In his later years, Charles Dickens often suffered from siderodromophobia—a fear of train travel—caused by his involvement in a railway crash in 1865. If you suffer from say, a fear of flying, then you will appreciate the dread Dickens sometimes endured when he traveled by train thereafter—panic, foreboding, white knuckle terror. His son later claimed that Dickens never fully recovered from the experience and he died exactly five years to the day of the accident.
The Staplehurst rail crash occurred at a viaduct on the South Eastern Railway linking London to the coastal town of Folkestone, at 3:13pm on June 9th, 1865. A section of rail track had been removed. The foreman in charge of replacing the track misread the train timetable—believing his crew had sufficient time to finish the job before the arrival of the next train. His mistake had tragic consequences.
Illustration of the Staplehurst train wreck.
Apart from the trauma, the accident had serious implications for Dickens as he was accompanying his mistress Ellen Ternan and her mother to Folkestone where they were to catch a boat back to France.
Long before the 50-Mile Rule—which suggests one should never an affair with someone within a 50 mile radius of home—Dickens had been careful to keep the 27-year-old Ellen out of the public eye in France to avoid any possibility of discovery by his wife or by a prying press. The three were sitting in the first carriage when the train jumped the tracks and crashed over the side of a viaduct. Ten passengers were killed, 40 more were injured.
Photograph of the accident.
Ensuring Ellen and her mother were safe, Dickens busied himself aiding the injured and the dying. He described the accident in a letter to his old schoolfriend Thomas Mitton on June 13th, 1865:
My dear Mitton,
I should have written to you yesterday or the day before, if I had been quite up to writing. I am a little shaken, 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.
I was in the only carriage that did not go over into the stream. It was caught upon the turn by some of the ruin of the bridge, and hung suspended and balanced in an apparently impossible manner. Two ladies were my fellow passengers; an old one, and a young one. This is exactly what passed: you may judge from it the precise length of the suspense. Suddenly we were off the rail and beating the ground as the car of a half emptied balloon might. The old lady cried out “My God!” and the young one screamed.
I caught hold of them both (the old lady sat opposite, and the young one on my left) and said: “We can’t help ourselves, but we can be quiet and composed. Pray don’t cry out.” The old lady immediately answered, “Thank you. Rely upon me. Upon my soul, I will be quiet.” The young lady said in a frantic way, “Let us join hands and die friends.” We were then all tilted down together in a corner of the carriage, and stopped. I said to them thereupon: “You may be sure nothing worse can happen. Our danger must be over. Will you remain here without stirring, while I get out of the window?” They both answered quite collectedly, “Yes,” and I got out without the least notion of what had happened.
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.”
We did it quite safely, by means of a plank or two and when it was done I saw all the rest of the train except the two baggage cars down in the stream. I got into the carriage again for my brandy flask, took off my travelling hat for a basin, climbed down the brickwork, and filled my hat with water. Suddenly I came upon a staggering man covered with blood (I think he must have been flung clean out of his carriage) with such a frightful cut across the skull that I couldn’t bear to look at him. I poured some water over his face, and gave him some to drink, and gave him some brandy, and laid him down on the grass, and he said, “I am gone”, and died afterwards.
Then I stumbled over a lady lying on her back against a little pollard tree, with the blood streaming over her face (which was lead colour) in a number of distinct little streams from the head. I asked her if she could swallow a little brandy, and she just nodded, and I gave her some and left her for somebody else. The next time I passed her, she was dead.
Front cover of ‘London Illustrated’ showing Dickens tending to the injured.
The accident caused Dickens to lose his voice for two weeks, and he was often visibly panicked on train journeys after that—on one occasion hurling himself to the floor of the carriage convinced another crash was about to take place. However, he was not a man to waste his own experience—no matter how painful—and he used the events in his ghost story The Signal-Man—one of literature’s most famous supernatural tales.
The Signal-Man tells the story of an encounter with a signalman who tells the unnamed narrator of his haunting by ghostly premonitions prior to a series of train accidents. The story formed part of Dickens’ Mugby Junction series of stories. It is a subtle and beautifully told tale, and was adapted by the BBC in 1976 for Ghost Story, starring Denholm Elliott and Bernard Lloyd. Elliott is perfect as the man haunted by a ghostly visitor, whose message he tries to understand.
Continues after the jump…