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Getting to Know Fred Bagley, Bandmaster, and NWMP Veteran

Updated: Oct 30, 2020

By Kate Riordon

Back to The Cairn

Sometimes, in order to tell a story, you have to start at the ending. Over the course of August 2020, I resumed digitization work for the Whyte Museum Archives, adding photographs to the database and editing existing entries. While working through the impressive collection of negatives from Bill Gibbons’ photography studio, I came across a handful taken during the funeral of a military man, and I instantly became curious. Who was this man to have so many uniformed Mounties in attendance, the Union Jack draped over his coffin, and for whom local merchants closed their shops as his procession worked its way down Banff Avenue? I had to know.

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His name was Frederick A. Bagley. At the time of his death in October 1945, he was a retired Major with a career that traced back through some of the major conflicts of the 20th century to the creation of the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP).

Born to Scottish parents in St. Lucia, former British West Indies, in 1858, Fred grew up embroiled in his father’s military lifestyle as they moved from post to post as part of Queen Victoria’s Imperial Army. In 1868, his father retired and moved the young family to the fledgling Dominion of Canada, settling in the Toronto area. The transition from the Caribbean Sea to Great Lakes did not seem to bother young Fred as he quickly fell in love with the stories of the wild west spun by the likes of author James Fennimore Cooper. Tales of frontier life, Indigenous peoples, herds of bison, and dastardly whiskey runners filled his head with images of grandeur and romance.

These same topics were of great interest to the new Canadian government as well, who felt a keen need to establish their law and order on an interior they incorrectly perceived as being lawless and wild. In 1873, Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald placed Colonel George A. French in charge of a 300 man mounted police force to patrol everything between British Columbia and Ontario. By 15, Fred was enrolled at the Royal School of Gunnery in Kingston, learning the basics of being a soldier, honing his horsemanship skills, and was well on his way to being an accomplished trumpeter. However, he was still only 15 and far too young to join a police force that would soon be heading into a territory virtually unknown to them. Lucky for Fred, his father was an old Army friend of Colonel French and, under the condition he be kept as Trumpeter, Fred was allowed to join the Force in 1874.

The spring of 1874 saw the newly minted North-West Mounted Police depart Ontario, first by train and later on foot and horseback, to begin the march west with the heading of Fort Whoop-Up (modern-day Lethbridge), a notorious whiskey trading post established by runners from Montana. After aiding in the construction of Fort MacLeod Fred, as part of D Troop, was sent back towards Saskatchewan and Manitoba under the command of Colonel French to reinforce garrisons already established near Winnipeg. Over the following few years, Fred and his Troop would patrol these parts of the North West Territory and establish three new forts: Fort Saskatchewan, Fort Qu’Appelle, and Fort Battleford.

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The 1870’s and 1880’s saw many challenging and exciting times for Fred Bagley. Thanks to his skill with the trumpet, Fred was part of the first organized NWMP band. In this capacity he performed during the signing of Treaty 7 in September 1877 at Blackfoot Crossing. By the spring of 1885, Fred had been posted to Fort Battleford for three years and had recently been promoted to the rank of Sergeant. In March 1885, he was ordered to lead 25 men to Fort Carleton to provide supplies and reinforcement in the wake of the initial Battle of Duck Lake, the first deadly encounter of what became the Red River Resistance.

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In 1887, Fred was sent west to establish a NWMP post and patrol the newly created Banff National Park; he was soon transferred to Fort Calgary when the Commanding Officer expressed a desire for a Bandmaster. Fred and his new band frequently played at the recently completed Banff Springs Hotel: coming in by train and dressed in their bright uniforms, they became a popular attraction for tourists. Fred spent the remainder of the 1880’s and most of the 1890’s in Calgary, performing annually at the Victoria Day celebrations in Banff, as well as at various events and parades in the city. In 1890, he married Lucy May Kerr-Francis (1868-1948), a Calgary resident since 1885 and a constant companion for the rest of his life.

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Fred’s career with the NWMP was close to its end. Before hanging up his scarlet jacket, though, he had one more adventure: Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier and NWMP Commissioner Lawrence Herchmer believed it important that the Force be represented. Twenty-three men were selected to go to London – all of whom were of similar height, build, and appearance. Fred Bagley fit the bill perfectly. And since they would be going before the Royal Family, they of course had to dress appropriately! So for the parade through London on June 22, 1897, Fred and his fellow NWMP men wore prairie suits (scarlet jacket, slim black pants with a decorative stripe up the seam, elastic-sided leather boots, and a munitions belt worn diagonally across the chest), cowboy hats (which at the time featured a central peak and flat brim), and box spurs for walking about. Following the celebrations, Fred and the NWMP band performed for the Royal Family in Windsor Castle and he was later personally presented to Queen Victoria. In 1899 at age 41, Fred retired from the NWMP. He transitioned quickly from frequent Bandmaster to Captain of the C Squadron, Canadian Mounted Rifles during the Boer War and went to fight in South Africa. In 1902, Fred returned to Calgary and worked at the Land Titles Office. He began gathering musicians and formed the Calgary Citizens’ Band – a project he took immense pride in and served as conductor for from 1903 until its dissolution in 1920. The Band also performed abroad: in 1907 they were invited to play at the Irish International Exhibition in Dublin and, following that, played in Liverpool, Manchester, and London.

The outbreak of World War I put Fred’s musical career on hold. At 56 years old, Fred donned yet another uniform and went to battle, helping to recruit men for the 82nd Battalion in Calgary before heading for England and the war. He received the final promotion of his military career to the rank of Major and, in 1916, was transferred to the 192nd battalion, where he served as second in command.

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Fred survived the war and returned to Calgary, where he continued to work, perform in bands, and raise six daughters with his wife, Lucy. In addition to the Calgary Citizens’ Band – which was hugely popular during the war thanks to the patriotic music favoured by big bands – Fred also helped establish a Calgary branch band for the Benevolent Protective Order of Elks, and served as the first president for the Calgary Rifle Association. In 1924, he retired from the Land Title Office and moved with Lucy to Banff, where his final chapter began.

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If you were a decorated veteran of two wars and an original member of the NWMP, what would you do upon retiring to the little tourist town of Banff? How about picking up work at the Natural History Museum and poaching musicians from dance halls and silent cinemas to form another band? That is exactly what Fred did upon arriving in town. Quickly dubbed simply “Major” by the community, he put together a group of local talent to perform for tourists at the Banff Springs Hotel and to play in the park during the summer (and the Lux Theatre during the winter), as well as at various community events, celebrations, and the Calgary Stampede.

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Fred Bagley was known as an impressive man by Pat Brewster, and was easily picked out of a crowd thanks to his perpetually perfectly parted hairdo, waxed mustache, and ramrod bearing. Always the military man, he conducted the Banff Citizens’ Band with the same gusto he would have given as a Mountie, which particularly had an impact on a young