Published: 00:01, 26 August 2013
A book just out details how Charles Dickens nearly perished in an horrific train crash south of Maidstone – along with the manuscript of his next story.
The death-dodging escapades of one of Britain’s most famous writers is told in a new book called History’s Narrowest Escapes.
Fortunately Dickens went on to live five more years until June 9, 1870 – the exact anniversary of the disaster.
Painstaking research by co-writers James Moore and Paul Nero has shed fresh light on the tragedy which claimed 10 lives when the Tidal Express boat train bound for London crashed off a viaduct at Staplehurst.
In one of the first class carriages was Dickens, returning from a trip to Paris with Ellen Ternan, with whom he had been having a secret affair.
Many of the carriages fell from the viaduct into the river that sunny day, but the couple’s one remained at an angle over the precipice, held back by its coupling.
Inside the pocket of the author’s coat, sitting on a rack, was the manuscript for the latest instalment of Our Mutual Friend.
Clambering out of a window Dickens hailed two train guards shouting at them: “Do stop an instant and look at me, and tell me whether you don’t know me?”
One of them replied: “We know you very
well Mr Dickens.” The author then demanded: “My good fellow for God’s sake give me your key and send one of the labourer’s here, and I’ll empty the carriage.”
After freeing other passengers Dickens 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.
He gave her a little sip of brandy and left her with somebody
else. “The next time I passed
her, she was dead.”
Dickens went on to complete his novel Our Mutual Friend and in the postscript alluded
to how the book’s main characters had survived the Staplehurst rail crash along with the author.
He wrote: “I remember with devout thankfulness that I can never be much nearer parting company with my readers for ever, than I was then until there shall be written against my life, the two words with which I have this day closed this book: THE END.”