John's Family and Career

Their first child, Charles Henry Dickens, was born at Pembroke Dock on 7 December 1872 and was baptised at St. John's Church on Christmas Day. By a strange quirk, John's father, Robert, died on 8 December 1872 in Feltham, the day after Charles was born.

None of John's children ever met their Feltham Dickens grandparents.In contrast, two of John and Elizabeth's later children, Arthur (1881) and Frank (1882) were both baptised at Highbridge which implies, perhaps, a belated acceptance of the marriage by Elizabeth's Somerset parents. In the 1881 Census, Abraham Palmer (78) and his wife Elizabeth (Rich) (68) were living on the outskirts of Highbridge. Abraham died in 1886 and is buried in the cemetery near to the church.

In 1874, there were 91 Garrison batteries in the Royal Artillery. Of these, 35 were at home, 26 in India and 30 at other stations abroad. The batteries were distributed between 13 Brigades with Headquarters at Dover, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Woolwich, Jersey, Malta, Gibraltar, Mauritius, Madras and two more in the interior of India.

So far, John's service had been at home but in October 1873, 12th Brigade was posted to Malta where he and his family were to remain for nearly eight years until June 1881. Saint Elmo Fort, Malta (the HQ of 12th Brigade) at least offered the prospect of fine weather. Despite this, several of the Brigade (but not John) who had been at Pembroke Dock deserted, rather than go to Malta.

                Ernest George and Charles Henry, sons of John Dickens

Snapshots of John's professional progress in Malta can be gleaned from the Muster returns of 12th Brigade RA, kept at the Public Records Office at Kew. Thus: In April-June 1874, John Dickens was a Sergeant, pay 2s.9d. Wife Elizabeth and one child aged 1.7 years on married establishment. On 1 July 1874, he became a Battery Sergeant Major, pay 3s. 3d per day.  In January-March 1875, John remained a BSM but now had two children aged 2.3 and 0.1 years. However, by 1876, BSM John Dickens had reverted to Sergeant (no reason given), and in 1877 there was a major re-organisation of the Royal Artillery and the old 7th Battery, 12th Brigade disappeared.

During their stay in Malta, three children were born to John and Elizabeth but the last one died shortly afterwards.

HERBERT EUGENE Dickens was born 23 March 1875 and baptised at the Marguereta Chapel on 18 April 1875.

MARY (also known as May) EMILY MELITA Dickens was born 26 May 1879 and baptised at the Baviacca Chapel 22 June 1879.

ADELAIDE MARY E. Dickens was born in 1877-9 and died in Malta within a year.

At the time of Mary Emily Melita's birth in May 1879, her father was shown on the birth certificate as Corporal John Dickens, 7th Division Coast Brigade. Clearly, John Dickens' progress in Malta had been rather up and down but things would get better on his return to England in 1881.

Mary Emily Melita, became a Queen Alexander Hospital nursing sister, but died in October 1933.

Here follows a letter from Queen Mary writing to the Dowager Countess of Minto, Vice-President Territorial Army Nursing Service Committee, to ask her to assure the relatives of her heartfelt sympathy in their bereavement.

'Dear Lady Minto,

I appreciate the courage and devotion to duty of my nurses, whose services are of such inestimable value to mankind, that it is always with the keenest regret that I hear that one of their number has passed away.

I have now learned with sorrow of the death of Miss Mary Dickens and I am writing therefore to ask you if you would take an opportunity of assuring the relatives of my heartfelt sympathy in their bereavement.

Yours very sincerely,

Mary R

February 8th 1935.


It is interesting to note that Mary had died in Ocotober 1933, so Queen Mary was perhaps a little slow at putting the Royal pen to Royal paper! There was also an accompanying covering letter to Mrs Annie Dickens in Stafford from R. Osborne, Matron in Chief, T.A.N.S. stating that Lady Minto had requested her to forward the enclosed letter of condolence from Her Majesty Queen Mary.



Promotions and More Children

On their return to England in 1881, the next child ARTHUR HAMILTON Dickens was born at Portsmouth on 13 June. On the birth certificate his father was described as Master Gunner, Coast Brigade, RA.


Arthur was baptised at Highbridge Church a month later. Elizabeth's father, Abraham Palmer, would have found it difficult to stay away from the Christening, being Sexton, Parish Clerk and proud grandfather.

In 1882, John and his family moved to Dartmouth and their fourth son, FRANK JOHN RICH Dickens was born at Dartmouth Castle on 13 September; he also was baptised later that year at Highbridge Church.

On 4 October 1882, John became a Warrant Officer, being appointed Master Gunner 2nd Class in the Royal Regiment of Artillery.

Master Gunner was an important technical position, held by senior non-commissioned officers in the Garrison Artillery, with responsibilities for the care and maintenance of the guns and armaments in a fortress and for overseeing technical gunnery matters. As such, Master Gunners worked outside the usual Battery/Brigade structure. Most would be attached to, or closely associated with, a unit of the Coast Brigade which had been formed in 1859 'to consist of officers from the ranks, master gunners and experienced NCO's and men with not less than 12 years service'. There was, until its abolition in 1891, a Coast Brigade Detachment in every coast fortress, fort and defence works in the UK.

John Dickens remained at Dartmouth until in 1884 he was posted to Picklecombe Fort, Cornwall, which looked out on Plymouth Sound from across the mouth of the Tamar. In July of the same year, Henry Bowman was commissioned as Lieutenant, into the 4th Division of the Coast Brigade based at Plymouth.

A fifth son, ERNEST GEORGE Dickens was born at Picklecombe Fort, 13 September 1884 and baptised at the nearby Maker Church in Cornwall. On the birth certificate his father's rank or occupation was described as Master Gunner with HM Coast Brigade, Royal Artillery. The association with the Coast Brigade of the Western Division ensured that John and Henry Bowman were brought into contact again.

    Captain Ernest George Dickens, MC

LEONARD RALPH Dickens was born on 18 September 1886 at Picklecombe Fort and also baptised at Maker Church.

In December 1886, John was promoted to Master Gunner, First Class, the highest non-commissioned rank in the Royal Artillery he could aspire to. Shortly afterwards, he moved to Sheerness in Kent, another coastal fortress and dockyard town, where a daughter LILY EDITH POPE Dickens was born on 16 September 1888 and baptised at the Dockyard Church.

Sheffield Interlude

In July 1887, John's eldest son, Charles, left home in Sheerness and joined the army at the very early age of 14.1/2 years. He became a recruit in F Battery 4th Brigade of the Field Artillery stationed in Sheffield. The C.O. of F Battery, 4th Brigade in 1887 and 1888 was Col. W.S. Hebbert, RA. In 1889 he became Commandant of the Sheffield Barracks. In 1888/89, Mrs J.C. Hebbert, the Colonel's wife and a skilled artist, painted a signed portrait in oils of the young recruit, aged 16, which has survived. The choice of Charles as a subject is a matter for some speculation but a possibly significant fact is that Henry Bowman in 1882 was Battery Sergeant Major of F Battery of the 1st Brigade RA.


                                   John's two - again!

Charles, Sergeant, S.Africa 1899       Ernest, recruit, Woolwich, 1899

 Henry Bowman Painting













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