Five years to the day after the Staplehurst rail accident, Charles Dickens died in his home at Gad’s Hill. His son Henry and daughter Mamie noted that their father’s nerves and general constitution were never quite the same following the crash.
Travelling with him on that fateful day were his mistress Ellen Ternan and her mother. They were journeying first class on the 2:38 Southeastern train from Folkestone to London, returning home from a trip in Paris.
At around 3:00, the train was approaching the viaduct over the river Beult, where engineering works were taking place. Two errors led to the derailment of the train: firstly, the foreman overseeing the works did not study the timetable sufficiently and believed the train would arrive two hours later. Secondly, the man in charge of waving the red flags in case of approaching trains was posted too close to the construction site, not allowing the train enough time to slow down.
The train derailed, crashing into the river below, killing ten people and injuring forty others. Dickens went around the injured and dying, giving them brandy from his brandy flask. Onlookers would remember how he valiantly helped those he could.
Just before departing on an emergency service, Dickens remembered his manuscript in the carriage – he rescued the pages of his next number of Our Mutual Friend. In the postscript for the novel, he wrote about the accident, and his words there are an indication of his state of mind following the trauma.
“On Friday the Ninth of June in the present year, Mr. and Mrs. Boffin (in their manuscript dress of receiving Mr. and Mrs. Lammle at breakfast) were on the South Eastern Railway with me, in a terribly destructive accident. When I had done what I could to help others, I climbed back into my carriage–nearly turned over a viaduct, and caught aslant upon the turn–to extricate the worthy couple. They were much soiled, but otherwise unhurt. The same happy result attended Miss Bella Wilfer on her wedding day, and Mr. Riderhood inspecting Bradley Headstone’s red neckerchief as he lay asleep. I remember with devout thankfulness that I can never be much nearer parting company with my readers for ever, than I was then, until there shall be written against my life, the two words with which I have this day closed this book:–THE END.”
~ Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens
Source: Dickens by Peter Ackroyd