(Actual photo of Staplehurst Rail Crash)
“But in the world where there is no stay but the hope of a better
(world), and no reliance but on the mercy and goodness of God. Through
these two harbours of a shipwrecked heart....”
Charles Dickens, letter, October 1865.
want you to sit comfortably and find comfort in this strangest of
tales. Some swear it is true, although there are just as many who would
disagree. Perhaps in the passing of the years and in the re-telling, the
shadowy remembrance of the truth has been lost. I am hoping, however,
that you will be my judge and jury.
Our story concerns one warm
day in June 1865 in the most beautiful Kent village of Shoreham, a day
like many others where the occupants of this little haven are wrapped up
in their day-to-day chores; all of them unaware of a train crash which
has taken place several miles away.
The centre of our tale is the Crown public house occupied by the hard-working Mistress Squib and her family.
Squib has not seen her husband for many a year but we will not speak
unkindly of that soul, rather we meet with Eliza as she takes the first
opportunity of the day to sit and mend the clothes of her two children.
son, who stands beside her, is Obadiah Squib, the man of the house and
full of all the life that God can give a heart. His wish is to sail the
oceans and by this method find his father – but we shall leave that tale
for another time.
The boy who sits reading in the corner is the
other apple of Eliza’s eye, young Benedict, who has been on this earth
the merest of summers, yet he is assuming all the finer qualities that
could be wished for in a son.
Finally we meet Charlotte Squib and
let no harsh construct be heard against her. Charlotte is a good soul of
infinite compassion and has sacrificed her life to work from morn’
through late evenings to compensate for her brother’s mysterious
disappearance, Eliza’s errant husband. Ever since her brother’s parting
Charlotte has been compelled to repeat the same incantation...
“He will return, I swear it.”
smiles as she has done a thousand times before and for all their
worries and concerns they are a happy band and one that providence has
decreed should assist our Mister Charles Dickens in his most troubled of
And so our story begins with an innocent knock at the door of the public house.
“Sweet bird of youth and such a time as this; tut, tut”
the door stands Mister Dickens, his mistress Ellen Ternan (known as
Nelly) and her mother Frances. They have recently alighted from a train
at Shoreham Station as Charles, having been overcome by the shakes, has
been unable to continue his rail journey.
Never one to use his
real name in such awkward and complex circumstances he introduces
himself as a Mister Tringham esquire accompanied by his god-daughter
Nelly and supported by her mother.
“Let me rest awhile in order to dispense of this constant shaking” says Charles as he sits without being asked.
Eliza observing his distress dispatches Obadiah with all haste to prepare a set of rooms above.
cannot have you abroad with such pallor as this gentleman displays, I
feel you may all find a benefit in resting awhile. You are welcome, you
are all most welcome”
Although the day is splendid in heat and the
windows thrown open to the skies, when Charles finally sits he asks the
boy to be kind enough to build a fire and take the chill from his
“May I trouble you once more, young...?”
“Young Obadiah would you be so kind as to fetch me my overcoat, I believe I have abandoned it below”
Obadiah retrieves the coat a manuscript falls from the pocket, it is
several unpublished chapters of an excellent story by Mister Charles
Dickens called ‘Our Mutual Friend’. Obadiah has read the early published
chapters but has no recognition of these. He replaces the manuscript in
the pocket and returns to the rooms above knowing that the man can only
be one person.
Entering the room Obadiah notices that the man sits unusually close to the fire.
“Is there something of consequence regarding my appearance?” asks Charles.
“None sir, it’s just that you have the look of a haunted man”
due to a change in my circumstances Obadiah, I have just this afternoon
escaped from the throats of death. Not far from here was an accident of
the most horrific sort, the train in which I travelled left the rails.
Pour me a brandy Obadiah, there’s a good man.”
Obadiah likes being
called a man and juggles the word in his head as Charles imbibes the
first glass. Empty now, Charles holds the glass out for Obadiah to
In the adjoining room, Nelly is being attended
by Eliza and Charlotte. She too is explaining their current
circumstances as Eliza dresses Nelly’s wound to her upper left arm.
“So you are Mister Tringham’s god-daughter?” asks Eliza as a distraction to subdue Nelly’s pain.
Nelly sadly replies, “He describes it as such but it is not the truth”
“I did not mean to breach a threshold with my inquisitiveness”
did not Eliza, if anything you are kindness itself. Mister Tringham is a
writer, together with my mother we have spent a French summer in the
company of the gentleman. He is my companion, not my god father”.
“It is of no consequence to me whatsoever” says an apologetic Eliza who watches as Charlotte excuse herself from the room.
“May I speak freely?” asks Nelly.
Nelly explains that she met Charles when still only eighteen years of
age and he was, even then, an elderly gentleman. She knows that Mister
Tringham has a family and that she will be held to account one day but
that day has not yet arrived and whether t'is the pain or the closeness
of death she has tasted this day, Ellen Ternan speaks one sentence that
will never pass her lips again.
“Our son lies buried in France”.
door, Obadiah has finished building up the fire to a roar which is
almost impotent against the shaking. Obadiah knows this is not the best
of times but he feels compelled to ask:
“I wondered sir, if it did not burden you too much, that perhaps you could describe the accident?”
“Why should you not be interested, after all you are a boy.”
“I am a man, Mister Tringham”.
Charles feels bad and apologies to Obadiah then implores him to make himself comfortable.
and my two companions, had boarded the 2.38 tidal-train at Folkestone.
All was well abroad and the world was an excellent container until I
felt the carriage shaking, first this way then the other. My little Nell
cried out, ‘let us all hold hands and die as friends’. A silence
followed, Obadiah, one that hushed the very birds on the trees. I
crawled to the window to observe that our carriage was hanging twenty
feet, at least, above a ravine held by the slightest of graces. The
others had been less fortunate, each having crashed to the river below. I
called out to the train guards asking did they recognise me......”
He has said too much.
“You mean did they recognise you Mister Dickens?”
Charles smiles at the boy. “It is our secret Mister Dickens”
my two companions were safely at the top of the hill I returned to the
ravine, it would have been less of a chore to have walked into the jaws
“The valley was awash with the dead and dying, I climbed
the side of our train and re-entered our carriage retrieving my top hat
and a brandy flask.
“I filled my hat with water and took it to a
young man who lay a short distance from me. What I could see, but he
could not, was the fatal damage to his upper head. He asked that I slake
his thirst, asked me not to leave him then closed his eyes for the last
“Slightly to the north was a lady of similar age to myself
who lay on the ground. I lifted her and sat her against a little pollard
tree and wetted her lips with brandy. She smiled at me with one half of
her mouth and I instructed her to wait as I fetched for help. The next
time I passed the tree she had expired. It was then I remembered I had
left my manuscript in my pocket of my overcoat and that was in the
carriage we had vacated. I climbed as the carriage threatened to crash
along with all the others. Yet I did not relish rewriting those
chapters. I recovered the document which I am assuming you must have
Charles did not instruct Obadiah on all the facts
regarding the three hours that he had spent tending to the dead and
dying. In all ten people perished and forty-nine were injured. He could
not talk of it to others for fear of the scandal in his choice of
When he asked Obadiah what would ensure his silence
regarding his true identity, Obadiah asked for only one thing, a new
story written by the greatest of all writers.
The source of the
crash was a deadly simple one: the foreman at the site in Staplehurst
had read the wrong timetable. His times were for the following day, the
Saturday, when the next train was due shortly after five o’ clock but on
that day, the 9th of June, Dickens’ train was due to pass
the bridge at several minutes after three. Thinking that the workmen had
two clear hours of maintenance, the foreman instructed the gang to lift
Shortly after Dickens finished his recounting of the
tale, Charles, Frances and Nelly were on a train to Charing Cross. They
were met at the station by Willis, Dickens confidant, who saw the ladies
on to their London home at Mornington Crescent.
intended to return to his family that evening, a family watched over by
his sister-in-law Georgina at Gad’s Hill in Higham, but the shakes
overtook him once again and he spent the night at his London office.
panic attacks increased over the following years and once it was noted
by his daughter that he seemed to sink into a trance and relive the day
of the crash. His concentration suffered too and he found it difficult
to complete ‘Our Mutual Friend’. He brought it to such an abrupt halt
that his publisher asked him to think again and extend it. This he did
reluctantly but it was to be the last novel he ever completed.
was love that kept Charles silent about that day and it was love that
nurtured him in the final years of his life. He died five years to the
day of the train crash while writing ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’.
for Charles attendance at the crash, there is a postscript by him at
the end of ‘Our Mutual Friend’ and as for the presence of Nelly, there
is a letter sent by Dickens to the Station Master at Charing Cross
instructing him of Mistress Ternan’s lost jewellery at the crash site.
our Shoreham friends, Eliza’s husband Richard came home several months
after Dickens’ visit and they settled into running the Crown Public
House together; both are buried in Shoreham churchyard.
weeks after the crash a letter was delivered to Obadiah containing a
story, true to his word Mister Charles Dickens, the most famous man in
all Christendom, had penned a ghost story called ‘The Signalman’.
Charlotte was committed to Bedlam where she died in 1877. Benedict, the
youngest son took over the running of the Crown and Obadiah, after many
years in the Royal Navy, settled in Australia.
And so dear
friends we are almost done with this remembrance and whether or not you
believe my story, I hope it has amused you. I wish each and every one of
you a wonderful life.
bobby stevenson 2016