Today, February 7, is world Dickens Day. So we’re taking a look at how the incredible rise of the British railway system shaped and influenced Charles Dickens’ life and books. And we discover why the Staplehurst train crash left him scared to travel by train.
The ‘Rocket’ Revolution
When Charles Dickens was 18 the famous Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ made its first journey on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. By the time he died at the age of 58 in 1870, there were over 15,000 miles of track in Britain and railways. Charles Dickens went on to write a lot about the influence of train travel in Victorian Britain.
Dickens’ books and railways
In his earlier novels like Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens wrote about travel by horse and cart. But it wasn’t until the 1846 publication of Dombey and Son that he included stories about the railways that were being built in Britain. The book talks about the destruction of the community of ‘Stagg’s Gardens’. This was thought to be based on Somers Town close to Euston Station in London. Train travel was becoming a subject close to Charles Dickens’ heart.
What Dickens saw at London Bridge station
As well as being a prolific novelist, Dickens also wrote a lot about railways in his many newspaper features. In the August 1851 edition of Household Words, he wrote about the discomfort of sitting a crowded train at London Bridge station on a hot day. It feels like ‘being “forced – like a cucumber, or a melon, or a pineapple’. Hmm. We know that feeling!
Dickens nearly died on a train
On 9 June 1865, Dickens was returning from France on a boat train when it was derailed near Staplehurst in Kent. Ten people were killed and 40 injured in the Staplehurst crash. At the scene, heroic Dickens helped look after the dead and dying. His near brush with death had a profound effect on him. And from then on, he became scared to travel by train.
For more on Dickens’ amazing life pay a visit to the Dickens Museum in London.