Charles Dickens’s near death experience

It was a bright summer’s day in Kent as the Folkestone Boat Express thundered towards London. The Express, an integral part of the iron link between London and Paris, had reached England on the afternoon of 9 June 1865 and had cleared the South Downs, a little over 45 miles from its destination.

The train sped through Staplehurst at 50 mph and was crossing the iron bridge over the River Beult (which, during the summer, had dried to little more than a muddy stream) when disaster struck. Repair work on the track had not finished in time as the work’s foreman thought that the Express would arrive later than it did.

The locomotive, tender and break van managed to breach the 21 foot gap in the track by a combination of luck and momentum, coming to a precarious rest on the other side. Further along the train, the first class carriage was derailed and clung perilously to the break van. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the train was not so lucky.

The next five coaches broke free from the first class carriage and collapsed off the bridge. The crumpled and broken wagons were strewn across the riverbed and surrounding banks. A full description of the tragedy and its causes is found both in the official government report and in this excellent (and distinctly snappier) summary.)

In total 10 passengers died and a further 49 were injured. Even so, this would only have made a footnote in Victorian railway history, already littered with far more deadly disasters and accidents. One fact alone elevated this to become one of the period’s most notorious incidents – Charles Dickens was a passenger in the first class carriage.

Dickens’s brush with death was real – his travelling companions had been certain of their impending doom. It had an immediate psychological impact on the writers, and could have hastened his ultimate and untimely death just five years later.

Dickens, already a celebrity, became a national hero for his compassionate actions both during and after the tragedy. Once safely free of his carriage he made his way through the splintered timbers and mangled bodies offering medicinal brandy, comfort and whatever practical assistance he could. Afterwards, he visited victims in hospital.

His description of the scene is characteristically vivid, and provides a distinctly human sense of the tragedy:

“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.”

Charles Dickens – letter to Thomas Mitton on 13 June 1865