Known for his searing indictments of social and economic poverty in working class Victorian Britain, Charles Dickens is less well known but no less respected for his timely intervention in the affairs of the railways, writes Andy Milne.
Dickens was travelling in the forward car of the Boat Train from Folkestone that derailed at Staplehurst in Kent in June 1865. Ten people died and 40 were injured. 42 feet of track had been lifted for repair and the supervisor did not expect the train until much later.
To compound it, the accident happened on a bridge. Most of the train toppled into the river below. All but one of the first class coaches plunged in. Dickens and his party, returning from Paris, were in the surviving carriage. Far from fleeing the scene Charles Dickens descended gamely to the river and helped rescue the injured. He described the scene as unimaginable.
The accident troubled Dickens for the subsequent five years of his life. The short story ‘The Signalman’ remains one of his most evocative. It tells of a railwayman who has a presentiment of death.
An earlier work by Dickens is rather more cheerful in its dealings with railways. Dickens witnessed at first hand the unfolding of the railway age – he was born in 1812. In Dombey and Son, published in installments and completed in 1848, he describes the hive of activity surrounding the building of the new railway as an earthquake. The scene is set in Camden Town.
‘The first shock of a great earthquake had, just at that period, rent the whole neighbourhood to its centre. Traces of its course were visible on every side. Houses were knocked down; streets broken through and stopped; deep pits and trenches dug in the ground; enormous heaps of earth and clay thrown up; buildings that were undermined and shaking, propped by great beams of wood.
‘Here, a chaos of carts, overthrown and jumbled together, lay topsy-turvy at the bottom of a steep unnatural hill. … Everywhere were bridges that led nowhere; thoroughfares that were wholly impassable. In short, the yet unfinished and unopened Railroad was in progress…’
Dombey and Son
Dickens’ wife Catherine lived in Gloucester Crescent in Camden hard by what is now the West Coast Main Line. She had separated from Charles but he would have visited her there. Later in Dombey and Son he talks of the changes railways wrought to the landscape – long before the irritants of town and country planning.
‘Staggs’s Gardens…had vanished from the earth. Where the old rotten summer-houses once had stood, palaces now reared their heads, and granite columns of gigantic girth opened a vista to the railway world beyond.
‘The miserable waste ground, where the refuse-matter had been heaped of yore, was swallowed up and gone; and in its frowsy stead were tiers of warehouses, crammed with rich goods and costly merchandise. The old by-streets now swarmed with passengers and vehicles of every kind. The new streets that had stopped disheartened in the mud and wagon-ruts, formed towns within themselves, originating wholesome comforts.’
Powerful and prosperous relation
He writes of traders and local people forsaking their initial reservations about railways and joining in the commerce and opportunities to be had. ‘As to the neighbourhood which had hesitated to acknowledge the railroad in its straggling days, that had grown wise and penitent, as any Christian might in such a case, and now boasted of its powerful and prosperous relation.
‘There were railway patterns in its drapers’ shops, and railway journals in the windows of its newsmen. There were railway hotels, office-houses, lodging-houses, boarding-houses; railway plans, maps, views, wrappers, bottles, sandwich-boxes, and timetables; railway hackney-coach and cabstands; railway omnibuses, railway streets and buildings, railway hangers-on and parasites, and flatterers out of all calculation. There was even railway time observed in clocks, as if the sun itself had given in.’
‘Even the local chimney sweep has got in on the action securing a contract with the railway company. He, the sweep, ‘Now lived in a stuccoed house three stories high, and gave himself out, with golden flourishes upon a varnished board, as contractor for the cleansing of railway chimneys by machinery.
‘To and from the heart of this great change, all day and night, throbbing currents rushed and returned incessantly like its life’s blood.’
Urgency and power
In his prose Dickens manages to capture the urgency and power of the steam railway age. ‘Night and day the conquering engines rumbled at their distant work, or, advancing smoothly to their journey’s end, and gliding like tame dragons into the allotted corners grooved out to the inch for their reception, stood bubbling and trembling there, making the walls quake, as if they were dilating with the secret knowledge of great powers yet unsuspected in them, and strong purposes not yet achieved.’
A friend of the railways
Charles Dickens remains a powerful writer but he should also be remembered as a friend of the railways. At Staplehurst he filled his top hat with water and produced a flask of brandy to comfort the injured and the dying. He watched a man die, pinned under the train. He gave a sip of brandy to a lady who subsequently died. Dickens stayed at this work for three hours. Eventually railway staff and local militia arrived to help. The site was sealed.
Walking away Dickens suddenly remembered he had left the manuscript of his latest novel in the carriage. Despite the risk, he scrambled back onto the bridge and climbed into the carriage to retrieve it. The book would later be published under the title, ‘Our Mutual Friend.’
The courage and help Dickens rendered rail staff and passengers on the Boat Train that day should never be forgotten. Charles Dickens remains a mutual friend indeed.