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Crashes on the railway lines in Headcorn, Lewisham, Folkestone and Maidstone East

From the building of the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway, through the competition among rival companies operating from London to the Channel ports, to the construction of the nation's first high-speed line - Kent has long been shaped by the railways.

But from the earliest days of steam the county was also witness to the dangers of the age of the train. Reporter Rhys Griffiths looks back at four of the most significant accidents and incidents in the county's past.

English writer Charles Dickens was a passenger on a train that crashed near Staplehurst, killing 10 people
English writer Charles Dickens was a passenger on a train that crashed near Staplehurst, killing 10 people

The boat train left Folkestone Harbour shortly after 2.30pm on that fateful afternoon in June 1865, conveying passengers on the final leg of their voyage from Paris to London.

On board the South Eastern Railway express were 110 passengers, with many from “the higher circles of life” seated in the seven first-class carriages - including perhaps the greatest writer of the age, Charles Dickens.

After travelling through Headcorn at 50mph, a red flag alerted the driver to stop. Ahead was the Beult viaduct, where a length of track had been removed while engineering works took place.

Foreman Henry Benge and his gang of eight platelayers and carpenters had been working on the 70-yard bridge for 10 weeks, and they believed they had more than enough time to get the job done before the boat train arrived.

But Mr Benge, 33-years-old and barely literate, misread the timetable. He thought the “tidal train” was due at 5pm, about 90 minutes after the crash. But that was Saturday’s timetable and the accident happened on Friday, June 9, 1865.

The Maidstone Telegraph reported on the 1865 Staplehurst railway crash which Charles Dickens was involved in
The Maidstone Telegraph reported on the 1865 Staplehurst railway crash which Charles Dickens was involved in

Signalman John Whiles stood, with his red flag, less than 600 yards from the bridge to warn the engine driver. Company policy was 1,000.

It was too late. The train went rushing on towards the bridge, where eight carriages plunged 15ft into the muddy river and two more were left hanging from the side of the bridge.

The Gazette reported: “The groans of the dying and wounded, the shrieks of frantic ladies and the shrill cries of young children rising from the wreck of the train, and mingling with the hissing of the steam from the engine, were awful in the extreme.”

Ten passengers were killed and more than 50 injured in the Staplehurst disaster. Dickens - who was travelling with actress Ellen Ternan, for whom he had left his wife - was lucky, he walked away from the crash and after helping to free other passengers he is said to have spent three hours comforting the injured and dying.

In a letter to his friend Thomas Mitten, he recalled stumbling over a lady lying on her back.

Watch: Letter written by Charles Dickens auctioned for more than £5,000

He gave her a little sip of brandy and left her with somebody else. “The next time I passed her, she was dead,” the novelist recounted.

Dickens' son Henry would later say his father "may be said never to have altogether recovered" from the incident. He died five years to the day to the disaster after suffering a stroke, aged 58, at his Gads Hill Place home in Higham.

Mr Benge, married with three children and living in Headcorn, was charged with manslaughter.

A judge sentenced him to nine months hard labour. He would have received more had he not been honest, sober, hard-working and given more responsibility than he could handle.

But where the incident involving the great novelist and the boat train was very much the result of human error, at other times in the county's history it has been nature which intervened to disrupt the railways.

The Great Fall at the Folkestone Warren. Picture: Derek Butcher / Network Rail
The Great Fall at the Folkestone Warren. Picture: Derek Butcher / Network Rail
Railway tracks left warped by the Great Fall at the Folkestone Warren. Picture: Derek Butcher / Network Rail
Railway tracks left warped by the Great Fall at the Folkestone Warren. Picture: Derek Butcher / Network Rail

In December 1915 a severe landslide at the Warren in Folkestone caused the railway line to Dover to shift 50m towards the sea as a section of chalk cliffs collapsed after weeks of heavy rain.

The line remained shut until August 1919 as the First World War delayed its reopening. The kink in the line remains visible today, proving the severity of the cliff fall.

Derek Butcher from Network Rail discovered dramatic photographs of the aftermath, of what became known as the Great Fall, in a filing cabinet while moving offices.

He said: "We believe the train pictured was alerted to the landslip by the signal box at Folkestone Junction and was slowed down. It found itself part on and part off the landslip.

"They were able to evacuate passengers who walked through the tunnel to Folkestone Junction station. There was a significant amount of movement following the train stopping. That’s why it looks so horrific."

Watch: See how Network Rail maintain the line through the Warren

The building of the railway between Dover and Folkestone was quite a feat of engineering. Opened in 1844, its tracks run close by the waters of the English Channel and travelling through tunnels excavated from the chalk cliffs.

Landslips have always posed a danger, and in 1877 two people were killed when part of a Martello Tunnel was destroyed. The line remained closed for three months afterwards.

The last major movement was recorded in 1939, but Network Rail works constantly to ensure the situation is monitored.

Derek said: “The landslip is still active. There are a number of ways that movement is controlled. Firstly, we monitor the location extensively with settlement points on a monthly basis.”

"We also use light-detecting and ranging technology, a laser scanning technique to record points on the landscape. The data helps us keep track of which locations are moving.

A map showing the location of the Great Fall at the Folkestone Warren. Picture: Derek Butcher / Network Rail
A map showing the location of the Great Fall at the Folkestone Warren. Picture: Derek Butcher / Network Rail
The Great Fall at the Folkestone Warren. Picture: Derek Butcher / Network Rail
The Great Fall at the Folkestone Warren. Picture: Derek Butcher / Network Rail

"Other techniques include boring holes in the ground to drain water, and building walls and other structures designed to stop the landslip from moving."

The line between Folkestone and Dover was out of action as recently as 2016, after cracks in the sea wall appeared on Christmas Eve the year before.

A new viaduct needed to be built before trains could run again, replacing the one built in the 1800s.

Nature also played its part in one of the most deadly accidents involving a Kent-bound train when, in December 1957, two commuter trains crashed in dense fog near Lewisham in south east London.

The crash - which involved an electric train to Hayes and a steam train to Ramsgate - killed 90 people and injured almost 200 more after a bridge collapsed onto the steam train.

Former train driver Donald Corke became a hero after his quick thinking in the Lewisham train crash. Picture: Matthew Walker
Former train driver Donald Corke became a hero after his quick thinking in the Lewisham train crash. Picture: Matthew Walker

Tonbridge born-and-bred Donald Corke had been driving trains for four years when was tasked with steering the 5.22pm service from Holborn to Dartford out of London on a foggy December night.

"In those days, there were no automatic brakes or signals," he told the Kent Messenger on the 50th anniversary of the disaster. "You really had to rely on your senses completely."

As the 29-year-old's train, packed with almost 1,000 passengers, approached the Lewisham to Nunhead bridge, Mr Corke saw a green signal followed by two yellow ones and decided to proceed with caution.

"The visibility was very, very bad and I was looking out for a red signal - I was sure there would be one. As we came on to the bridge, I suddenly noticed the metal girder on the bridge bending upwards towards the carriage," he recalled in 2007.

"I immediately thought the bridge must have fallen down, and applied the brakes. I wasn't scared, I just had to get on with stopping the train."

Watch: How British Pathe reported the Lewisham train disaster

Mr Corke's caution paid off and he managed to stop the train on the very edge of the gaping hole that was once the Lewisham Bridge.

As he got out of the carriage and stood on the bank above the tracks below, the thick fog meant he had no idea that the 16.56 express service from Cannon Street to Ramsgate and the 17.18pm from Hayes to Charing Cross were lying in a mangled heap a few feet below him.

He said: "When I looked down, I couldn't see anything because the fog was so think.

"And there wasn't a sound coming from the wreck - the fog had muffled any noise. You could have heard a pin drop."

The driver of the Ramsgate service would later be tried for manslaughter, but the jury failed to reach a verdict. He was discharged and died a year later.

The scene of the Lewisham train crash in which 90 people were killed. Submitted by Donald Corke
The scene of the Lewisham train crash in which 90 people were killed. Submitted by Donald Corke

While the driver may not have been convicted following the Lewisham crash, a huge accident at Maidstone East station in 1993 did lead to a conviction.

Driver Graham Barnes had drunk the equivalent of a bottle of vodka when his train derailed at high speed coming into the station shortly after 2am on September 6, 1993, causing almost £2 million of damage.

His freight train was laden with 900 tonnes of steel when it came crashing into the railway station, almost destroying it.

An investigation concluded that with its brakes set incorrectly for the heavy load, the locomotive hit a curve in the tracks at such speed - thought to be around 60mph on a 25mph section of track - the wagons overturned.

Mr Barnes was later jailed for 12 months for endangering the safety of passengers, causing criminal damage, and driving with excess alcohol.

The aftermath of the Maidstone East crash which almost destroyed the station in 1993
The aftermath of the Maidstone East crash which almost destroyed the station in 1993

It cost £700,000 and seven months to repair Maidstone East while customers were forced to use replacement bus services instead, adding time to their journeys.

Thankfully the timing of the spectacular derailment mean that, apart from Mr Barnes suffering bruised ribs, no-one was injured.

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