On this day in 1865, Dickens, Ellen Ternan and her mother, Frances Ternan, were involved in the Staplehurst railway crash, when occurred when a South-Eastern Railway train from Folkestone to London derailed while crossing a viaduct. 10 people were killed and around 40 injured. The crash was caused by human error, as workmen who were replacing the track misread the timetable.
Dickens was carrying part 16 (August 1865) of Our Mutual Friend with him and famously went back into the wrecked first-class carriage to rescue the manuscript. The instalment was two-and-a-half pages short when it was published in August 1865. Dickens referred to the incident in the novel’s postscript when it was published in volume form. He managed to suppress from public knowledge that he was travelling with Nelly and her mother, instead imaginatively replacing them with Mr and Mrs Boffin:
Mr. and Mrs. Boffin (in their manuscript dress of receiving Mr. and Mrs. Lammle at breakfast) were on the South-Eastern Railway with me, in a terribly destructive accident. When I had done what I could to help others, I climbed back into my carriage—nearly turned over a viaduct, and caught aslant upon the turn—to extricate the worthy couple. They were much soiled, but otherwise unhurt […].
Dickens famously tended the wounded and dying at the scene of the crash, as illustrated, with wonderful melodramatic intensity, on the front cover of the Penny Illustrated Paper. The playwright Simon Gray posited, in his play Little Nell, that Dickens’s disavowal of Nelly and her mother at the scene of the crash to avoid a scandal was a later source of tension between the couple, although this is entirely undocumented.
Dickens was greatly affected by the crash and suffered a series of debilitating symptoms, including losing his voice immediately after the crash, that suggest post-traumatic stress. Dickens died five years to the day after the accident and it certainly seems to have contributed to his declining health at the end of his life.