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Novelist’s son a station agent and bushranger catcher

Thu 11th Feb 2021

His name alone carried the weight of classic British literature. Alfred Tennyson Dickens was named after his godfather Lord Alfred Tennyson, and he was also the fourth son of Charles Dickens. His father gifted him with the affectionate nickname of 'Skittles' as a child.

Despite being the son of one of the greatest writers in British history, Alfred had many stops and starts when it came to his own career. He was born on October 28, 1845 and was the sixth child of ten born to Charles and Catherine (nee Hogarth). As an eight year old, Alfred was sent with his brother Frank, and later brother Henry, to a boarding school for English boys in Boulogne, France.

His time at boarding school must have been very lonely as, despite having two brothers there, he wrote: "I felt rather sad and forlorn. I cannot say I look back on my days there with any degree of pleasure."

Memories of pale veal, watery gravy and stick-jaw pudding served up on tin plates were not to the taste of a young boy. And while they received two months' vacation in summer, there were none at Christmas unless the parents wanted to see them.

In 1862 Alfred attempted to join the army but failed his exams, and by 1865 he decided to travel to Australia to become a sheep station manager in New South Wales. He left behind many unpaid debts but settled quickly in the harsh land and through introductions secured a position on a sheep station at Springdale in NSW, north of Wagga Wagga.

Alfred Tennyson Dickens
Alfred Tennyson Dickens

In his later speaking tours, Alfred recounted how, in the middle of the night, during his time at Springdale, he was called up to assist in the capture of Captain Blue Cap and his gang, notorious bushrangers of the time, who haunted the nearby Narraburra Ranges.

"I was never so excited in my life," Alfred recounted, "but when I was told to take up a position at a cross-road on the fringe of the dense and frowning forest, and to shoot the first man I saw coming out of it, I was scared to death. The minutes seemed hours, and every moment I expected to be shot at. I shall never forget the relief I felt when I heard a stock whip crack, and one of the station hands call out that Blue Cap and his blackfellow had been captured."

After the death of his father in 1870 he used his inheritance to buy the Wangagong Sheep Station, near Forbes. In 1874 he moved to Hamilton, Victoria, to take up a position as a station agent. This was not considered a great success, as he was an indifferent horse-man and knew nothing of managing and handling stock.

He recounted his experiences trying to ride buckjumpers while working as an estate manager.

"At my first attempt I was sent whizzing through the air, and had to be carried to the station casualty room suffering from a sprained ankle," he said.

"In my second essay, I found myself sitting in the middle of a road with the saddle between my legs."

Instead he showed great competency in accountancy and he was in demand by squatters and businessmen for his services. He became a financial agent in Melbourne with offices in the foyer of the Metropole Hotel in Bourke Street.

The marriage between Alfred and Augusta Jessie Devlin was a fashionable affair in 1873. Her nickname was 'The Belle of Melbourne' and the wedding was held in upper-class Toorak. They had two daughters Kathleen Mary and Violet Georgina, but in 1878 Jessie met with a tragic accident when she was thrown from her carriage after her pony bolted. She is buried in the general cemetery in Hamilton, Victoria.

After Jessie's death, he married Emily Riley in 1888, who was 17 years his junior. It was not a happy match and they had no children. Financially, he had used up his inheritance from his father when depression hit Victoria, so in the early 1890s he took to touring Australia, giving lectures on his father's life and work, providing many amusing anecdotes of living with a great novelist.

In 1910 he gave lectures in Europe and America, returning to Great Britain for the first time since 1865. He became vice president of the Dickens Fellowship. It was while he was in America in 1912, during the Dickens Centennial celebrations that he took ill and went to his room at the Astor Hotel in New York City. He died at 5.15pm.

His sister, Kate Perugini, was contacted in London to make funeral arrangements. He was buried in Trinity Church Cemetery in Manhattan on 14 April 1912.

Alfred Tennyson Dickens' grave in Trinity Church Cemetery, Manhattan.
Alfred Tennyson Dickens' grave in Trinity Church Cemetery, Manhattan.

Tales From The Grave - Uncovering family history from down under By Samantha Elley.

References

  • 'Alfred D'Orsay Tennyson Dickens', Spartacus Educational, accessed online 28th January, 2021, https://spartacus-educational.com/PRdickensADF.htm
  • 'Mr Alfred T Dickens - Death in America', Argus (Melbourne), 4 January 1912, Page 7
  • 'Alfred D'Orsay Tennyson Dickens', Wikipedia, accessed online 29th January, 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_D%27Orsay_Tennyson_Dickens
  • Jones, Trevallyn, 'Dickens Sons in Australia', Pittwater Online News, accessed 29th January, 2021, http://www.pittwateronlinenews.com/charles-dickens-and-his-two-australian-sons.php