Charles Dickens’ literary legacy cannot be overstated. As the author of such gems as Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, and many more, Dickens is generally conceded to be the greatest and most influential writer of the Victorian Age. But did you know he was also a hero?
The events unfolded on a summer afternoon, June 9, 1865. On his way back from Paris, Dickens was riding a train when it derailed in a horrific crash. A series of unfortunate events had resulted in the train’s engineer being unable to stop in time to avoid track repairs over a viaduct in Staplehurst, Kent. A portion of the train made it over the ten-foot high viaduct, the next seven carriages ended up in the muddy river, and the last two carriages remained on the eastern bank. Dickens’ carriage was one that remained on the track.
Dickens heroically sprang into action to help, but there was little that could be done. He managed to fill his top hat with water to quench the thirst of the dying or injured, and he administered brandy from his flask. He comforted people as best he could, but in the end ten people died and forty others were injured.
Although Dickens himself was uninjured in the crash, the impact on him emotionally was profound. Never again would he feel comfortable with train travel. He wrote a short story inspired by the event, The Signal Man, in which the main character has a premonition of his death. On the anniversary of the crash five years later, Dickens succumbed to the effects of a stroke and died.
Why did he not trumpet his heroic actions in the Staplehurst rail crash? Although Dickens was a good man in many ways, drawing attention to social ills and trumpeting the cause of the poor and downtrodden, he was not perfect. Had he shown up at the Staplehurst inquest, he might have had to disclose the scandalous fact he’d been traveling with his mistress, actress Ellen Ternan.
~ S.G. Rogers