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The Staplehurst rail crash was a railway accident at Staplehurstmarker, Kentmarker, Englandmarker, which took place on 9 June 1865 and in which ten passengers were killed and 40 injured. It is particularly remembered for its effects on the novelist Charles Dickens, who was travelling as a passenger in a front, first class carriage on the boat train returning from Francemarker, with his companions Ellen Ternan and her mother.

The track was in the process of being renovated at Staplehurst, at a spot where the rails ran over a low cast iron girder bridge over the River Beult. The timing of the train, the Folkestone Boat Express, varied with the tides which governed the arrival of ships at the port. The foreman had mistakenly thought that the train would arrive later than it did, and the final two rails had not been replaced. The foreman had posted a lookout, but he was not far away enough to give adequate warning to the fast approaching train. Detonators should have been placed on the rails as an additional safeguard, but they were missing. The investigator, Colonel Rich, later reckoned that the train was travelling at about 30 mph when it entered the bridge. It managed to reach the far side of the viaduct by moving on the timber baulks supporting the rails, but the cast iron girders below cracked, and most of the carriages fell into the small brook (the River Beult) under the viaduct. The viaduct was not protected by guard rails, or any form of balustrade to prevent carriages overturning. The poor design of the viaduct contributed significantly to the disaster, and was to presage future calamities.

Charles Dickens

Dickens, and the manuscript of a novel in progress, were in one of the few carriages which did not fall (it is the one leaning at an angle, in front of the guard's van at right in the picture):

This profound experience affected Dickens psychologically for the rest of his life. He became a public hero for his efforts in helping the dying and injured passengers. He wrote a short story some time after the accident, a ghost story called "The Signal-Man", in which one of the principal incidents is a rail in a tunnel. Though Dickens possibly based his fictional crash upon the events of the terrible and well-known Clayton Tunnelmarker accident of 1861 (23 dead, 176 injured), rather than the Staplehurst crash, it is reasonable to suppose that his personal involvement in the Staplehurst incident inspired the harrowing tale. But he also included a fatal fall from a train and the signalman's own demise, as foretold by a spectre who appears to him before every accident. Dickens was deeply affected by the experience, and was extremely nervous when travelling by train; he tried to avoid train travel, using alternative means when available. It is also reasonable to suppose that the psychological effects and anxiety of the crash helped to shorten his life; he died five years to the day after the accident.

The accident is used as part of the plot in R. F. Delderfield's Swann saga novel - God is an Englishman. It also forms the starting point in a novel by Dan Simmons - Drood - published in February 2009.

External links


  • L. T. C. Rolt - Red for Danger: the classic history of railway accidents. Sutton Publishing (1998)
  • PR Lewis, Disaster on the Dee: Robert Stephenson's Nemesis of 1847, Tempus Publishing (2007) ISBN 978 0 7524 4266 2
  • Peter R Lewis, Dickens and the Staplehurst Rail Crash, The Dickensian, 104 (476), 197 (2009).

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