Dickens went on alone to the Parthenon Club ... and sat drinking gin and water till three in the morning. A few days later, on 8 February, his second son, Walter, was born; in the census return for this year [1841] Dickens described himself in the usual Victorian manner as "Gentleman"; and declared that his household at Devonshire Terrace now consisted of one wife, four children, four maid-servants and one man-servant. He had come a long way from the Marshalsea. [Ackroyd, Dickens, 323]

Francis Jeffrey Dickens, or "Chickenstalker" (15 January 1844 — 11 June 1886)

Photograph of Francis Dickens (1844-1886) as an Inspector in the North-West Mounted Police at Fort Pitt in 1884. Source: Wikipedia (public domain).

Charles Dickens's third son was Francis Jeffrey Dickens —"Frank," nicknamed "Chicken Stalker" after the shopkeeper in The Chimes, Dickens's Christmas story of 1844. Frank was, as Peter Ackroyd notes, the child most like his father "in face, gesture and manner" (877). Yet he inherited little of his father's self-assurance and ambition. His name was a tribute to his godfather, Lord Francis Jeffrey (1773-1850), founder of the influential Edinburgh Review, and this alone must have been enough to intimidate him: he was "a most unsettled and anxious boy whom Dickens professed not to understand."

For one thing, the child had a persistent stammer. Dickens learnt of this only on the boy's return home from Mr. Gibson's boarding school in Boulogne-sur-Mer, in France. He then attempted to "drill" it out of him through assiduous elocution lessons every morning in his study. Despite his stammer, Frank cherished hopes of becoming a doctor, but his subsequent medical studies in Germany in 1859 only convinced him that medicine was not the career for him. Then, thinking he might have a business career, he became a clerk in a commercial firm. In this too he proved unsuccessful. Having now failed in two careers before he really got started, Frank then went to work in the offices of All the Year Round in Wellington Street, doing general editorial tasks. Again, he proved totally incompetent. Not without reason, Peter Ackroyd describes him as "the least self-reliant of his brothers, and in some ways the saddest of them" (878).

In February 1864, after Frank's failure in the Foreign Office examination, his father somehow got him a commission in the Bengal Mounted Police. This was probably through the influence of family friend, heiress, and major East India Company shareholder Angela Burdett-Coutts. After seven years in the Bengal Mounted Police, Frank finally returned to England the year after his father's death. Living still in the shadow of the great man, Frank squandered his inheritance and quarrelled with the other family members.

Still, hard up and without prospects of any kind, Frank again turned to his family for help. His maternal aunt, Georgina Hogarth, duly intervened by appealing to another family friend, the third Governor-general of Canada, Lord Dufferin, Frederick Temple Hamilton-Temple Blackwood, to arrange to have her hapless nephew appointed as an officer in the newly formed North-West Mounted Police. The new Canadian Prime Minister, Liberal leader Alexander Mackenzie (1822-92), accordingly appointed Frank Dickens a sub-inspector on 19 October 1874. The "sub" was later dropped. Frank was constantly, despite the exalted rank, under the vigilant eye of the Commissioner of the NWMP, Leif Newry Fitzroy Crozier (1846-1901).

Inspector Dickens arrived too late to participate in "The March West" of the Mounted Police from Ontario through the North-West Territory in the summer of 1874. He was posted to Fort Dufferin just above the American boundary (the 49th parallel) for the winter of 1874-75. The force then appointed Frank Dickens to command D Division at its temporary headquarters at present-day Dufferin, Manitoba. Over the course of the next six years, Frank had to move every time that the force's western headquarters shifted, from Fort Dufferin to Swan River Barracks (now Livingstone, Saskatchewan), Fort Macleod in present-day Alberta, then back to Fort Walsh, in Saskatchewan's Cypress Hills, again, just above the Canada-US border. All this time, from 1874 through 1880, he remained under the commissioner's immediate supervision, not as a promising officer singled out for possible promotion, but as a bad risk for an independent command. He was both lazy, and by now an alcoholic. However, in September 1883 he finally received command of D division at Fort Pitt (now Battleford, Saskatchewan).

Unfortunately, this was not a sign of a brighter future for Frank. Professionally speaking, the end was coming for both Crozier and Dickens. Thee Second Northwest Rebellion broke out in 1885, and in March of that year, Crozier was foolhardy enough to try to lead his force of trained Mounties and volunteers against a far superior force of Metis at Duck Lake under the brilliant Metis commander Gabriel Dumount. He should have awaited reinforcements. The result was a debacle, and in 1886, Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald accepted Crozier's resignation. Meanwhile, during the opening hostilities between the force and Metis at Frog Lake (Alberta) on 2 April 1885, twenty-eight civilians took refuge in Fort Pitt, then commanded by Frank Dickens. When, after eleven days, the Metis generals Big Bear (Mistahimaskwa), Wandering Spirit (Kapapamahchakwew), and Ayimīsis demanded Dickens's surrender, he refused. After an unsuccessful skirmish and fruitless negotiations, Dickens decided to abandon his position as indefensible. While the civilians gave up, Dickens and his regulars retreated down-river to Battleford on a makeshift scow. He led his men to safety six days later, but again, like Crozier, suffered a loss of reputation and, in fact, gave up his military command for a civil post. As a justice of the peace at Battleford he presided over the cases of the captured rebels, then left the force for good in the spring of 1886.

Frank's godfather Lord Jeffrey famously wept over the fate of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop; Frank must have shed many a self-pitying tear over his numerous failures so far. He haggled with the Canadian government over the size of his severance package, then determined to fall back on his family name and lecture on his father's life and works in the United States. But fate was still against him: he died of a heart attack on the eve of his initial lecture on 11 June 1886 at Moline, Illinois, where two grave markers attest to his final ambitions, if not his successes. His only legacies were essentially negative, as his actions led to deteriorating relations between the Canadian Blackfoot nation and the government in Ottawa, and created a strong institutional prejudice within the NWMP against officers of English background.

The Canadian Encyclopedia is singularly unflattering about Frank's professional conduct in Canada: "His unspectacular career was marked by recklessness, laziness and heavy drinking" (I: 992). The author of the entry, unlike Canadian humourist Eric Nichol in Dickens of the Mounted (1989), obviously had little sympathy for a younger, e'er-do-well alcoholic son of a giant of English literature who never quite emerged from his father's shadow.

Dickens' grave in Riverside Cemetery in Moline, Illinois. Source: photograph taken and uploaded to Wikipedia by Farragutful, available on the CC BY-SA 4.0 Creative Commons license. Plese see terms of use.

Related Materials


Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990.

Davis, Paul. Charles Dickens A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts On File, 1999.

Evans, David. "Dickens, Francis Jeffrey." The Canadian Encyclopedia. Ed. Mel Hurtig. Edmonton, Alberta: Hurtig Publishing, 1988. Vol. 1, p. 592.

LaChance, Vernon. "The Diary of Francis Dickens." Queen's Quarterly, 37 (1930): 312-34.

Manning, John. "Inspector Frank Dickens of the North West Mounted." Colorado Quarterly 8, (1959-60): 63-75.

Macleod, Roderick Charles. " Dickens, Francis Jeffrey." Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Volume XI (1881-1890).

McCook, James. "Inspector Dickens, N. W. M. P." Blackwoods' Edinburgh Magazine 311 (January-June 1972): 122-33.

Nichol, Eric. Dickens of the Mounted: The Astounding Lost-Long Letters of Inspector F. Dickens, NWMP, 1874-1886. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1989.

Schlicke, Paul (ed.). The Oxford Readers's Companion to Dickens. Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1999.

Slater, Michael. Charles Dickens. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009.

Tomalin, Claire. Charles Dickens: A Life. New York: Penguin, 2011.

Witt, Emily. "Daddy Issues: On the Worthless Brood of Charles Dickens. Review of Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens (FSG, 256 pp., $25) by Robert Gottlieb". Online version available from The Observer. Web. 12/04/12.

Created 2 September 2019