The Popular Hero
A Glorious Moment
Field Marshal Viscount Wolseley preceding H.M. Queen Victoria, H.R.H. the Princess of Wales and H.R.H. Princess Christian in state carriage, Diamond Jubilee procession, London, England, 1897
On June 22, 1897, the British Empire celebrated 60 years of Queen Victoria's reign. The Diamond Jubilee was a grand occasion in London, throughout the British Isles and around the world in every colony of Britain's far-flung empire. Thousands thronged the streets of London. Eleven prime ministers, including Canada's Wilfrid Laurier, were present to pay homage to their Queen. A massive march past of military regiments, from every corner of the Empire, highlighted the day's festivities. Canada's delegation, headed by Laurier, included a large entourage of politicians and prominent Canadians. A sizable military contingent represented the country's Permanent Force and Militia.
A contingent from the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) was rear guard to the Canadian section. This sparked a number of unfavourable comments from the London press. Placing them at the rear must have been a blunder, reported one paper, as they were a star attraction, resplendent in their red serge uniforms and western-style Stetson hats. The British and Canadian press praised their physical appearance, their riding, and their general demeanour. The NWMP, by their mere presence, had captured the imagination of Londoners.
Although mounted policemen wore the stetson before 1897, the first official appearance of this style of uniform was at the Jubilee of 1897. Dawson City, Yukon Territory, 1898
Superintendent Aylesworth Bowen Perry, a graduate of the Royal Military College at Kingston and a 15-year veteran of the NWMP, was officer in charge of the contingent. It consisted of 30 men, carefully chosen, all of them close to six feet tall. Most had connections with the British Isles. They included Constable William Chalmers, nephew of Governor General Lord Aberdeen, and Constable Henry Cobb, a London-born trumpeter. One proud member of the contingent was Fred Bagley, who had joined the Mounted Police in 1874 when he was just 15. He was the only "original" (those who joined in 1873-74) to make the Jubilee trip to England.
It was an extraordinary journey from the western Prairies to the streets of London, the first time that the Mounted Police had appeared in uniform outside of western Canada. The Prime Minister was impressed, as were the public and the press. He gave the men two months' leave in gratitude for their professionalism and their fine display as representatives of Canada.
The NWMP had been in existence for less than 25 years, and on more than one occasion since its formation in 1873, its very existence had been questioned. In the aftermath of the Northwest Rebellion in 1885, the British commander of the North West Field Force, Sir Frederick Middleton, urged the government to disband the Mounties and replace them with militia. Rumours circulated in government circles that the NWMP was a spent force on the Prairies. Critics said that increasing population and the growth of towns and villages demanded a different kind of policing.
More questions were raised in the early 1890s. The leadership of Commissioner Lawrence Herchmer was seriously questioned by senior officers who were finally allowed to air their grievances before a judicial inquiry. Herchmer weathered the storm, but in the aftermath, the very future of the Mounted Police was in doubt.
By June 1897, however, the red-coated Mountie was regarded as more than a prairie policeman. He was now the toast of the Empire, having become the embodiment of strength and virtue, and a living symbol of Canada itself.