Late 19th century images of Dartmoor

Robert Burnard’s photographs,maps and drawings comprise one of the most important elements in the Dartmoor Trust Archive’s collection of images. Almost 600 in total they are among the earliest photographs of the moor, most being precisely dated and with locations and subjects noted. The majority were digitised from four large albums of prints, dating from the last two decades of the nineteenth century. These albums were kindly donated to the Trust through the family and have since been carefully restored. There are also over 150 Burnard photographs taken from glass plate negatives that were rescued from the former offices of Burnard’s Plymouth Company and donated to the Trust.

Robert Burnard, born 12 July 1848, was the son of Charles Frederick Burnard, Mayor of Plymouth 1881–82, and founder of the Plymouth-based chemical company Burnard, Lack and Alger, of which Robert was later to become a partner. Originally located in Sutton, the business was later removed to Cattedown where deepwater wharves were constructed alongside the company's warehouses. Robert Burnard was for many years Chairman of the Cattewater Harbour Commission and it was from the harbourside workings that his interest in archaeology sprang.

Much of his early interest in Dartmoor Robert Burnard inherited from his father and together, in 1883, they were founder members of the Dartmoor Preservation Association. In 1891–92 Robert was elected President of the Plymouth Institution, and two years later, under the aegis of the Devonshire Association Dartmoor Exploration Committee, he began the systematic excavation of hut circles on Dartmoor. There followed an intensive programme of excavation and restoration, involving both settlement and ceremonial sites, in which Burnard was joined by his friends the Rev. Sabine Baring Gould, R. Hansford Worth and J. Brooking Rowe, among many other pioneers of Dartmoor archaeological exploration. Much of this was recorded in his book Dartmoor Pictorial Records. In 1911 Burnard was elected President of the Devonshire Association.

Perhaps more revealing of Burnard the man are his family photographs included in the Archive. These reveal a kindly, engaging personality, exhibiting a great love for his family and friends, and for the people of the moor. His photographs of family parties, picnics on the moor and moorland walks, paint a portrait of life far removed from the modern view of Victorian formality.

In 1972 the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter held an exhibition under the title 'Robert Burnard's Dartmoor – An exhibition of photographs 1887–1906'. Later, in association with the Dartmoor Trust, the book Dartmoor Century was published containing Burnard’s photos set alongside modern images of the same scene taken a century apart, with an exhibition of the framed works travelling the county.

Writing over a hundred years ago Robert Burnard makes clear the principle reason behind his recording the moor through his photography. These are prescient words, the echoes of which are even more strongly resonant today:

The preservation of Dartmoor is a subject in which all Devonians should take a keen interest. The railways which now encircle the Moor on every side are bringing each year larger numbers of roving holiday makers, intent on sport, the picturesque, or the curious. Whether this increasing popular appreciation is an unmixed blessing, as far as the romantic seclusion and solitude of this primeval region is concerned, may be questioned; but on the other hand, it must be granted that the more persons there are who take an intelligent interest in the matter, the more likely it is that this vast playground will be preserved for popular use and enjoyment.