The Scene of the Crash
Staplehurst, in Kent, is a station on the line from Folkestone to London Bridge, operated at the time by the South Eastern Railway. A few miles east of the station the railway crosses the River Beult, and this was where the accident took place. The river is not particularly wide but the land on either side is somewhat boggy, so it is bridged by a short viaduct, its height being no more than ten feet above the surface.
In 1865 the bridge was mounted on brick piers, linked by cast iron girders. The girders provided the seating for substantial timber beams on which the rails were laid. There were 32 of these beams and, at the time of the accident, the beams were in the process of being replaced as they were showing signs of excessive wear.
An Engineer at Fault
The engineer in charge of the work was John Benge. Given that the traffic on this railway was not all that frequent, he was able to carry out the work in the intervals between train movements. The rails would be lifted, one or more of the old beams be replaced with new timbers, and the rails relaid in plenty of time for the next train to pass.
The South Eastern Railway laid down strict procedures for warning any train driver who might approach the scene of running repairs on the track. The practice was for detonators to be laid on the track at defined intervals and for a man with a red flag to be posted at the site of the detonator furthest from the work site. (A detonator is an explosive device that produces a flash and a bang when hit by a train wheel but which causes no damage to either the train or the track).
John Benge was, however, so confident that the men could do the work within the “safe time” between trains that he saw no need for the rules to be observed to the letter. Although he was supposed to set detonators at 250 yard intervals up to 1,000 yards, at which point there should be two detonators and the man with the red flag, the man in question was told not to set detonators unless it was foggy (which it wasn’t on 9th June) and to stand only 550 yards along the track.
The foreman’s confidence was due to the fact that the work had proceeded faultlessly for several days and was nearly complete, with 31 of the 32 timber beams already replaced. He also, or so he thought, had a three-hour window in which to finish the work by fitting the final beam. After an “up” train had passed at 2.51 pm there was a clear gap of well over an hour before the next “down” train at 4.15 pm.
However, there was a complication that also had to be taken on board. This was the boat train that took passengers to London from the “Channel packet” that arrived at Folkestone after crossing the English Channel from Boulogne. The timing of these ferries depended on the state of the tides, and the timing of the boat trains was therefore affected as well.
The boat trains could not be included on the regular timetable but a “working timetable” was produced at short notice for the benefit of railwaymen along the route including anyone, such as John Benge, who was working on the track. Benge had a copy of the working timetable for 9th June, as did his chief carpenter who was shaping the new timbers to fit the spaces on the viaduct.
The problem was that John Benge misread the working timetable. He was convinced that the boat train was not due until 5.20pm, which was well outside his original time frame, but the actual time was 3.15pm. Had he been aware of this he would certainly not have started work at 2.51pm. He was not helped by the fact that the chief carpenter had already lost his copy of the timetable – he dropped it and it was run over by a train. Nobody was therefore in a position to point out the engineer’s error.
When the boat train reached the scene it was doing 50 miles an hour. The man with the red flag waved it vigorously but the driver could not respond in time, although he braked as hard as he could and blew his whistle. The guard, who had a patent emergency brake at his disposal, did not see the flag and only applied his ordinary brake when he heard the train’s whistle.
John Benge’s confidence as to his gang’s speed of working was justified to the extent that the new timbers were already laid, but a 21-foot section of rail was not. The engine and the leading van managed to stay upright as they ran across the bare timbers but the following carriages (there were thirteen in total) were not so lucky. The cast-iron girders gave way and the leading passenger carriage fell into the gap, although it was still coupled to the van that had stayed on the viaduct. It therefore hung at an angle but was not otherwise damaged. The next five carriages, however, fell into the river and were wrecked. It was in these that the casualties occurred, with ten deaths and 49 injuries.
The Role of Charles Dickens
One of the passengers in the leading coach, now hanging off the viaduct, was the novelist Charles Dickens. He had been taking a working break at his regular holiday retreat near Boulogne, accompanied by his mistress Ellen Ternan and her mother. He had been looking through the manuscript of his latest novel, “Our Mutual Friend”, when the train crashed, and he mentioned this fact in a postscript to what would prove to be his last completed book.
Dickens helped the passengers in his carriage to escape and then turned his attention to those who were not so lucky. Although the extent of the help he gave has probably been exaggerated it certainly seems to be the case that he kept his head when some others were losing theirs. For example, he calmly let other passengers out of the un-wrecked carriages when the railway workers were running around in a panic.
However, that is not to say that the Staplehurst crash did not have a profound effect on Dickens’s health, because it certainly affected him psychologically. He suffered from what would probably be termed today “post-traumatic stress disorder” and those people who knew him personally before and after the crash testified to the fact he was never the same again. He avoided long train journeys whenever he could (which was by no means always) and in the five years remaining to him he only started one more novel (“The Mystery of Edwin Drood”) which he did not live to complete.
Ironically, he died (from a stroke) exactly five years after the Staplehurst disaster, on 9th June 1870. Had John Benge read his timetable correctly, perhaps “Drood” would have been finished and other novels might have followed in its wake.