The Staplehurst Disaster

9 June 1865

The Dickens Project

Dickens took a "vacation" trip to France at the end of May 1865. Before leaving he told Forester: "Work and worry...would soon make an end of me. If I were not going away now, I should break down. No one knows as I know to-day how near to it I have been..." But rest was not the only reason for Dickens's departure. He was also going to France to visit Ellen Ternan.

As was usually the case, Dickens continued to write, even while on vacation. While in France he worked on the second chapter of the sixteenth number of Our Mutual Friend (drawing towards the close), and brought the manuscript back to England with him in the pocket of his overcoat. With Ellen Ternan and her mother, he boarded the ferry and travelled from Boulogne to Folkestone. On this occasion a fellow-passenger noticed him and recorded the following observation: "Travelling with him was a lady not his wife, nor his sister-in-law, yet he strutted about the deck with the air of a man bristling with self-importance, every line of his face and every gesture of his limbs seemed haughtily to say -- 'Look at me; make the most of your chance. I am the great, the only Charles Dickens; whatever I may choose to do is justified by that fact.'" Dickens, Ternan, and Mrs. Ternan were booked into a first-class carriage and they took the 2:38 tidal train from Folkestone to London. Passing the town of Headcorn thirty-three minutes later they approached the viaduct over the river Beult just before Staplehurst where the accident would take place. They were travelling at a speed of fifty miles an hour on a downward gradient. At that moment repair work was being conducted on the viaduct itself (which was in fact little more than a bridge) and two of the rails had been lifted from the railbed and placed at the side of the track. The foreman in charge of the construction site had consulted the wrong time-table, and he did not expect Dickens's train for another two hours. Furthermore, and, against regulations, the flagman who was supposed to give warning to oncoming trains of any obstruction was only 550 yards from the construction site. The train conductor saw the red flag and applied his brakes, but it was too late. The train approached the broken line in the rail at a speed of between twenty and thirty miles per hour. It jumped a gap of forty-two feet, and swerved onto the bed of the river below. All of the seven first-class carriages plummeted downwards -- except for one car. That car was the one occupied by Dickens and the Ternans, and it held by its couplings onto a second-class carriage. Dickens's car had come off the rail and was now hanging over the bridge at an angle.

With a makeshift arrangement of planks Dickens managed to extricate the Ternans from the suspended carriage, and as he was doing this, he saw the other first-class carriages lying at the bottom of the river bed. With his familiar aplomb he went returned to the teetering carriage, and took out a travelling flask of brandy as well as his top hat. He filled his hat with water, clambered down the bank, and then began his work among the injured and the dead. He found a man with a cracked skull; he gave the man some brandy, poured a bit of water on his face, and laid him on the grass beside the stream. The man said only "I am gone," and then died. A woman with a blood-covered face was propped against a tree; Dickens gave her a little brandy from his flask, but in a moment she too was dead. The scene was covered with corpses and injured bodies. One young passenger, Mr. Dickenson, later recalled how it was the urging and assistance of Charles Dickens that ultimately helped to free him from a pile of twisted wreckage. Another passenger would later recall how Dickens, with his hat full of water, was "running about with it and doing his best to revive and comfort every poor creature he met who had sustained serious injury."

And then, as he prepared to take leave of the death scene, Dickens did a remarkable thing. Remembering that his manuscript was still in the pocket of his overcoat, he clambered back into the swaying carriage and retrieved it. He then travelled back to London with the other survivors on an emergency train.

Dickens returned to Gad's Hill Place the next day, and told the landlord of the Falstaff Inn that "I never thought I should be here again." His eldest son found his father "greatly shaken, though making as light of it as possible -- how greatly shaken I was able to perceive from his continually repeated injunctions to me by and by, as I was driving him in the basket-carriage, to 'go slower, Charley' until we came to foot-pace, and it was still 'go slower, Charley.'"

Dickens had also lost his voice: "I most unaccountably brought someone else's out of that terrible scene," he said, in strange parallel to that theme of double identities which informs Our Mutual Friend. It was two weeks before he properly recovered his voice. Of course he wrote many letters, some of them dictated to Georgina, in which he dwelt briefly upon the horrors of the accident but in which he constantly attributes his own shakiness not to the crash itself but to his work among "the dying and dead..." In the longest letter (to Thomas Mitton), he made it clear that he wanted to avoid being examined at the inquest into the disaster. The reason for this is clear enough; if the fact that he was travelling with Ellen Ternan (pictured right) became public knowledge, it would have caused a scandal. Interestingly, Dickens wrote the letter to Mitton in his own hand, and did not leave the task to Georgina.

Some days after the accident he was still overwhelmed by "the shake." He felt weak, experiencing "faint and sick" sensations in his head rather than in his body; his pulse was low, he was nervous, and when travelling by train he suffered from the illusion that his carriage was "down" on the left side. This was not in fact the side which went down in the Staplehurst crash, but his left foot had been attacked earlier in the year and he suffered from renal colic on the left side of his body; it is thus possible that the accident materially affected Dickens's weak side, and that the vascular damage already recorded increased due to his general nervous strain after the Staplehurst disaster. Travelling became for him the single most distressing activity, although he tried to overcome his fear of trains by going back in them almost at once. He returned to London in one, for example, to see his doctor and no doubt to call upon Ellen Ternan. But the train ride was far from easy: he had to travel on a slow train rather than the express, and even the noise of his London hansom distressed him. He withdrew from all scheduled public engagements, and "the shake" affected his writing: the rest of that number of Our Mutual Friend, snatched from the crash, was far too short -- "a thing I have not done since Pickwick!" he wrote. Dickens had to lengthen the number at proof stage.

The permanent results of the crash were equally serious. The effect of the Staplehurst accident "tells more and more," he wrote in 1867. A year later he confessed: "I have sudden vague rushes of terror, even when riding in a hansom cab, which are perfectly unreasonable but quite insurmountable." These sudden sensations of horror remained the most obvious consequences of the experience. Dickens's son, Henry, recalled that "I have seen him sometimes in a railway carriage when there was a slight jolt. When this happened he was almost in a state of panic and gripped the seat with both hands." And Mamie recalled that "my father's nerves never really were the same again...we have often seen him, when travelling home from London, suddenly fall into a paroxysm of fear, tremble all over, clutch the arms of the railway carriage, large beads of perspiration standing on his face, and suffer agonies of terror. We never spoke to him, but would touch his hand gently now and then. He had, however, apparently no idea of our presence; he saw nothing for a time but that most awful scene." Many times Dickens had to leave his train at an early station, and walk the rest of the way home. Peter Ackroyd suggests that there must have been some further reason for this scene to be etched upon his consciousness: "In much of his fiction the railway is seen as a terrifying and destructive force, no more so than when it tears up the landscape of London and runs down the guilt-ridden Carker in Dombey and Son. Was it as if some terror from his own imagination had now come alive, just as the dead had surrounded him at Staplehurst even as he was writing a book about death itself? Not only had he been involved in a crash but that accident may have injured Ellen Ternan and certainly threatened to expose his 'other life' with her. His own worst fears must then have loomed in front of him, and was there not also some sense of guilt and punishment following him as relentlessly as the train once pursued Carker? We know only that, as his son said, Dickens 'may be said never to have altogether recovered' and that he actually died on the fifth anniversary of the Staplehurst disaster."

SOURCE: Dickens, by Peter Ackroyd. New York: Harper Collins, 1990.