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:
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'
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
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