Dear fellow travellers
A Friday afternoon. A warm, sunny day, verging on sultry. The second Friday in June. As is today. The tidal train left Folkestone just after two in the afternoon. It was called a tidal train because its timings were dependent on the arrival of the steamer from France, which in turn varied with the tides. So the precise timing of the boat train from Folkestone to London changed with the tides.
Charles Dickens was on board the tidal train on that Friday afternoon in 1865. He was travelling with his mistress, the English actress Ellen Ternan. The train steamed west through Kentish meadows and orchards, following the line from Ashford towards Tonbridge. It should have been a routine journey through the Garden of England. But railway workmen, working on the bridge over the River Beult near Staplehurst, had removed a few metres of track. The foreman had evidently misunderstood the timings of the tidal train on that particular afternoon. The boat train to London fell from the bridge into the valley below.
The Staplehurst accident claimed ten lives. Many more were injured. Charles Dickens and Ellen Ternan escaped with bruises and rattled nerves. Dickens did much at the scene to assist the injured. The following Tuesday, Dickens wrote hesitantly to an old friend, recounting the horror of the accident. "I don't want to write about it," he wrote. But Dickens' emotions welled up and after penning a few lines on the awful scenes of death at Staplehurst, he concluded "I feel the shake and am obliged to stop."
Dickens was deeply affected by Staplehurst though his injuries were not visible. A year after the accident a three-part article appeared in the distinguished English journal The Lancet; it reported, for the very first time in the medical literature, on the remote effects of such accidents on the nervous system. Doctors were beginning to understand the psychological trauma associated with railway accidents. Dickens died on the fifth anniversary of the Staplehurst disaster, although there is no evidence that his death (at the age of 58) was in any way caused by the accident.
Staplehurst certainly had an impact on Charles Dickens' writing. His 1866 ghost story The Signalman centres fair and square on the dangers of rail travel and may have been Dickens' way of dealing with the trauma of Staplehurst. Fear of accidents coloured the Victorian imagination, and the media fed those fears. Reporting on an accident in North Wales three years after Staplehurst, the Illustrated London News compared the scene to rushing down into the fiery crater of Vesuvius.
Plot lines involving railway mishaps were common in the literature of the period. Dickens himself had used a train in Dombey and Son to kill off Carker (who may have deserved to die, but surely not in so awful a manner). In Wilkie Collins' novel No Name, Andrew Vanstone is killed in a train crash. But no English novelist of the period managed to portray the train as so evil and monstrous a creature as did Émile Zola. And that's a topic we'll return to in the next issue of hidden europe magazine, when we reflect on Zola's plots and the railways of northern France. hidden europe 46 is published on 15 July.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)