Two weeks ago we went to our local ‘Day out with Thomas’ day at the Didcot Railway centre, our local preserved historic railway.  It was a fun day with everything you’d expect from such an event, with a jolly Sir Topham Hat (aka The Fat Controller in less PC days) taking control of proceedings whilst his assistants Rusty and Dusty performed a series of slapstick comedy routines which also involved the might of a GWR diesel train shuffling up and down a short length of track.  Thomas himself was smilingly giving rides on another stretch of line.


Along the platform were bookshops selling volumes that only the most committed of railway enthusiasts would understand, there were engine sheds in which one could gaze up in awe at the majestic pieces of engineering that are steam locomotives and there was a museum that displayed signalling equipment from the nearby town of Swindon.

As I walked in the door to view ‘The Swindon Panel’ exhibit I was faced with something that immediately resonated, for on a shelf I saw: ‘a telegraphic instrument with its dial, face, and needles, and the little bell of which he had spoken.’ These words of course come from The Signalman which is a major part of my repertoire.

I have often wondered what the inside of the signalman’s box would be like and how the solitary man went about his duties through the long hours of his shifts.  He talks about there being little manual labour, and of the bell which sends and receives messages from the nearest station and which is his constant companion as well as his tormentor when it is supernaturally rung by the malevolent spirit that haunts the line.


I studied the equipment on display and was delighted to discover that it was actually wired up and when the little handle was pushed a bell on the other side of the museum rang.  A helpful young man showed us how a signlaman would set the dial to ‘Train on Line’ and ‘offer’ that train to the next signalbox by pushing the little lever which rings the bell.  The other signalman then accepted the train by returning the message and then everyone set their signals accordingly.   Both dials showed ‘Train on Line’ and in theory there could be no risk of a collision until both boxes went through the system of messages again and set the dials back to ‘Line Clear.   Each bell had a different tone so at very complicated junctions an expert signalman would know instantly which stretch of line was busy or clear’.

In the week following the visit I emailed The Swindon Panel organisation and asked if the equipment on display would have been similar to that used in Dickens’ day and I received a very helpful reply from a Mr Robert Heron confirming that it was.  With a rather nice touch Mr Heron opened his email by pointing out that he was familiar with my work having seen me perform on the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railway a few years ago.

Now I have new levels of knowledge and have discovered that the equipment that Dickens describes is in fact a Block Signalling system and that I can buy a complete one, including the bell, from a dealer in railwayana for around £700!  I think that my next project is to source some oak display boxes and mock one up for my set.  At least I know where I can go to confirm the exact measurements and details of the device.

The discovery of the signalling equipment brought ‘The Signalman’ very much to the forefront of my mind and I decided to undertake a little more research into the circumstances of the Staplehurst rail crash of 1865 which is generally supposed to have inspired Dickens to write his most intense ghost story.

The basic facts of the story have long been known to me and indeed feature in my performance:  A viaduct over the River Beult was being repaired and so a stretch of line had been removed.  The train travelling from Folkestone to London arrived at the scene unexpectedly and the resulting derailment killed ten and injured forty.  Charles Dickens had been travelling in a first class carriage with Ellen Ternan and her mother and had assisted in the rescue operation.  In a letter to his close friend Thomas Mitton written just a few days after the crash he described he scene, naturally embellishing it with his delicious prose:

‘This is precisely what passed.  You may judge it from the precise length of the suspense: Suddenly we were all off the rail, and beating the ground as the car of a half-emptied balloon might.  The old lady cried out ‘My God’, and the young one screamed.  I caught hold of them both (the old lady sat opposite and the young one on my left), and said: ‘We can’t help ourselves, but we can be quiet and composed.  Pray don’t cry out.’  The old lady immediately answered: ‘Thank you.  Rely upon me.  Upon my soul I will be quiet.’  The young lady said in a frantic way, ‘Let us join hands and die friends.’  We were then all tilted down together in a corner of the carriage, and stopped.  I said to them thereupon: ‘You may be sure that nothing worse can happen.  Our danger must be over.  Will you remain here without stirring, while I get out of the window?’  They both answered quite collectedly, ‘Yes’ and I got out without the least notion what had happened…’

Dickens then clambered out and assisted the workforce and the train guards in pulling the dead and wounded from the wreckage.

‘No imagination can conceive the ruin of the carriages, or the extraordinary weights under which the people were lying, or the complications into which they were twisted up among iron and wood, and mud and water.’

The scene was somewhat fancifully illustrated by the popular press casting Dickens in the role of a super-hero.


All that I know about Staplehurst has been derived from various biographies of Dickens but I had heard that there was a transcript of the full Board of Trade investigation into the accident available and I was very keen to read it.

After a little hunting around on the internet I tracked the report to Leicester University and was able to download a four page document which had been written by Captain FH Rich of the Royal Engineers and which had been originally published on 21 June 1865, just 12 days after the crash.  It made fascinating reading.

I have always understood that the foreman of the works (the foreman of platelayers, to give him his official title), had incorrectly read the timetable book which dealt with the vagaries of the boat train which, because of the tides in the English Channel, arrived in the vicinity of Staplehurst at a different time every day, and this fact was confirmed by the report:

‘When at breakfast on the morning of the 9th inst. he informed some of the men sitting near him that the tidal train would not pass till 5.20pm that day.  He had the time service book in his hand at the time, and was seen to refer to it, but he mistook the time the tidal train would be due at Headcorn on the 10th June, for the time it was due on the 9th, and read the time as 5.20pm instead of 3.15pm, about which time it arrived.’

But what I hadn’t known until reading the report is that this mistake should not have allowed to happen, for a second timetable book given to the leading carpenter could also have been checked and the foreman’s error would have been seen, however the carpenter’s book had been…

‘…cut in two by a wheel passing over it, and as he was working under the orders of the foreman of platelayers, who had a similar book, he did not consider it necessary to ask for another, in place of the one that had been destroyed.’

There then follows a great deal of technical information regarding baulks, chairs, sleepers, beams, girders, sleepers and ballast all of which relates to the nature of the repairs that were being carried out, but then the Capt. Rich talks about the next failsafe that was incorrectly observed.  Whenever there was a breach in the line the South Eastern Railway Company had a regulation that a labourer would be sent 1000 yards up the track to display a red flag in the event of a train unexpectedly using the line.  On 9th June 1865 John Wiles was given the flag and sent on his way.  I have always believed that the method of measuring the 1000 yards distance was to count a certain amount of telegraph poles, and that outside Staplehurst the poles were placed too close together meaning that the requisite distance was not reached.  The report however makes no mention of the placement of the poles but does suggest that Wiles rather lazily decided that 10 poles was probably about right and set himself up there.  The reality of the situation was 10 poles only took him 554 yards from the breach leaving a speeding train no space to stop.

The final check that failed was the presence, or non-presence, of the inspector of the railway from the South Eastern Railway Company.  In the case of a ‘protracted repair’ the inspector should have visited the sight regularly to ensure that all of the procedures were correctly followed.  Even though the repairs to the Beult viaduct took over ten weeks the foreman did not regard it as a protracted repair, his reasoning being that each day of work was a separate project.  Captain Rich strongly disagreed with this assumption.

With so many procedures ignored or incorrectly carried out it was inevitable that the tidal train from Folkestone to London should meet its doom on June 9th 1865.  Captain Rich takes up the story again:

‘The train passed Headcorn station at 3.11 pm about two minutes late; she reached the viaduct about 2.13 (this must be a typographical error for as far as I’m aware Headcorn and Staplehurst are not in different time zones!).  The speed at which she reached the viaduct appears to have carried the engine over that part of the road from which the first length of rail on the bank had been removed…..Her right wheels remained between the up line of rails; and the left wheels between the up line and the boundary fence of the railway.

The tender remained attached to the engine and stood across the up line.  The van next to it was unhooked, but remained on the bank standing across the up line, in an opposite direction to the tender.  This van remained coupled to the second-class carriage next to it, which had its leading wheels on the viaduct and the hind wheels suspended over the bed of the river.  The first-class carriage next behind hung by its front end to the second-class and the other end rested in the dry bed of the river (this was the one that Charles Dickens and his companions were in).  The next first-class carriage was turned bottom upwards in the dry bed of the river.  The five next first-class carriages were in the mud and water…..

‘The train consisted 80 first-class passengers and 35 second-class.  Seven women and 3 men were taken out dead and 40 others with injuries of various kinds, some of them very serious…..

Seven of the carriages were completely destroyed from falling over the viaduct….’

I have visited the site of the accident and the ‘viaduct’ is not high, and at the time of the crash the speed of the train was low, although Capt. Rich didn’t trust the driver’s testimony:

‘The driver of the tidal train….states that he had reduced his speed from 45 or 50 miles per hour to 10 or 12 miles per hour when he reached the viaduct.  I consider that his estimate of the speed  to which he reduced his train is erroneous; and considering the time that would be lost before the brakes came into action, and the rest of the catastrophe, it appears probable that he had not reduced the speed of the train below 30 miles per hour, when he reached the viaduct.

The driver had shut off steam and realising that he was not losing sufficient speed had whistled to the guards in other vans to apply their brakes too.

‘None of the guards perceived the “danger” signal before reaching it.  Their first intimation was the driver’s whistle, and they state that they immediately commenced to apply thwir brakes….’

‘…The train had probably got over half the distance between the signalman and the viaduct from which two rails had been removed, before the brake came into action.’

A small drop into a muddy river bank and a relatively low speed but the devastation of the tidal train was horrendous, and Dickens was truly lucky to have survived.


The effect of the accident on him was profound and often the memory of it came back at the most unlikely times.  I have been told that modern experts have identified Dickens’ reaction to Staplehurst as  one of the first recorded cases of post traumatic stress disorder.

His daughter Mamie later described how Staplehurst continued to haunt Charles:

‘But my father’s nerves never really were the same again after this frightful  experience.  At first it was natural that he should suffer greatly, and we have often seen him, when travelling home from London, suddenly fall into a paroxysm of fear, tremble all over, clutch the arms of the carriage, large beads of perspiration standing on his face, and suffering agonies of terror.  We never spoke to him, but would touch his hand gently now and then.  He had apparently no idea of our presence; he saw nothing for a time but that most awful scene.’ 

Adding to his terrible associations with the railway Charles’ beloved dog Turk was run over and killed by a train not long after the crash.


In his considered and unemotional conclusion to the official report Capt. Rich points out that the train ‘…would have reached London safely had the rules of the South-Eastern Railway been adhered to.

‘It appears however that for the last ten weeks these rules have been daily disregarded.’

‘The result of the coroner’s inquest is a verdict of manslaughter against the foreman of platelayers and the district inspector of permanent way.’

It seems certain that Staplehurst must have influenced the writing of The Signalman, although Dickens probably also knew the details of another crash four years earlier in which two trains collided in the Clayton Tunnel near Brighton and which resulted in a much greater death toll than on the River Beult viaduct.  Certainly the Clayton Tunnel matches the scene in the story much more closely than the flat open marshland of Staplehurst:

‘On either side, a dripping-wet wall of jagged stone, excluding all view but a strip of sky; the perspective one way only a crooked prolongation of this great dungeon; the shorter perspective in the other direction terminating in a gloomy red light, and the gloomier entrance to a black tunnel, in whose massive architecture there was a barbarous, depressing, and forbidding air’


It has been an interesting week of research which has taken me from the famous creation of the Rev. W Awdry through the personal recollections of Charles Dickens and his daughter to the sober and factual account by Capt. Rich.

I have  thoroughly enjoyed learning so much more about subjects that I have spoken about for many years.




The Swindon Panel Exhibition at Didcot Railway Centre

Letter from Charles Dickens to Thomas Mitton

Charles Dickens by his Eldest Daughter, by Mamie Dickens

The Invisible Woman, by Claire Tomalin

The Board of Trade Report compiled by Capt. FH Rich. RE