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Charles Dickens and the Staplehurst Train Crash
The heroic actions of Dickens to reduce the suffering of many.
On 9 June 1865, Charles Dickens was seated in first class with his female friend, Ellen Ternan, and her mother. It was the summer of 1865, and not for the first time, he marvelled at the speed of travel.
Just a generation before, his trip from London to Paris would have taken days. Now, it was accomplished in a matter of hours.
Hidden in his bag was a copy of his latest manuscript, Our Mutual Friend. It was a manuscript that nearly did not survive the horrific train crash that was about to occur.
In contrast to Dickens, Henry Benge was a thirty-three-year-old manual worker. He was the foreman of a small gang of platelayers and carpenters who worked for the South Eastern Railway.
Their latest job was on the railway bridges between Headcorn and Staplehurst. It is an area I know well and have travelled hundreds of times.
The latest bridge to be renovated ran over the river Beult, just outside Staplehurst. The bridges were constructed of cast-iron girders on three-foot thick brick piers. Sitting on the girders were wooden timbers, and onto these, the track was attached.
Over time, the wooden timbers would rot and need replacing. This was the task that the crew were undertaking.
Bridge Under Construction
Benge looked at his watch as the 1445 passed his work site; it was on schedule. As the carriages disappeared, having checked the time of the next train, he ordered his men to remove the rails on the Headcorn side of the bridge.
According to his records, the next train from Folkestone would not arrive at Staplehurst station until 1724, which was plenty of time to complete the work, which would only take an hour.
As a precaution, Benge sent his signalman, John Wiles, down the line to warn any approaching trains of the danger.
Railway policy was for a signalman to be placed a minimum of 1,000 yards from the work site. This was usually measured by walking ten telegraph poles. That was the crew's first mistake, as the distance between the poles was not standardised. He was only 500 yards away.
Wiles carried with him a red flag and two fog signals. The signals will be placed at 250-yard intervals further from the flag. Wiles failed to set the fog signals, telling the inquiry later that he had been told they would only be used in foggy weather.
Dickens & Benge Meet
Back at the site, Benge and his crew had removed forty-two feet of rail and thirteen feet of timber on the bridge when they heard the blast of a train whistle.
The train had left Headcorn and was travelling fifty miles per hour when the driver saw the signalman waving his red flat. He blasted the whistle to signal the guards to apply the break. He then shut off the steam and reversed the engine.
The Cudworth locomotive did not have enough time to stop.
Suddenly we were off the rails and beating the ground as the car of a half-emptied balloon might do - Charles Dickens
The train, still travelling twenty miles per hour, hit the bridge where the rails were removed. The engine, tender, guard's van, and several carriages, including the one Dickens was in, jumped the track.
Whether from momentum or pure luck, the train continued to the river's opposite bank off the rails but on the roadbed. The coupling at the rear of Dicken's carriage broke, and the next six first-class carriages plunged off the bridge into the water and mud below.
The Top Hat Hero
Although the carriage Dickens was in was partially dragged off the bridge, this did not stop Dickens from jumping into action. The passengers in the compartments had been violently thrown to one end.
Recovering his composure, Dickens quieted his companions and helped them climb out the window. Railway policy was to keep the doors locked, so he broke the window to allow the passengers out.
He then returned and collected a bottle of brandy and his top hat. Outside, he would help the injured passengers and carry water to them using his top hat as a cup.
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
He worked on the injured and the dead until help arrived. At one point, he gave an injured lady resting under a tree a sip of brandy; when he returned, she had passed away.
Dickens worked for three hours, lessening the pain and suffering of his fellow passengers. I wonder if they knew who the man who helped them was.
When help turned up, he returned once more to the carriage to collect the last instalment of Our Mutual Friend. He then boarded a rescue train to take him back to London.
The Staplehurst Crash
The accident claimed the lives of ten people, with dozens injured. An investigation was held, and a litany of errors were discovered.
First, Benge would state that he looked at the wrong timetable, Seeing the time of the Saturday train, not the Friday.
When asked about the lack of signal, Wiles stated that he had stopped several trains from the exact location. Upon investigation, it was discovered that these were ballast trains that travelled much slower.
Benge and his supervisor, Joseph Gallimore, were charged with manslaughter. At trial, Gallimore was acquitted, but Benge was found guilty of culpable negligence, which resulted in death.
He received a light sentence of only nine months in prison. He never returned to the railway on his release. He lived with the remorse of killing ten people for the rest of his life, eventually being committed to Kent County Lunatic Hospital in Maidstone, where he died in 1905.
The engine driver was dismissed from service as it was stated that if he had been more attentive, he would have seen the distress signal sooner and stopped the accident.
Despite his heroic actions during the crash, Dickens reported that he was 'quite shattered and broken up' on return to London. He suffered from what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder.
It took him several years to get back on a train, and even then, the anxiety stayed with him. Five years to the day after the crash, he died. It is largely considered that the trauma of the accident contributed to his early death.
Many readers question how many more novels we would have had had it not been for the actions of Henry Benge and the fateful Staplehurst train crash.
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