Of sons and swords

Dear Charlie,

Families are interesting animals, aren’t they? It’s all very well when children embrace their parents’ values and interests, and proudly follow in their footsteps. But they often have a tendency to do the exact opposite. Your third son, Francis, for instance, must’ve been a bit of a disappointment to a father who saw his own hard work and determination pay off in spectacular fashion.


Daaaaad, stop calling me Chickenstalker. I don’t like it.

After dropping out of pre-med studies in Germany, you try to help him out by getting him a respectable job working alongside you at your magazine. And how does he repay you? By waltzing off to India to join the Bengal Mounted Police. I don’t think he could’ve sent a clearer message about personal space.

I dunno, maybe you should’ve picked a more flattering nickname for your son than “Chickenstalker.” Just sayin’.

I wouldn’t normally drag these awkward family skeletons into the light, but it turns out that good ol’ Chickenstalker and I had a close encounter of the historical kind this week, and I thought you might be interested to hear about it.

This recent article registered on my radar of All Things Dickensian, and I discovered that your much maligned son is actually really interesting. After returning to England after your death and burning through his inheritance, he got a commission as a Sub-Inspector in the Northwest Mounted Police, forerunner of today’s RCMP (it helps when one of your aunt’s friends is Canada’s Governor General).

So Chickenstalker, now “Frank” spends over a decade traipsing doggedly (if not always effectively) around various forts on the Canadian prairies, my very own back yard. But it was the last line of the article that caught my attention.

Frank’s sword is in the collections of the Glenbow Museum.


Well, I had to see it for myself.

Several weeks and emails later, I arranged to meet with one of the Glenbow’s curators, the lovely Aimee Benoit, and spent a very happy hour up in the museum’s collections. The historian in me had a little moment of ecstasy as I looked at the shelves filled with helmets, armour, plane models, statues, and cupboards filled with drawer upon drawer of artifacts, each one with its own story. I could’ve spent hours there.


This is what Heaven looks like to historians.


Drawer o’ swords. And whatever that thing with the pom-poms is…

Aimee found the proper drawer and brought Francis’ sword into the light.


You can see the initials “FJD” engraved on the blade, as well as “VR” further down the blade. So. Frickin’. Cool.


Frances Jeffrey Dickens. No Chickenstalkers here.

Turns out, this isn’t his NWMP sword, which lives in the RCMP Heritage Centre in Saskatchewan. This sword is likely from his days in the Bengal Mounted Police. Still, suddenly Frank is more than a grainy photograph or paragraph in a book, but a guy with a rock star dad, just looking for his own place in the world, who held the very item I’m looking at.


Unfortunately, the piece arrived in the collection in the days where having an airtight provenance was less of an issue, so it’s unclear where the sword’s donor acquired it or how it came to Calgary. But I like to imagine Francis packing for Canada in a tiny room in London, his Bengal Police sword sitting in a corner. After filling his trunk with extra socks, long underwear and digestive biscuits, he thinks to himself, “you know, maybe an extra sword couldn’t hurt” and reopening everything at the last minute to stuff it in.


Frank is second from the left. “I have a wicked beard and TWO swords, suckas.”

You, Charlie, may have gone on a field trip to see “a prairie” during your trip to North America, but Frank, perhaps consciously, perhaps not, absolutely trumped you, and certainly saw far more of Canada than you would have dreamed of. The photos of Frank in his prairie setting show a guy who looks pretty comfortable in the rugged setting (probably because he’s thinking that he has two swords, while all these other chumps only have one).

There’s been a lot of trash talked about him, but personally I don’t think you get promoted to Inspector and work for over a decade at a job if you absolutely suck at it (insert a government employee joke here). In any case, Charlie, I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt.

I also feel sorry for the guy. Just as he was going to start following in your footsteps at last and undertake a speaking tour in the States, he drops dead of a heart attack.


Francis’ grave in Moline, Illinois

Note to Dickens’ decendants out there: speaking tours and Dickenses don’t seem to get along.

I hope, Charlie, that Francis’ adventures in my neck of the woods earned him at least a little respect in his father’s heart.







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