The Rednal train wreck on the Shrewsbury and Chester Railway (1860)

Platform Canopies at Tynemouth Station

The fatal accident at Rednal on the Shrewsbury and Chester Railway — from a sketch by one of the passengers. Source: the June 1860 Illustrated London News. This wreck has the particular importance of being the one in which Charles Dickens, his mistress the “invisible woman” Ellen Ternan, and her mother experienced. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

The two fatal accidents, one at Rednal and the other near Bristol, on the lines of the Great Western Railway company, were followed last week, on the Friday, by one still more disastrous, on the South-Eastern line. The fast tidal train, timed to leave Folkestone at 2.31 p.m. on the arrival of passengers from Boulogne, who quitted Paris that morning at seven o’clock, started, as usual, with about 110 passengers, and had proceeded nearly thirty miles on its journey, when, at a place called Staplehurst, the accident occurred which we have now to lament. It appears that about a mile and a half beyond Headcorn station, or half way between that and Staplehurst, there is a bridge, the situation of which is shown in our Engraving, from a sketch made on Saturday morning. The railroad at each end of the bridge runs for a considerable way along almost a perfect level, and is raised only a few feet above the land on each side. The bridge itself, which is about 100 ft. in length, and which is supported by six stone piers, crosses a rivulet, which, when swollen by the rains of winter, flows in a considerable stream, but which is now nothing more than a muddy ditch, overgrown with weeds. The fall from the bridge to this ditch is about 15 ft.; the breadth of the ditch itself about 50 ft. Between three and four o’clock in the afternoon several platelayers were employed in laying down new metals on the left-hand side of the bridge on the way to London, and at the end of it nearest Folkestone. Their task was still incomplete, and two lengths, or about 40 ft., of iron rail remained to be laid down on the side of the very track on which the train was advancing. They saw it hasten onward to destruction with fearful though somewhat abated speed, and in a few seconds more they saw nine or ten out of the fourteen carriages, of which, inclusive of the break, luggage, and guards' vans, it consisted, precipitated headlong, with their human freight, over the side of the bridge into the ditch beneath.

Scene of the fatal accident at Staplehurst, on the South-Eastern Railway. — from a sketch taken next day. [Click on image to enlarge it]

Then ensued such a scene of agony and bewilderment as, happily, is but rarely witnessed. Assistance came with all haste, and it came in time to rescue some from positions of the utmost peril, but too late to be of any use to othere, whose life had been extinguished in the first terrific crash. Those who were on the spot describe the wreck as a sight perfectly appalling. At the end of the bridge next to Staplehurst the engine and tender lay partly turned over against a hedge. Immediately behind the tender stood the break van, and a few paces back, suspended as it were from the top of the bridge, with one end buried in the ditch below, was a first-class carriage. At the other end of the bridge stood upon the line the guards' and luggage vans, which were in the rear of the train, and which were altogether uninjured. A little in front of them were two second-class carriages, with one end resting on the bridge and the other in the ditch, in just the same position as the first-class carriage already mentioned. Between these two extremes and all across the ditch, huddled and crushed and forced into one another, lay the five or six first-class carriages which formed the centre of the train. Through their broken sides and shattered windows were to te seen protruding human legs, and arms, and heads, and from every one of them was to be heard the piercing cry of human suffering. In more than one carriage a wife lay dead, or on the point of death, beside her unconscious or helpless husband. Some who survived, And might have recovered from the injuries inflicted on them by the shock, were smothered in the liquid mud in which they were imbedded. One young lady, on being rescued from a position in which suffocation seemed imminent, was found to have been fearfully mangled, and had blood issuing profusely from her nose and ears. The faces of other passengers were so blackened and swollen and battered us to retain scarcely any trace of the human countenance. Some, on the other hand, escaped with barely a scratch; but there were few indeed in that heap of ruin who did not bring away with them some token of the tremendous ordeal through which they had passed. The work of extrication proceeded at first but slowly, but by six o'clock it was fairly accomplished. Those passengers who were uninjured, or whose injuries were not so serious as to prevent their travelling, were at once dispatched to London. Home seventeen or eighteen others, whose sufferings rendered it dangerous that they should make so lengthened a journey, were most kindly received and carefully attended to at the residence of Sir H. Hoare and other houses in Staplehurst and its vicinity. Ten persons have lost their lives owing to this terrible disaster. Nearly all of them were dragged out of the ditch quite dead, two or three of them being in a dying state and surviving a few brief minutes only. Seven of the ten were ladies, the majority of whom were wives, and comparatively young wives, too. One of the ladies was the wife of a Liverpool merchant, named Raynor; she was on her way home from Paris, and has left six children to mourn her untimely loss. Another was the wife of Sir. F. Bodenhnm, solicitor, of Hereford, who, with her husband, was returning from her wedding tour. A third was the wife of Mr. George Whitby, who was anxiously waiting her return to him by that tidal train. A fourth is a Mrs. Condliff, of the Queen's Hotel, Liverpool, whose husband lies severely injured at Htaplchurst. A fifth was Mrs. Faithful!, returning home, with her husband, after ten years' absence in India. He was lately one of the Judges at Bombay. The two remaining ladies are Miss Caroline White, late of Brighton, and Miss Emma Beaumont, of Paris. Hippolyte Mercier, a French cook in the service of Admiral Free mantle, at Portsmouth, was also killed. The name of Mr. I lampoon and Mr. Dunn complete this sad list. Mr. Charles Dickens was a passenger m the train, but escaped injury.

With regard to the cause of all this suffering and loss of life, it seems beyond all question attributable to the fact that a portion of the rail along which the trains run was not in its place, and that, as a consequence, although the engine, tender, and break-vans, as it were, jumped the gap and rail for some way along the iron girding which lies parallel to the rails, the carriage, which followed were thrown out of their course and unset. Upon the charge of not having the whole length of rail duly laid down when the accident occurred, Henry Benge, the foreman of the platelayers, is now in custody. Some evidence was taken at the inquest on Monday. It appeared that Benge attributes his failure in this duty to the circumstance that he by some mistake took the statement in his time-book of the later hour at which the tidal-train was expected to start on Saturday as having reference to the afternoon on which the accident occurred. The arrival of the train at Headcorn was telegraphed in the ordinary way to Staplehurst, hut the platelayers midway between the two stations were not within reach of telegraphic communication. Whether their foreman is solely to blame, or whether others must share with him a great responsibility, it is at present impossible to say. The company, at all events, seem desirous that the affair should be thoroughly investigated.

Related material


“Dreadful accident on the South-Eastern Railway, and a loss of ten lives.” Illustrated London News (17 June 1865): 571-72. Internet Archive. Web. 24 November 2015.

Last modified 24 November 2015