Not so great expectations of Charles Dicken’s third son

Francis Jeffrey Dickens inherited all of his father's weaknesses and none of his strengths

Mike Selby

Charles Dickens had an exceptionally positive impact on the world.

In addition to changing the the state of Victorian literature, he also created the first women’s shelter, the first children’s hospital, campaigned against slavery in the U.S., and changed the way people thought about the poor, the disabled, and the uneducated.

His character descriptions were so detailed that he unknowingly described over a dozen medical conditions a full century before physicians could recognize and name them. His impact on the world is, and will continue to be, enormous.

Not so his son.

Francis Jeffrey Dickens inherited all of his father’s weaknesses and none of his strengths. Unable to complete any form of study or keep a job, his father finally gave him an editorial position at one of his magazines.  Francis was an unmitigated disaster, and was quickly removed.

Although he could pass none of the entrance exams, Francis obtained a job with England’s Foreign Office in India (it is believed his father ‘bought’ him the position).

It was the last time father and son would see each other.

Francis returned to England seven years later to attend his father’s funeral. He quickly drank and gambled away his inheritance, and—like one of his father’s famous characters—was soon begging off of his siblings.  Since India didn’t want him back, his eldest sister used her father’s connections to find him work…in Canada.

Alexander Mackenzie, our second prime minister, had recently helped to create something the new country desperately needed: The North West Mounted Police.

He assigned Francis the rank of inspector, and sent him out to man forts in Saskatchewan and Alberta.

It was here in the Canadian frontier where Francis Dickens true nature shined, and he had incredible impact on the North West Mounted Police.  An incredibly inept and appalling one.

The first thing he did was almost get his entire detachment killed on three separate occasions.  After some settlers lodged a complaint against the Blackfoot Indians, Francis ignored protocol (i.e. get the Blackfoot’s side of the story, secure cooperation with Blackfoot leaders, etc.), and marched onto native lands to make an arrest.  Outmanned and outgunned (not an easy thing to do against 12 armed NWMP members), Francis needed to be rescued each and every time.

After forever ruining the relations between the Blackfoot Indians and the NWMP, Francis was transferred to Fort Pitt in Saskatchewan.  When the Frog Lake Massacre occurred (Cree Indians attacked the Frog Lake Settlement, killing many settlers), the survivors fled to Fort Pitt for safety.

Francis’ ability to negotiate with the Cree ended with one constable killed, one wounded, and a third taken prisoner.  Francis abandoned his post and retreated to the town of Battleford.

In the spring of 1886 the NWMP had no more use for Francis, regardless of who his father was. Unable to secure any other employment in Canada, Francis decided to take a page out of his father’s book, and go on a lecture tour of the United States. Right before his first lecture in June of that year he dropped dead from a heart attack.  He was 42.

Francis Dickens’ NWMP sword is on currently on display at Calgary’s Glenbow Museum.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library