All the strange Gods
John Francis Bursill
Journalist, "Felix Penne"
John Francis Bursill immigrated with his wife to Vancouver in 1905 at the age of 60 to be closer to his eldest son, F. Noel Bursill. Despite his age, he had accomplished much in his life in London, England, as a journalist and a man devoted to many scholarly and community pursuits.
As a supporter of the free library movement where the average citizen had free access to books and other informational material, Bursill started the Collingwood Institute and Free Library in 1911. He built a large hall on Ruby Street just south of Wellington Street in East Vancouver, and stocked the library using a sizable collection of his own books. Considered a precursor to Vancouver Public Library’s Collingwood branch (which opened in 1951), the Collingwood Institute and Free Library existed until 1954. For the working class residents of Renfrew Collingwood, he operated the neighborhood’s first library.
Bursill made his influence felt even outside of Renfrew Collingwood. He continued his career in journalism here in Vancouver, writing articles in local newspapers under the pen name of “Felix Penne.” He also founded the Vagabonds, an association dedicated to the enjoyment of the English literary classics in 1915. The existence of this cultural society and the creation of others even helped shaped the cultural landscape of Vancouver. Stanley Park’s Shakespearean Garden certainly was inspired by Vancouver’s Shakespeare Society of which Bursill was both a founder and associate.
Although very little of his writing exists, a little research yielded the discovery of a one of his poems. Bursill’s “I Shall Not Cease” was inspired by the death of a well known physician, Dr. Fernand de Verteuil, whose passing had been received at the offices of the “Vancouver World” newspaper. Dr. Verteuil was a surgeon for the H.M.S. Good Hope, which sunk during the Battle of Coronel in November 1914. Inspired by a line blurted out by an associate in response to the news, Bursill supposedly sat down immediately, and scribbled four stanzas of a poem. Later, Vancouver city archivist, Major J. S. Matthews added the title, “I Shall Not Cease” in 1935. Since very little of Bursill’s writing is known today, and very little poetry is published in newspapers to begin with, here is John Francis Bursill’s poem printed in its entirety:
“I Shall Not Cease” – poem by John Francis Bursill
‘Tis infamy to die and not be missed,
(I thank thee, unknown poet, for that line.)
Let me imagine lips that I have kissed,
Will still, in memory, press these lips of mine.
When I shall journey to the Unknown Land,
Shall I some memories leave Death cannot kill?
Will men, with manly grip, still take my hand?
Will children listen for the voice that’s still?
Death hath no sting for me, if when I sleep,
Children – and dogs – remember where I lie;
If – missing me – some gentle women weep,
And men, recalling me, shall heave a sigh.
If work I speak, or write, helps fellow man
To nobler, braver life, to aspirations high;
I shall not – cease – when I have filled life’s span.
To be remembered thus is – not to die.