Today is the 150th anniversary of the Staplehurst Railway disaster, a calamity that saw loss of life and serious injury to many of the passengers. But, it also came close to exposing the secret life of the greatest novelist of the age, if not of all time, Charles Dickens.
Just before 3.13pm, on Friday the 9th June 1865, the daily boat train, en route from Folkestone to London, passed through Headcorn railway station at a speed of some 45 to 50 miles an hour. Moments later, the driver suddenly saw a red flag fluttering ahead.
Unbeknownst to him, workmen had started repairing the line as it crossed over the Staplehurst viaduct and had removed two rails which they had laid at the side of the track. Consequently, where there should have been safe passage over the river was, in fact, a gaping hole. The foreman of the worker gang, it later transpired, had consulted the wrong time table and he, as a result, he wasn’t expecting the boat train for another two hours.
By the time the driver noticed the red flag it was too late to avert disaster. He applied his brakes, but to no effect. He whistled for the guards to apply their breaks but, again, the warning came too late and, although the train slowed, it didn’t stop.
The train bore down on the viaduct at a speed of between 25 and thirty miles an hour, leapt the 40 or so foot gap and veered off the track, causing the central and rear carriages to plummet onto the river bed below.
All except one of the of the seven first-class carriages were soon strewn over the river bed beneath the viaduct.
THE MAN IN THE CARRIAGE
The one remaining first-class carriage teetered precariously on the edge at an angle, held in place by nothing more than the coupling that attached it to the second class carriage in front.
Inside that carriage were two women – one middle aged and one in her mid-twenties – and a man. That man was, without doubt, the most famous man of his age. But, at this time, he was concealing a guilty secret from his adoring public, and the nightmare he now found himself involved in came very close to exposing that secret.
CHARLES DICKENS SECRET LIFE
His name was Charles Dickens and the younger of the two women was his mistress Ellen Ternan, whilst the older was her mother, Frances.
“My God,” gasped Mrs Frances Ternan, as the seriousness of the situation dawned on her.
Ellen, meanwhile, screamed in terror.
Charles Dickens, though, remained composed.
He caught hold of both women and urged them to stay calm.
Having re-assured them that the worst was now over, he clambered from the carriage and balanced himself on its step to assess the situation.
ESCAPE FROM THE CARRIAGE
As far as he could see, the bridge was completely gone.
At this point he noticed two guards running up and down. He summoned them and, with their help, was able to construct a makeshift arrangement of planks via which he was able to get the Ternans out of the carriage and to safety.
Looking down, he saw the other first class carriages scattered and broken across the river bed below, and it suddenly dawned on him how close he, and the Ternans, had come to disaster.
DICKENS ADMINISTERS TO THE INJURED
Showing admiral coolness, he clambered back into the carriage and retrieved his top hat and a flask of brandy. Filling the hat with water, he scrambled down the bank and started, as best he could, attempting to revive and comfort the injured passengers. Indeed, all those present, who witnessed his endeavours that day, would later recall his selflessness as he tried to bring comfort to the injured, the dying and the bereaved.
HE RETRIEVES HIS MANUSCRIPT
He then did something that, even by his standards, was quite remarkable. Witnesses watched, open jawed, as he scrambled back up the bank, edged into the teetering carriage he had been travelling in and, as it swayed back and forth, he retrieved the manuscript for the latest instalment of Our Mutual Friend, the novel he was working on at the time.
By the close of that day, ten passengers lay dead and forty three were injured, many of them seriously.
The survivors were ushered aboard an emergency train and taken to Charing Cross Station in London, at which point Dickens’ admiral self-composure deserted him and he felt, he said, “quite shattered and broken up.”
Dickens was determined that he would not attend the subsequent inquest into the disaster, probably because it would mean revealing that he had been travelling with Ellen Ternan.
DEEPLY AFFECTED BY THE EXPERIENCE
The experience deeply affected Dickens, and would continue to do so until the day of his death. He lost his voice for two weeks after the accident, and remained nervous about train travel for several years.
He was also haunted by how close he had come to death. “I remember with deep thankfulness.” he wrote in a postscript to Our Mutual Friend in September 1865, “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.”
Indeed, it is intriguing to note that he died five years to the day after the Staplehurst railway disaster.