Early life and career
Francis Dickens was nicknamed “Chickenstalker” by his father after the character Mrs. Chickenstalker in the Christmas book The Chimes that he was writing at the time of Francis’s birth; however he came to be called Frank by those who knew him. He was born in England and went to school in Germany to train to become a doctor. Giving up this ambition, he obtained a commission in the Bengal Mounted Police and served in India for seven years.
Following his father’s death in 1870 he inherited some money, but he soon went through this, and his aunt, Georgina Hogarth (Catherine Dickens' sister) used her influence with family friend Lord Dufferin, then Governor General of Canada, to get Francis Dickens a commission in the North-West Mounted Police.
Dickens joined the North-West Mounted Police as a Sub Inspector in Canada in 1874 shortly after the March West which brought the original police force of 250 members to the modern provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta. He would remain in the force 12 years, serving at Fort Walsh, Fort Macleod and Fort Pitt, getting promoted to Inspector in 1880.
The Battle of Fort Pitt, 1885
During the North West Rebellion of 1885, Francis Dickens was in charge of the defense of Fort Pitt on the North Saskatchewan River. Francis Dickens' diary written during his charge at Fort Pitt, though very brief, is an important document of the events of the siege that led to the evacuation of the mounted police from the fort. On his website, David J. Carter describes the events at Fort Pitt.
This site [Frog Lake, following Cree attacks on priests and Hudson's Bay Company employees and family members] was 35 miles northwest of Fort Pitt. Dickens sent out three scouts to reconnoiter. When they returned they were attacked by Cree warriors; one escaped unharmed, one was wounded – played dead then crawled to the ‘fort’, the other Constable Cowan was killed within sight of Fort Pitt. Then the warrior cut out young Cowan’s heart and ate a piece of it before the horrified defenders of the fort. The NWMP detachment were outnumbered and outgunned 200 to 20. Negotiations led to the civilians agreeing to become prisoners of the Cree and Big Bear. The Chief gave Dickens and his men a short time to abandon the fort. This they did, and traveled amongst the ice pans in a leaky scow. Scouts from Fort Battleford reported that everyone at Fort Pitt had been massacred; however, after six days on the river Dickens and his men arrived at Battleford and received a hero’s welcome.
Discharge and death
Following his discharge from the Mounted Police in 1886 (for reasons of ill health—he was becoming increasingly hard of hearing among other infirmities) Frank was going to embark on a series of lecture talks in the US (as his father has successfully done), but died of a heart attack at a friend's house in Moline, Illinois the night of his first speech. He was 42 years old.
Contemporary portrayals of Francis Dickens (such as the character Inspector Dicken in the romantic novel Annette the Metis Spy), conformed to a conventional heroic type, reflecting the dominant view of the Rebellion held by (English-speaking) Eastern Canada. However, some of his superiors in the Mounted Police held unfavorable opinions about his overall competence, echoing his father Charles Dickens, who wrote in a letter to his friend on being asked by his son for three hundred pounds, a horse and a gun to set himself up as a gentleman farmer in the colonies, that the consequence of the first is that he would be robbed of it, the second, that it would throw him, and the third, that he would shoot his own head off.
In histories of the Mounted Police, Francis Dickens is described as a tragic character, struggling to live in the shadow of his great father. Charges against him include drunkenness, laziness and recklessness. David Carter in the third chapter of his book questions the evidence that these claims are based on. An article in a special RCMP issue of the Canadian history magazine The Beaver called “Francis J. Dickens, An Ordinary Officer” gives a balanced picture, pointing out his twelve years of service during which time many men in the fledging police force on the plains deserted or were discharged for misconduct, while others have gone so far as to say that he was partly responsible for the deterioration in relations between the NWMP and the Blackfoot in the 1880s!
Francis Dickens in Fiction
The events surrounding Frog Lake and the battle of Fort Pitt are treated in The Temptations of Big Bear (1973) by Rudy Wiebe.
In recent decades, Francis Dickens has been depicted as a comic figure. In W.G. Grace’s Last Case (1984), by William Rushton, in a fantastic plot that includes fictional characters like Jekyll and Hyde and Dr. Watson, Francis Dickens encounters Apache Indians and (anachronistically) meets the famed cricketer of the title during the latter’s team’s 1872 North American tour.
Francis Dickens later was the subject of a comic novel by humorist Eric Nicol, Dickens of the Mounted (1989). The book is a series of fictional letters, a mock document purporting to be a record of Dickens’s correspondence spanning his twelve years in Canada, only “edited” by Nicol. It is still frequently mistaken for non-fiction.
Frank Dickens also appears in the science fiction novel that deals with the NWMP in an alternative history, The Apparition Trail (2004) by Lisa Smedman.
In the novels The Winnipeg Wolf and The Search for Spade belonging to the "Inspector Bucket NWMP" series by Jeremy Allen the leading character, Francis Bucket, is based on Francis Dickens.
He is played by Joe Prospero in the TV mini-series Hans Christian Andersen: My Life as a Fairytale. In 2007 a Fringe festival play called Dickens of the Mounted based on Nicol’s novel toured several Canadian cities.
The Diary of Francis Dickens, edited by Vernon LaChance, Kingston Jackson Press, 1930
“Francis Jeffrey Dickens”, The Canadian Encyclopedia, (entry by John Evans)
Eric Nicol, Dickens of the Mounted: The Astounding Long-lost Letters of Inspector F. Dickens NWMP 1874-1886. (1989) McClelland & Stewart
“Francis J. Dickens, An Ordinary Officer”, Beaver Vol.78, No.3 June/July 1998
David J. Carter Inspector F.J. Dickens: “The Christmas Carol baby” (1998)
- Dickens Family Tree website
- Biography at the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online