Dickens derailed

Tom Chesshyre recounts Dickens’s troubled history with trains

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On 9 june 1865 Charles Dickens caught the 2.38pm “tidal train” from Folkestone to Charing Cross with Ellen “Nelly” Ternan — an actress 27 years his junior who was widely believed to be his mistress — and her mother. They were in first-class, returning from a trip to France, and Dickens had part of the manuscript of Our Mutual Friend in his coat pocket.

As the train passed through Kent, disaster struck. Workmen on a section of track at a viaduct/bridge across the River Beult, close to Staplehurst, had lifted the rails to fix a problem, having misread a timetable. They thought the train would come by two hours later. The flagman to warn any oncoming locomotive was not far enough away. Brakes were applied at 50 miles an hour but the train still plunged into the gap on the bridge with carriages plummeting to the riverbed.

Trains remained a big part of his life during those five years, even if he did try to avoid them

Dickens’s carriage was the only one in first-class to hang on above. He was uninjured. Nelly was hurt in her arm and neck. She and her mother made away to avoid anyone recognising the novelist with them. Then Dickens, respectability intact, sprang into action, filling his top-hat with water and taking a flask of brandy to attend to those down below. Many were dead, others were in agony, skulls broken open: a scene of carnage.

After a while, Dickens remembered something: his manuscript in his coat. With the carriage swaying above, he successfully went back to retrieve it. Then he returned to London on an emergency train, admitting he was “quite shattered and broken up” by the day’s events, during which ten died and 40 were injured. From then on, he was an anxious rail passenger, his children recalling him gripping the seats. His daughter Mamie said his nerves were “never really the same again”. By odd coincidence, he died precisely five years to the day after the derailment.

Trains remained a big part of his life during those five years, even if he did try to avoid them. They were particularly useful when it came to his love life and keeping up appearances.

Felix Aylmer’s fascinating book Dickens Incognito, published in 1959, is partly based on his stumbling upon an 1867 pocket diary belonging to Dickens, which had been lost during a reading tour in New York; the diary had been kept at a public library and seen by only a few before him.

They had missed a trick. Aylmer noticed a pattern in the entries, including inscriptions to describe journeys from “P” and “W” to “Sl” and “W”; trips to “Off” and “G.H.”, with regular meetings with “N” and an “Arrival” on 13 April.

Aylmer explains that Dickens had rented a cottage in Slough for Nelly and that he would visit her by train: the “Sl” in the diary stood for “Slough”, the “P” for Paddington; “W” was either Waterloo or Windsor, while “Off” was office and “G.H.” his family home at Gad’s Hill in Kent. “N” was Nelly and “Arrival” was possibly the arrival of a child.

The latter has been proved to be highly unlikely, despite Aylmer having checked council records, which showed that Dickens had used an alias in Slough: Charles Tringham. This, he conjectures, could have been to allow a false birth certificate.

To add to all this ducking and diving, Aylmer points out that Dickens would travel into Slough station and out of Windsor, thus cunningly avoiding recognition at his secret home.

What a lot of intrigue. What is certain is that Dickens liked to hop about on trains quite a bit, even if he did get sweaty palms. Around Britain to Birmingham, Manchester and Scotland he went on his many reading tours, perhaps becoming the country’s best passenger during the early boom days of rail.

In Peter Ackroyd’s superb biography, Dickens, a flavour of how he could come across from a “fellow passenger” on the ferry trip across the Channel before the tidal train to London: “Travelling with him was a lady not his wife, nor his sister-in-law, yet he strutted about the deck with the air of a man bristling with self-importance, every line of his face and every gesture of his limbs seemed haughtily to say — ‘Look at me; make the most of your chance. I am the great, the only Charles Dickens; whatever I may choose to do is justified by that fact’.”

Meanwhile, Clare Tomalin, in her equally superb biography, Charles Dickens: A Life, says that the Staplehurst train crash could have been a “moment of reckoning” for Dickens and Nelly: “Even with Nelly injured Dickens put his determination to protect his reputation before his wish to look after her.”

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