By Brad Dison
On the morning of July 9, 1865, 130 to 140 passengers boarded a train from Paris to Boulogne, France, on the first leg of their journey to London, England. Among them was popular writer John Huffman, whom most of the passengers easily recognized. John’s literary works were often satirical, humorous, and, more importantly, brought attention to the plight of the poor and destitute. His most successful book was a short ghost story, the first printing of which sold out in just five short days.
Most of the passengers, including John, travelled first class. Through the forests and fields of northwestern France, they glided over the tracks on what was described as a beautiful day. In Boulogne, they boarded a ferry and crossed the English Channel. Everyone aboard “seemed happy and delighted,” with the trip. One traveler reported that “although I have preformed the journey on many occasions, I don’t think I ever had a more delightful trip, as the sun shone out brilliantly the whole of the time we were afloat, and the sea was without ripple.”
At about 2:30 p.m., they arrived at Folkestone, England, where they boarded another passenger train bound for London. Clickety, clack, clickety, clack. Mile after mile, the train traveled at about forty miles per hour through the beautiful countryside of southern England. Between Headcorn and Staplehurst, about 60 miles south of London, the railway line crossed a small valley through which the River Beult flows. During the winter months, the River Beult held enough water “to float a ship,” but, during the summer months, the water dried to a trickle and the river basin was a muddy mess. On this summer afternoon, little water passed under the simple iron bridge.
At the River Beult bridge, the passengers heard a “deep and heavy” noise and felt “two terrible jolts.” As the train’s engine crossed the iron bridge, several of the passenger cars derailed and crashed into the muddy riverbed below. Only a singe passenger car remained connected to the engine but it was dangling precariously from the iron bridge. John occupied a seat on this dangling car.
Fearing the dangling passenger car would come uncoupled from the engine and crash down upon the heap of other wrecked passenger cars, the occupants quickly scurried out of the windows, John among them. Although they were all in shock, every able-bodied survivor hurried to the remains of the shattered carriages. The scene was one of death, destruction, and chaos. Twisted metal, wood, and train wheels projected from the water. Luggage and other personal items floated in the shallow water. The serenity that the passengers had known the whole of the trip was shattered and replaced by the moans and screams of the injured passengers.
John ran to give whatever aid he could provide. He yelled for someone to give him some brandy for the injured people but none could be found. John removed his hat and filled it with water. He washed the faces of the injured and gave them water to drink. Still in shock himself, John ran to every person he could find and tried to provide as much comfort as was possible. John tried to calm everyone around him and struggled to remain calm himself.
John and the other uninjured passengers helped the injured to the bank of the river. They carried the ones who had not survived to the same bank. They carried one woman to the bank who had been crushed to death by the passenger car. Her panic-stricken husband searched through the wreckage and screamed “My wife, my wife!” When he came upon the crushed, lifeless body of his wife on the bank, he collapsed beside her and cried uncontrollably. John looked away and continued helping the injured. A total of ten people died as a result of their injuries. Had John and the other uninjured passengers not rendered assistance, the death toll would have been much higher.
John never got over the Staplehurst crash. Although not physically wounded, he suffered from bouts of nervousness and shakiness for the rest of his life. Three months later, John was to be a guest at a dinner with other writers but could not attend due to the shock he sustained in the crash. He avoided travelling by train, which was the main mode of transportation to destinations outside of London. John Huffman died five years to the day from the Staplehurst crash. His children attributed his death, at least in part, to the Staplehurst train crash. On the following day, newspapers around the world announced the death of the author who wrote such novels as “Great Expectations,” “Hard Times,” “Oliver Twist,” “Bleak House,” “A Tale of Two Cities,” and, his best-selling book, the aforementioned ghost story called “A Christmas Carol.” John Huffman’s full name was Charles John Huffman Dickens…Charles Dickens.