The Train Crash That Scared the Dickens out of Charles Dickens

The tragic event that forever changed Dickens' life. Here’s what you need to know about the train crash that scared the dickens out of Charles Dickens.

Vintage & Historical
4 min
Engrid Barnett
Engrid Barnett
The Train Crash That Scared the Dickens out of Charles Dickens
All stories
Vintage & Historical

Most people think about A Christmas Carol or Oliver Twist when they hear the name Charles Dickens. Thanks to characters like Scrooge and Tiny Tim, some even credit the Victorian author with inventing Christmas. There’s even a movie about it, 2017’s The Man Who Invented Christmas . But there’s a lot more to the British literary giant than Yuletide imaginings.

The Industrial Revolution heavily influenced his life. It affected everything, from his impoverished childhood to his charitable giving later in life. It even impacted the way he traveled. During Dickens’s lifetime, trains became the preferred mode of transportation, despite being overcrowded, uncomfortable, and prone to accidents.

On June 9, 1865, the novelist discovered this firsthand while traveling the rails near Staplehurst in Kent, England. Here’s what you need to know about the train crash that scared the dickens out of Charles Dickens.

Rail Travel? Bah Humbug!

Born February 7, 1812 , Charles Dickens rose to acclaim as one of the greatest novelists of the Victorian era. His life and writings were shaped by the First Industrial Revolution, which began in Great Britain around 1760 with a string of impressive economic developments.

Chief among these? Harnessing steam power. No invention better epitomized where steam power would take the world than Stephenson’s Rocket, an early steam-powered locomotive. Eighteen years old when the Rocket made its celebrated trip on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, Dickens could’ve never guessed how much trains would change his life.

Stephenson's Rocket
Stephenson's Rocket. Via Wikimedia Commons.

When he died in 1870, more than 15,000 miles of track crisscrossed Britain! The impact of railway systems proved massive in terms of Victorian transportation. Dickens documented the transformation in his writing. Early novels like Nicholas Nickleby still featured characters getting around by horse.

But by the 1846 through 1848 serial publication of Dombey and Son , the author mentioned railway construction and trains liberally. Newspaper articles he penned lamented the lack of comfort associated with travel by rail. Not only did passengers often get packed in like sardines, but an absence of air conditioning made rides more like Dante’s Inferno than Great Expectations .

The Event That Changed Dickens’s Life

As one of the British Isles’ most talented and famed authors, Dickens traveled extensively. And he stuck to train transport despite complaints about basic amenities. But crowding and warm temperatures proved minor trifles compared to what happened on June 9, 1865.

On a lovely summer day, Dickens sat in a first-class car at the front of the train as it passed through Kent. Returning from a stay abroad in France, two women accompanied Dickens, a famed actress and his rumored love interest, Ellen Ternan and her mother.

A perfect storm of mistakes occurred near Staplehurst that day, making a train accident all but inevitable. For starters, Henry Benge, work crew chief of the railway, looked at the Saturday train schedule instead of the Friday one. As a result, he scheduled construction work on the track, assuming no trains would show up until 5 pm. But the Friday schedule meant Dickens’ train would arrive by 3:19 pm.

A workman sent up the tracks to warn any approaching rail traffic also made a fatal error. Instead of setting up his post 1,000 yards from the construction work, he did so closer to 600 feet. This didn’t give the conductor of Dickens’s train enough time to brake.

Hanging by a Coupling

In the end, Dickens’s train barreled across a bridge with a 42-foot-long gap. Due to the failed warning, the engineer could do little more than attempt to force the cars over the gap. A few cars made it, including the first-class one holding Dickens and the Ternans. But the car got pulled backwards by others unable to clear the gap.

Fortunately for Dickens and the Ternans, the coupling holding their car to the rest broke, leaving passengers suspended mid-air. What happened to the cars connected to the fractured coupling? They plunged ten feet to the muddy river bottom. Cars that landed upside down flattened beneath their robust iron undercarriages, and shattered glass, metal, and wood sliced through everything.

Staplehurst rail crash
Staplehurst rail crash. Via WIkimedia Commons.

Apart from minor injuries sustained by Ellen Ternan, Dickens and his guests proved unharmed. After helping his female companions climb out a window to the bridge. Dickens helped others to safety. He used his hat to carry water to the injured and dying. And he offered a brandy flask to a handful of fatally wounded men and women.

Passengers later praised Dickens’s bravery throughout the event. He saved lives and comforted others as they died. Recounting the accident later, Dickens wrote , “No imagination can conceive the ruin of the carriages or the extraordinary weights under which the people were lying, or the complications into which they were twisted up among iron and wood, and mud and water.”

A Train Accident to Remember

All told, ten people perished in the Staplehurst Rail Crash, and another 40 got injured. While Dickens showed mental fortitude and heroism that day, the train accident left a permanent scar on his psyche. For the next half-decade of his life, Dickens experienced extreme anxiety when traveling, especially by train.

He declared himself “quite shattered and broken up.” And his children Henry and Mary “Mamie” described episodes of terror betrayed by their father’s clenched hands and panicked demeanor. In one of the strangest coincidences associated with the accident, Dickens died five years to the day of the Staplehurst Train Accident

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