Original article from Kent Live
If you speak to anyone from Kent about the county’s legacy, one of the first things they’ll tell you is that it was home to the great Victorian novelist Charles Dickens.
Dickens spent his formative years in Chatham, finding inspiration for his characters and settings in the Garden of England.
Even after moving to London he spent his summers holidaying in Broadstairs, and then in Folkestone when the chaos of Broadstairs started to disturb his writing.
Dickens eventually died at Gad’s Hill Place in Higham in 1870, aged 58, but little known to most people he came within inches of death just five years earlier in the great Staplehurst train crash of 1865.
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His great-great grandson, Gerald Dickens, is currently working on a novel about the crash which killed 10 and injured 40 more, which he is set to discuss at Revelation Ashford on June 9, the anniversary of the accident.
He said: “What’s really fascinating is everybody else’s story on the train, they are all beautifully ordinary people.
“Of course, they’ve been forgotten because Charles Dickens happened to be on the train with them.”
Gerald, 57, who is originally from Tunbridge Wells, is an actor, director and producer who specialises in one-man productions of his great-great grandfather’s novels.
He was inspired to research the crash after performing The Signalman, a Dickens’ ghost story which was heavily influenced by the accident.
Gerald said: “It’s a very sombre, haunting story. It’s not in Dickens’ usual style.
“It’s much darker and more gothic as if he’s trying to exorcise his memories of what happened.”
During lockdown Gerald was struck by how little he knew about the crash so he started studying Dickens’ letters and the Official Board of Trade enquiry.
On the day of the crash, the timbers on the rails of the bridge crossing the River Beult had been removed to be replaced.
A foreman misread the timetable, expecting the Folkestone Boat Express train carrying Dickens and a number of other passengers to arrive two hours later than it did.
The rails across the bridge were up when the train arrived causing it to derail and crash into the river.
Dickens’ carriage was the only one that wasn’t crushed, but remained hanging off the bridge.
Gerald said: “He clambered down to the riverbank and spent two or three hours assisting with the rescue – helping people, holding them, caring for them.
“Two people died in his arms, and it was that he always said affected him most.”
Gerald talks of how Dickens suffered what is now recognised as post-traumatic stress disorder following the crash, and never truly recovered from the experience.
In fact, he died just five years later to the very day.
His children wrote about how he would come out in a sweat and tremble whenever he had to travel by train, which was quite often given he spent his remaining years performing theatrical tours across the country.
Gerald said: “It was as if he wasn’t in the present, his mind was back in that rail crash in Staplehurst.”
But even the trauma of the accident didn’t stop Dickens from retrieving the manuscript of Our Mutual Friend, his last novel, from the crash site.
Gerald added: “He still had the presence of mind to clamber back up the little ladder that had been put into his carriage and retrieve the manuscript.
“He got back on a train into London and the first thing he did was to take it to the office and give it to his editor so it could be published.”
The crash became a scandal after it was discovered that Dickens was travelling with his mistress, the actress Ellen Ternan, but Gerald is keen to refocus the story on the ordinary people who lost their lives in the crash.
He talks about one of the sadder anecdotes he found in which a French chef and an English gentleman, who had never met, were sharing a compartment on the train.
The chef asked if they could swap seats as he didn’t like the wind coming through the window.
Just two minutes later the train derailed and the Englishman, who later became a good friend of Dickens, survived whilst the chef was killed.
But Gerald’s research isn’t all doom and gloom, he also talks about some of the more heart-warming tales from the crash.
An injured hotel-owner from Liverpool who lost his wife in the accident stayed in Staplehurst to recuperate, where he was nursed by a school teacher and her sister.
He later returned to Liverpool, taking the sister of the school mistress with him, where they married.
Gerald said: “What I wanted to do was to try and build a complete picture of that day and Dickens was a major part of it.”
“All you ever hear about is Charles Dickens and who he was travelling with but what’s really fascinating is everybody else’s story.”
The Day Dickens Nearly Died at Revelation is set to be released on June 9.