq, C/o Sydney Burdekin Esq. Macquarie Street, Sydney N.S.W. An estimate of AU$ 1500 was placed on the cover (Figure 1).
The address and the Burdekin name were very important in Sydney in the 1800’s and early 1900’s, but the primary addressee, Norman Burdekin has not yet been identified in the family hierarchy. There is a considerable amount of information available about, Burdekin House, Macquarie Street, that stood opposite the State Parliament House. It was built in 1841-1842 for Thomas Burdekin and it remained in family ownership until sold in 1924. It was in other hands until c.1935 when St. Stephen’s Church was rebuilt on the site. For over 90 years it was considered as one of the finest Sydney’s Colonial landmarks built in the Regency style, and several photos exist of its imposing facade in 1929 (Figure 2).
The Burdekin family in Australia started with Thomas Burdekin and his wife Mary Ann (nee Bossley) who arrived in Sydney in 1828. He established a branch of Burdekin & Hawley of London, a firm of ironmongers and general merchants. Thomas acquired a vast amount of real estate in Sydney and other parts of the Colony, and when he died in 1844 he left a large fortune to his widow, four sons and a daughter. The oldest son, Marshall (born 1837) and the next in line, Sydney (1839), who is addressed on the cover, were both educated at the University of Sydney and both are featured prominently in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, 1969. Marshall never married and he died prior to this cover, in 1886 in England. The remainder of the history will be devoted to Sydney Burdekin.
Sydney Burdekin (1837-1889) was educated at Cape’s School, Darlinghurst and graduated B.A. (1859) at Sydney University. He was for some years articled to a solicitor, but apparently was not admitted to practice. For many years he managed the pastoral runs which he and his mother owned in Queensland and northern N.S.W. He was most closely associated with Attunga, near Tamworth and when he sold out in 1875 he claimed that Attunga was returning him 9,000 pounds/year, an enormous amount at that time. When he returned to Sydney he continued as a director of a number of public companies, and became increasingly involved in public life in Sydney.
He served almost continuously in the Legislative Assembly from 1880-94, representing Tamworth, East Sydney and then the Hawkesbury regions. He usually supported Sir Henry Parkes on major issues, as an active and prominent member of the Free Trade movement. His inconsistencies were commented upon by the influential ‘The Bulletin’ in one election: “There is a rich party named Burdekin/ Who in the House is now heard agin / He posed democratic/ but he’s – well – erratic/ And, perhaps, may go back on his word agin”.
Sydney was an alderman in the Sydney Municipal Council in 1883-1898, and was mayor, from January 1890 to April 1891, when he resigned to visit Europe. He was a Director of Sydney Hospital in 1878-99, and a member of the Aborigines’ Protection Board in 1887-1899. The picture in Figure 3 was taken when he was Mayor of Sydney. In 1885 he was appointed a magistrate for the Colony of N.S.W. (Figure 3)
He married Catherine Byrne in January 1872 and they had 8 children. He died on 17 December 1899, survived by his wife, 2 sons and 3 daughters. Tributes to Sydney Burdekin’s benevolence abound. It is likely that Norman Burdekin (the primary addressee in the letter) was either one of his sons, or less likely a younger brother. Nothing has been found of an association of St. Helena with the Burdekin family.
St. Helena is a small island situated in the South Atlantic Ocean, 1200 miles from the west coast of Africa and 1800 miles from the east coast of South America. The nearest city of importance to St. Helena is Cape Town, South Africa.. The population of the Island at the time of the letter writing was less than 6,000. It has an area of 47 square miles, it is 10½ miles long and 6½ miles wide. It is wholly volcanic in origin, and rocky and mountainous almost everywhere along its coastal range. Charles Darwin visited the island in 1836 and its most famous occupant was the Emperor Napoleon was in exile there from 1815 until his death in 1821. The position of the island is arrowed in Figure 4. What a pity we will never know the contents of the letter it originally contained (Figure 4).