The Dales House at 414 Alexander Street circa 1890 CVA Photo SGN 490

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

4698 West 4th Avenue - South Sea Adventure and Shrunken Heads

A few years back I was hired by the owners of the two-storey, wood frame house on the SE corner of West 4th and Blanca. The house stands on high ground overlooking the waters of Spanish Banks and English Bay. Today, tall trees obsure the view, but I am sure that back when the house was built it would have commanded an amazing view of the West End and downtown, as well as the ship traffic in an out of Vancouver's busy harbour.

My first step in assessing a house's age and a starting point for my research in the old city and provincial directories is to do a water service application search. Most of the time, but not always, the date a house owner applied for water service to their property was the same or very close to the date they applied for a building permit. In the case of this house, a woman named Henrietta Burnett applied for water service on April 10, 1912. I searched the Point Grey building permit applications for April of 1912 and found Point Grey Building Permit Application #167, which listed a man named Frank Burnett as owner, architect and builder.

As with all of my house history projects, I attempt to provide a context by including the history of some of the neighbouring houses. Sometimes I find connections between the people who lived in the house I am researching and those in the neighbouring houses. Sometimes siblings or in-laws will build and live beside each other. In my neighbourhood, the old East End, I often find there is a job connection. Neighbours often worked at the same sawmill or the sugar factory. It ultimately creates a more interesting and valuable product for a client.
I searched for the water service records of the neighbouring houses and found that most of them were built much later than 4698 West 4th Avenue, with the earliest being built in 1924 while others were built in the late 1930s.
From what I could tell from the original legal description and the early fire insurance maps for the area, the lot that 4698 West 4th Avenue was built on was rather large, stretching a full half block east and as far south as what is nowWest 5th Avenue. Over the years, the original property was subdivided, gradually reducing in size to what it is today. So the house started out on a largish estate... but just who were Frank and Henrietta Burnett, and where did their apparent wealth come from?
I started to search through the city directories at the City of Vancouver Archives and what I found really didn't give me any clues as to the importance of Frank Burnett, his life and his legacy. For many years no profession is listed by his name. The years there is something, 1917 and 1918, he is listed as an insurance agent working out of an office at 447 West Pender--where MacLeod's Books is today.

I did a photo search at the Vancouver Archives and that is when I hit pay dirt. There were all sorts of photos relating to Frank Burnett. The one portrait that is included shows him surrounded by an amazing collection of artifacts from the South Seas. I followed my photo search with a search of newspaper articles at the Vancouver Public Library andthe gold mine just got bigger. So this is what I found.
4698 West 4th Avenue was built in 1912 by Scottish-born master mariner, one-time insurance salesman, farmer, grain dealer, private banker, police magistrate, real estate salesman, salmon canning entrepreneur, and later south-sea explorer, artifact collector, author, and amateur anthropologist Frank Burnett.

Frank Burnett was born in Petershead, Aberdeenshire, Scotland on February 14, 1852, the son of Peter Burnett and Henrietta Bond. He came from a seafaring family. His wife, Henrietta Cook was born in Quebec on December 15, 1852. Her father’s name was Val Cook.

According to the 1901 census, Frank Burnett came to Canada in 1890. He settled in Montreal where his maternal uncle, Bennett Bond, was Archbishop. It was in Montreal that he met and married his wife, Henrietta. Frank and Henrietta Burnett came to Vancouver from Winnipeg in 1895. In the five intervening years Frank Burnett worked as an insurance salesman, tried his hand at farming, became a grain dealer, private banker, the Reeve of Cypress municipality and became the first magistrate in that part of the country. It was apparently a turn in his personal health that prompted him to move to Vancouver.

In Vancouver, he took up again with the sea, becoming a pilot commissioner with the Vancouver Pilotage District (He is shown second from left on the bottom row of CVA photo LP 348 at left), then turned his hand back toward business, becoming a broker. His business prospered but his health remained poor. For the sake of his health Burnett took a cruise to the South Pacific. What Burnett saw and experienced during that cruise changed the course of his life. Burnett came back to Vancouver filled with passion for the South Seas.

He made immediate arrangements to buy a schooner and took his wife and family on a two year holiday cruise to the South Pacific. Burnett’s adventure captured the imagination of the local populace. Several articles about his planned trip and purchase of the Seattle-registered schooner “Laurel” appeared in Vancouver and Victoria newspapers. Originally, Frank Burnett had intended to rename the schooner “Henrietta Burnett” after his wife, but it was eventually renamed “Tropic Bird.”

Burnett ended up making several trips between Vancouver and the South Seas. On some of the longer trips he spent 10 to 18 months in the region. Burnett was fascinated with the various cultures of Polynesia, Micronesia, and Papua New Guinea. He could see that the indigenous culture was changing fast under the influence of European colonization and missionary work in the area. He set about amassing a vast collection of artifacts from the islands he visited. These ranged from carved ritual and religious objects, masks, weapons, and miniature boats to shrunken heads.

It was the need to house this ever-growing collection that prompted Burnett to move from the increasingly cramped family home at 1877 Comox Street to a new house that he built on a 2.4 acre lot on the extreme western edge of Vancouver at the corner of Blanca Street and University Avenue.

Henrietta Clarinda Burnett, Frank’s wife, purchased the 2.4 acres property comprising of Lot 1 of Block 143 of District Lot 540 on August 25, 1911. The total cost for the property was $2637.50. Henrietta Burnett applied for Water Service April 10, 1912. Around the same time, Frank Burnett applied for a building permit application. Point Grey Building Permit Application #167 lists Frank Burnett as owner, architect and builder.

During the years that Frank Burnett Sr. lived at the house, 4698 West 4th Avenue was more like a pied-à-terre—a home base to rest up between trips and a place to store and display his South Sea artifacts. The Vancouver City Archives has a number of photos of Frank Burnett’s collection. At one time, before the house was subdivided, there was one large room that had been especially built to display his collection. The photos in the archives were taken inside that room at 4698 West 4th sometime in the 1920s.

Frank Burnett not only collected artifacts, he collected trees and plants on his journeys. He landscaped the grounds of his estate at 4698 West 4th with these exotic specimens.

Since Frank Senior was away so much of the time, his son, Frank Junior and his wife, Anna Josephine, lived in the house. For those years the city directories list sometimes Frank Senior and sometimes Frank Junior.

Henrietta Clarinda Burnett died at St. Paul’s Hospital on January 25, 1917 at the age of 64 from complications arising from acute appendicitis. She was buried in the Jones Section of Mountain View Cemetery in plot 39/012/0003. Frank Burnett Sr. was appointed trustee of her estate in her will. Her estate was to be divided evenly between her son, Frank Burnett Jr. and her daughter, Nina Blackmore. In the event of either of their deaths, their portion of the estate was to be divided evenly among their grandchildren.

Frank Burnett continued to travel to the South Seas. He wrote four books about his travels: Through Tropic Seas, F. Griffiths, 1910; Through Polynesia and Papua: Wanderings with a Camera in Southern Seas, Griffiths, 1911; Summer Isles of Eden, Sifton, 1923; and The Wreck of the “Tropic Bird” and other South Sea Stories, Sifton, 1926.

In 1927, Burnett presented his 1,200 item collection to UBC where it was housed in the Library. In 1947, it became the core around which the Museum of Anthropology was established. Frank Burnett was awarded an honourary doctorate for his contribution to anthropology.

Frank Burnett Sr. died, as he lived, in rather dramatic circumstances. He collapsed in the midst of offering a toast at a Canadian Authors Association formal banquet at 700 West Georgia—the old Hotel Vancouver. He died of a heart attack at 8:30 pm on February 20, 1930 and was buried in Mountain View Cemetery.

The Toronto General Trusts Corporation and Frank Burnett’s grandson, James Mulhall Burnett became trustees of the Burnett Estate.

From 1930 to 1940 the house was rented out to a number of people. In 1931, it was rented to William Wade Denbigh. Denbigh, who was an insurance salesman and financial broker, moved to 4698 West 4th from a house at 4311 West 3rd. William Wade Denbigh was born in Nottingham, England on May 25, 1882 the son of Joseph Denbigh and Jane Hemstock. His wife, Kathleen Power, was born in Ireland on May 26, 1882.

In 1932, the house was rented to retired confectionery merchant Alfred Edward Jones and his wife Mary. Alfred Edward Jones was born in Ontario on June 28, 1873 the son of Welsh-born Edward Jones and Ontario native Lavina Ashton. He came to British Columbia in 1927. By 1933 he was living at 4736 West 4th Avenue.

From 1932 onward, 4698 West 4th Avenue went through a variety of owners and iterations. For a while it was a frat house for UBC’s Sigma Epsilon branch of Zeta Psi fraternity,then returned to being a single family dwelling before being turned into a rooming house for a while. The current owners assumed full title to the property on August 28, 1978. The house has been divided over the years into a number of suites. One wonders if the renters upstairs have had any inklings that their suites one housed , among other things, human skulls and shrunken heads...

CVA LP 348 Commissioners and Pilots of Vancouver Pilotage District 1879 - 1916, [ca. 1916]
CVA Out P647 Dr. Frank Burnett surrounded by his South Sea' artifacts c1920s
CVA Out P648 Dr. Frank Burnett's schooner Tropic Bird [1910s]
CVA Out P 658 Part of Burnett's collection of South Seas' artifacts, [1920s]
CVA Out P650 Dr. Frank Burnett's collection of South Seas' artifacts, [1920s]
CVA Out P 659 Part of Dr. Burnett's collection of South Seas' artifacts, [1920s]
UBC 1.1/1255 May 9, 1929 Frank Burnett Collection in UBC Main Library, Leonard Frank photo
CVA Out P 660 Part of Dr. Frank Burnett's collection of South Seas' artifacts], [1920s]


  1. Too cool! Great story about the Burnetts...

  2. I am always thrilled when a seemingly unremarkable (on the surface at least) family turns out to be, in the end, truly remarkable.

  3. I am one of the great-great granddaughters of Frank Burnett. We are now scattered about Canada and the United States. My grandmother (Nina Blakemore's youngest daughter) had many of these artifacts in her possession, including the fish in this picture until her death.,+%5B1920s%5D.jpg

    Our family donated all of my grandmother's artifacts to the Museum of Anthropology at UBC in 2003. You can contact Dr. Carol Mayer, Curator for more information.

    My grandmother adored her grandfather and used to tell wonderful stories about summers spent in that Vancouver house. I was very excited to see this article and just wanted to share.

  4. I am so sorry I was not aware of this comment until now. I am really glad you liked the post. It truly was an amazing discovery. Your great great grandparents had a pretty amazing life and left an equally amazing legacy.

  5. Dear househistorian;
    I am one of the current tenants of 4698 W. 4th.- with five other adults I rent out the bottom two (of the four total) floors of the house (we live as something of a community together).
    We have what must be your copy of the 'report' you wrote about this house... It's introductory reading anytime someone wants to move in. :)

    A friend of mine directed me to this blogpost, probably when he googled the address of our house! It was nice to be refreshed of the story. It's a real delight to appreciate the history of the house that is in part my home now. :)
    I have yet to visit the UBC Museum of Anthropology with my newly informed eyes, on the lookout for some of the items that once shared a living space I now occupy.

    (and how neat to have a comment- almost exactly a year ago in fact- from Nina's great-great grandaughter!)

    Thanks again for the post;
    -Mark Northey

    1. Wow! That's so great... I loved finding out all the amazing things about the house... and it is great to hear people are interested in the work I do... Happy home!

  6. I live nearby and really enjoyed your history. One small correction. In the first paragraph, 5th or 6th line you reference the address as being s.e corner of 4th and Alma. Alma should be Blanca.
    Thanks again.
    - John McCormack

  7. Hi, I am an academic interested in Frank Burnett's literary reputation. I can find little information on him and would like to find any further information at all. If anyone does receive this message and has advice on how to further research Frank Burnett's career, please contact me at Thanks.