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Charles Dickens and the Staplehurst Crash

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In 1865 Charles Dickens came close to losing his life in a train wreck near Staplehurst in Kent, where the railway crossed a minor stream.  Some authorities say that he never fully recovered from the experience.

He was returning home from France.  A ferry took him to Folkestone and the South Eastern Railway laid on a boat train as the connection to London.  This was hauled by locomotive 199, one of the famous Cudworth singles with 7-foot diameter driving wheels.

For some reason Charles got into the first carriage.  This was an unpopular location with travellers at the time as the first and last carriages were the most likely to be destroyed in the event of a crash.  Perhaps he felt that the brake van in front of his coach would absorb any impact.

The journey seems to have been without incident until the train reached the Beult viaduct, which carried the line 10 feet above a muddy stream.  It was here that a piece of track was missing as the doomed train approached at about 50 mph.  

Miraculously the locomotive, its tender and the leading brake van continued forwards until stopping.  But one of the girders gave way and the first coach dangled in the gap, still coupled to the brake van.    Charles Dickens was fortunate to be in this coach and alive, but the coupling could have given way at any moment and his life could thus have ended there and then.

The next five coaches were not so fortunate.  They fell through the gap and splintered higgledy-piggledy across the bed of the stream.  The resulting death toll was 10 and a further 49 were injured.

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The Staplehurst Train Crash, South Eastern Railway, 1865

Charles Dickens was uninjured as his coach had dangled perilously but did not plunge into the stream.  He had been reading his manuscript of 'Our Mutual Friend' at the time of the crash.  He added the following postscript to the manuscript:

'On Friday, the ninth of June in the present year Mr and Mrs Boffin were on the South Eastern Railway with me in a terribly destructive accident.  When I had done what I could to help others, I climbed back into my carriage, nearly turned over a viaduct, and caught aslant upon the turn to extricate the worthy couple.  They were much soiled, but otherwise unhurt'.

He continued, 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'.

Dickens died on the fifth anniversary of the crash, on 9th June 1870, leaving 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood' unfinished.

The cause of the crash was quickly established.  The bridge was of cast iron supported by brick piers.  Timber baulks which sat on the cast iron members were in the process of being replaced.  At the time of the crash the rails had not yet been put back onto the timber baulks.

The foreman in charge of work, one John Benge, was carrying out the work between trains.  He and the leading carpenter both had copies of the timetable which showed regular trains and also the boat trains, which ran at different times on different days according to the tides on which the ships depended.  

John Benge identified a suitable gap in the timetable, during which work could go ahead.  Unfortunately he misread the timetable and the leading carpenter was unable to identify the mistake because he had dropped his copy of the timetable and it had been destroyed by a passing train.

The gap in the timetable was between a train to London which was scheduled to pass at 2.51 and one in the other direction due to pass at 4.15.  John Benge misread the timing of the boat train and thought it was due to pass nearby Headcorn at 5.20, whereas it was due at 3.15.  His error proved fatal.

Before the track was removed a platelayer's labourer called John Wiles was sent down the line.  His duty was to place detonators on the track at 250-yard intervals, up to 1,000 yards.   The detonators would explode under the wheels of any unexpected train and the driver would thus be warned of danger.

However, John Benge supplied John Wiles with only two detonators instead of the necessary three.  He also instructed that the detonators were not to be placed on the track unless visibility was poor.  It was a bright sunny afternoon, so the detonators were not put in place.

Despite the lack of detonators, John Wiles at 1,000 yards from the work site might have still managed to signal to the driver in time for the train to stop.  However, John Benge had placed him only 554 yards from the work site.

Work on the viaduct had progressed well.  The last of the 32 timber baulks had been replaced and two 21-foot lengths of rail remained to be re-instated when the train was upon the bridge.  The driver saw John Wiles and his red flag, but it was too late for him to stop as Wiles was positioned too close to the work site.  The work gang could only look on in horror as the inevitable wreck occurred in front of them.

Charles Dickens found it necessary at times to travel by train following the accident, but understandably his preference was to use slow stopping trains.  


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