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Charles Dickens escapes train crash at Staplehurst

Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens

Foreman Henry Benge had done this kind of repair job many times before in his 10 years with the railway.

His gang of eight platelayers and carpenters set to work, ripping up a couple of railway lines and wooden supports which needed replacing.

They’d been working on the 70-yard bridge in the Kent countryside for 10 weeks and Henry knew they had time to get the job done before the boat train arrived.

Even so, he sent signalman John Whiles along the line with his red warning flag – just in case.

Passengers travelling from Paris to London on that summer afternoon in June 1865 disembarked from their cross-Channel ferry in Folkestone and started the final leg of their eight hour journey.

Their South Eastern Railways express steamed out of the port on time at 2.30. Many of the 110 passengers, from “the higher circles of life”, were in the seven first-class carriages.

Among them were bankers, solicitors and Army officers, some with splendidly-dressed wives, and one celebrity – the author Charles Dickens.

The train was reaching its top speed of 50mph as it headed towards Staplehurst.

The gang of men repairing the Hockenbury Bridge over the River Beult couldn’t believe their ears when they heard two whistle blasts from the approaching boat train.

Signalman Whiles waved his flag. The driver slammed on the seven high-powered brakes. The workmen dropped their tools and ran along the track, frantically waving their arms.

But the train “went rushing on”.

When it reached the bridge an iron girder “snapped asunder as if it were a mere reed”.

Eight carriages plunged 15 feet 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.”

Villagers rushed to help. Lady Mary Hoare and the local Vicar sent carriages to collect the injured. Surgeon John Wilkins and others opened up their homes as temporary hospitals. Miss Lord, the schoolmistress, helped as a nurse.

The railway company sent a special express from London with doctors and nurses on board.

Meanwhile about 150 men toiled throughout the day and all the following morning to remove the carriages from the river, fearing that people may be trapped.

Altogether 10 people died and 50 were injured.

Why did it happen?

Henry 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.

Signalman John Whiles hadn’t been trained. He didn’t know that detonators should be used to alert engine drivers. And he stood, with his red flag, less than 600 yards from the bridge to warn the engine driver. Company policy was 1,000 metres.

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

His boss, district railway inspector Joseph Gallimore, was acquitted of manslaughter.

And Charles Dickens? He was in one of the carriages hanging from the bridge. He escaped to help the dead and dying. But despite being one of the most famous people in England at the time, the author only gets a two line mention in the Gazette’s reports.

He was, of course, returning to London with his mistress at the time.

Sources: 13 June, 1865, 20 June, 1865, 27 June, 1865, 25 July, 1865

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