7th Feb 1812: no one can have escaped the fact that today is the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’s birth. But his life might have ended five years earlier to the day (9th June 1865) when he was involved in the notorious Staplehurst rail crash, described in newspaper reports as “The most disastrous accident which has ever happened on the South-Eastern Railway.”
The track on the low cast iron girder bridge crossing the River Beult had been undergoing renovation for the previous three months. The timetable for the Folkestone Boat Express varied to coincide with the arrival of ships at the port. The foreman mistakenly believed the train was due to arrive later (he had mis-read the timetable, but wore no watch in any event) and the final two rails had yet to be replaced. Although a flagman had been posted, he was not far enough away to give adequate warning to the train, a non-stop service which travelled at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. The engine itself rode the timber rail supports arriving at the far side of the viaduct, but its weight cracked the cast iron girders. Eight carriages plummeted into the river below killing ten passengers and injuring 40 more.
Dicken’s 1st-class carriage remained on the track, photographed above the scene of devastation in the middle of the bridge, where, he later wrote, it hung in the air over the side of the broken bridge. His own account of the accident was written in a letter to his friend, Mitton: Fortunately, I got out with great caution and stood upon the step. Looking down, I saw the bridge gone and nothing below me but the line of the rail. Some people in the two other compartments were madly trying to plunge out of the window, and had no idea there was an open swampy field 15 feet down below them and nothing else! The two guards (one with his face cut) were running up and down on the down side of the bridge (which was not torn up) quite wildly. I called out to them “Look at me. Do stop an instant and look at me, and tell me whether you don’t know me.” One of them answered, “We know you very well, Mr Dickens.” “Then,” I said, “my good fellow for God’s sake give me your key, and send one of those labourers here, and I’ll empty this carriage.”
It was only after providing what help he could that he remembered the manuscript that he had had with him: a draft of Our Mutual Friend.
Henry Benge, the gang foreman, and Joseph Gallimore, the district inspector with overall responsibility for Benge’s gang, were accused of manslaughter. Gallimore’s defence was that, if he was to be held responsible, then so also should other more senior managers, because of their general failure to ensure that regulations were followed. Gallimore was acquitted, but Benge was sentenced to nine month’s hard labour. The entries in the Death Register still show the phrase “feloniously killed by Joseph Gallimore and Henry Benge.”
The theme of rail crashes dominated several of Dicken’s subsequent works, including the ghost story, The Signal-Man. Though Dickens probably based his fictional crash upon the events of the Clayton Tunnel accident of 1861 in which 23 passengers died and 176 were injured, the witness he bore to the injured and dying passengers he helped must have contributed to the harrowing tale. Dickens, who was understandably affected by his experience, avoided train travel for the last five years of his life.