Charles Dickens and the Staplehurst rail disaster

When his train derailed while crossing a bridge, the celebrated novelist confronted death, despair and destruction to save others' and his work.

Charles Dickens and the Staplehurst rail disaster © Wikimedia Commons

Shortly after 3pm on 9 June 1865, the daily train from Folkestone, Kent, to London chugged past the small, country station of Headcorn when the driver saw an alarming sight not far up ahead. At the side of the railway stood a man waving a red flag, a sure sign of something amiss on the line ahead.

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The driver whistled for the brakes, but it was too late to stop the train, carrying well over 100 passengers. The carriages careened off the rails, sending several over a small viaduct. The quiet town of Staplehurst, Kent, turned to carnage as survivors clambered to get free of the wreckage. The screams of the trapped rang out and bodies littered the ground.

The crash killed ten people, injured 40 more and left one of the most famous writers of the age, Charles Dickens – a first-class passenger that day – greatly disturbed for the rest of his life.

Fatal mistakes

For the last few weeks, workmen had been replacing the timbers supporting rails in the area. As this involved ripping up lengths of rail, work couldn’t begin until they were sure no trains would show up on that section of track.

When the team showed up at the Beult viaduct on 9 June, however, foreman Henry Benge read his timetable incorrectly, so he thought a train wasn’t expected until after 5pm. The South Eastern Railway train from Folkestone, with people just off the ferry from France on board, had been forgotten.

This was only the first of several mistakes that triggered the tragedy. It was regulation to position a man with a red flag further up the track – 1,000 yards from the work site – so a train would have time to stop in an emergency. But, thanks to a miscalculation, the young man sent that day, John Wiles, stood far short of the required distance.

Engraving of the Staplehurst rail disaster in the Illustrated London News, 18 July 1865 © Getty Images
Engraving of the Staplehurst rail disaster in the Illustrated London News, 18 July 1865 © Getty Images

As another precaution, detonators could be laid on the line to warn drivers of coming danger when the train ran over them, causing a small pop. Wiles had been told not to use the detonators as it was a clear, sunny day; the flag, they assumed, would be sufficient.

But the train, travelling at nearly 50 miles per hour when the driver saw the flag, didn’t have the distance required to stop. It screeched towards the missing line over the viaduct, hitting it at 3.13pm while still moving at a dangerous speed. The engine, tender and first carriage bowled across the cast-iron bridge, while the middle of the train was thrown over the side, falling 3 metres into the muddy riverbed below.

Woes of the writer

On board was Dickens, who had already been a famous writer for some three decades (since the success of The Pickwick Papers, first published in 1836-37). Dickens accompanied his mistress, actress Ellen Ternan, and her mother as they returned from a holiday across the Channel.

Theirs was the only first-class carriage not to go over the bridge, meaning Dickens could climb out the window and set up a rudimentary platform to allow the Ternans to escape. He then surveyed the scene and set about helping in any way he could.

He offered sips of brandy from his flask and filled his hat with water, tending to the injured for hours.

This composite of the carnage reveals how fortunate it was for Charles Dickens’ carriage to stay on the tracks © Getty Images
This composite of the carnage reveals how fortunate it was for Charles Dickens’ carriage to stay on the tracks © Getty Images

There was little Dickens could do, and he witnessed several men and women die while he was with them. “I am a little shaken,” he wrote a few days later to a friend. “Not by the beating and dragging of the carriage in which I was, but by the hard work afterwards in getting out the dying and dead, which was most horrible.”

Before he finally walked away from the chaos, he remembered a belonging he had abandoned in the initial panic – the manuscript for his latest work, Our Mutual Friend. He climbed aboard the unstable carriage to retrieve it.

I came upon a staggering man covered with blood with such a frightful cut across the skull that I couldn’t bear to look at him.
Charles Dickens

Dickens was traumatised by his experiences that day, supposedly losing his voice for two weeks. And for the remainder of his life, Dickens was nervous about travelling by train, going out of his way to use another means of transport if possible. On 9 June 1870, five years to the day after the Staplehurst disaster, Charles Dickens died, having suffered a stroke.

Not long after the tragedy, the next chapter of Dickens’ rescued work was due. In a sign of his turmoil, it came in short and with this poignant postscript:

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I remember with devout thankfulness that I can never be much nearer parting company with my readers for ever than I was then, until there shall be written against my life, the two words with which I have this day closed this book: – THE END.”

This article was first published in the June 2016 issue of History Revealed.