A Dickens of a Wreck: When Reality Haunts Fiction

A Dickens of a Wreck: When Reality Haunts Fiction

dickens wreck tunnel

In the 19th Century, railroad travel could be a traumatic experience. Traveling on combustible wooden coaches heated by stoves and lit by oil lamps at speeds approaching 60 mph, riding on small steel rails and crossing open countryside and precarious bridges, was popular yet held the possibility of being quite dangerous.

Famed psychologist Sigmund Freud held a strong fear of rail travel. Most people owe this to an incident in 1887 when, on a trip through Breslau in Germany, he saw blazing gas jets which reminded him of “souls burning in Hell”[1], while others attribute it to his anxiety of missing the train[2] or a traumatic experience as a child seeing his mother naked on a train[3] (giving his fear a certain sexual overtone that is just too perfectly Freudian). But for other people, the fear stemmed from very real events… and even became fodder for ghost stories.

On June 9, 1865, author Charles Dickens was traveling by train through Kent, England, when fate brought him into one of the best-known railroad disasters in British history. At 3:13 pm, as the train crossed Beult Viaduct, a missing section of track carelessly forgotten by repair workers cause the train to derail. Coaches tumbled into the muddy waters below. Miraculously, the coach in which Charles Dickens was riding dangled precariously over the edge of the bridge held to the brake van by its coupler. At great personal risk, Dickens left his coach to tend to the injured passengers in the other five coaches which had been damaged severely. Several passengers died in front of him.[4]

A newspaper engraving depicting the tragedy near Staplehurst. Dickens' coach can be seen on the right.

A newspaper engraving depicting the tragedy near Staplehurst. Dickens’ coach can be seen on the right.

There was something about this tragedy that made Dickens dream up a good railroad ghost story. While Dickens was a strong opponent of Spiritualism, he was keenly interested in the paranormal. In fact, he was one of the early members of The Ghost Club, arguably the first ghost-hunting organization ever created in England in 1862.

Overshadowed by A Christmas Carol, Dickens’ 1866 short story The Signal Man is a tale of a ghostly apparition witnessed by a signalman near a tunnel who becomes so terrified by the routine visits of a ghost that he becomes convinced there is an impending disaster which will occur at the tunnel. The apparition, it turns out, is a premonitory vision of the signal man himself trying to avert a wreck. While the Staplehurst accident spurred Dickens on to write this story, it was inspired by an earlier wreck when two trains collided in Clayton Tunnel on August 25, 1861. A miscommunication between two signalmen caused two trains to enter the tunnel on the same track. Twenty-three people lost their lives that day.

Clayton Tunnel, Dickens' inspiration for The Signal Man after the 1865 accident there.

Clayton Tunnel’s North Portal, with its cottage on top, was Dickens’ inspirational setting for The Signal Man.

It should be of no surprise to say that Clayton Tunnel is believed by many to be a very haunted place. The agonizing screams of passengers who died in that fateful wreck, coupled with the sounds of screeching, crunching metal, are still said to echo from within the tunnel itself. And the cottage built above the tunnel entrance—where signalman John Brown was stationed at the time of the famous accident—is plagued by “strange sounds” at night. The tunnel itself is also believed to be haunted by the ghosts of two soldiers who died inside while sheltering from a storm (though the nearby abandoned Queensbury Tunnel is said to be haunted by two workers who died in the first shaft, so it might be a misplaced story).

A visibly-uncomfortable Dickens (bottom right) returned to Staplehurst Station following the 1861 accident.

A visibly-uncomfortable Dickens (bottom right) returned to Staplehurst Station after the 1861 accident.

Charles Dickens never forgot his fellow passengers at Staplehurst that fateful day. For the rest of his life, he was haunted by the memories of the dead and dying inside the partially submerged coaches. In 1868, he admitted that, “I have sudden vague rushes of terror, even when riding in a hansom cab, which are perfectly unreasonable but quite insurmountable.” Sadly, Dickens passed away in 1870 just five years after the Staplehurst crash. Exactly five years to the day of the wreck.

[1] Vitz, Paul C. Sigmund Freud’s Christian Unconscious. New York: Guilford Press, 1988; p. 25.
[2] Bergstrom, Janet. Endless Night: Cinema and Psychoanalysis, Parallel Histories. Berkeley: UC Press, 1999; p.161.
[3] Slipp, Samuel. The Freudian Mystique: Freud, Women, and Feminism. New York: NYU Press, 1993; p.72-4.
[4] Dickens, Charles. Letter to Thomas Mitton. 9 Jun 1865.


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