Article dated : Sun, 17th February 2002
Staplehurst Rail Crash - 9 June 1865
"The most disastrous accident which has ever happened on the South-Eastern Railway" was how the newspapers described the events of the afternoon of 9 June 1865, when the Folkestone to London Boat Train "The Tidal Express" with 110 passengers on board, was derailed near Staplehurst at "a very common bridge, with no wall whatever to protect it, and underneath it, at a depth of about twelve feet, runs a sluggish stream".
The bridge had been under repair for some three months and the last part of the work required the replacement of two large beams which supported the rails. Two lengths of rail had been removed and the work gang of platelayers and carpenters were about their business when the unfortunate accident transpired.
Normally you would expect this type of repair to be completed without incident but in this case a set of fatal circumstances occurred.
The Folkestone to London Boat Train did not run at the same time each day, the time it left Folkestone was dependant upon the tides and the arrival of the cross-channel ferry from Boulogne. If the timetable were read incorrectly it could mean up to an hour's difference in the train's anticipated arrival. Whilst the 9 June was a Friday, the Foreman of the work gang (Henry Benge) had apparently read the time for the Saturday train! In addition Benge, although a requirement of his appointment as Foreman, himself carried no watch to tell the time of the trains, although a number of men within the gang had their own watches. A "flagman" was placed about 500 yards up the track to warn of any approaching trains although none were expected!
The line at Staplehurst is a long straight piece of track and the engine pulling the Boat Train was one of the most powerful that the South-Eastern Railway had at that time, the Boat Train was also non-stop to Redhill and the combination of these three points meant that it was travelling at full speed between 40 and 50 mph. The train itself comprised fourteen vehicles - seven first class carriages, three second class, the engine, tender, brake and luggage vans.
The "flagman" saw the approaching speeding train and frantically signalled both to warn the train driver and the working group - there to no avail there was not sufficient time for the train to stop. "The engine, break van and two carriages fortunately remained on the permanent way, but the other portion of the train consisting of eight carriages, dashed right over the bridge, and the passengers were instantaneously plunged into the water, and nearly buried in the sand".
"The scene of confusion that ensued is almost indescribable".
Assistance was soon on the spot - medical assistance was sent from Staplehurst, Tunbridge Wells and Ashford and soon some twenty doctors were present and "ministering to the unhappy sufferers". A special train was dispatched from London bringing additional doctors and managers from the Train Company.
Ten people were killed in the crash and the Coroner's Inquest, under Mr Neve, Coroner for East Kent, was held the next day, Saturday 10 June, at the Railway Hotel at Staplehurst. After hearing evidence on the identity of the ten passengers who had been killed the Inquest then took evidence on the cause of the accident. The Inquest was told that the Railway Company had a "generally" very good accident record since the line from Ashford to Redhill was opened in 1842. Company rules required that when work required track to be taken up then detonating signals should be placed on the line every 250 yards up to 1000 yards where there should be two signals and a "flagman". This had not happened. Henry Benge, the gang foreman, admitted he had read the wrong day times in his timetable.
Although the train had been travelling between 40 and 50 mph as it approached the bridge it was estimated that it had slowed to 30 mph at the time of the crash, and that if the proper safety precautions had been followed the accident could have been adverted.
The Coroner's Inquest found that Henry Benge, the gang foreman, and Joseph Gallimore, the district inspector of the permanent way who had overall responsibility for Benge's gang, were guilty of manslaughter. This is recorded as "feloniously killing" in the "Cause of Death" shown in the Death Register. Both men were sent before a special magistrates court at Cranbrook and committed for trial at the Kent Summer Assizes later that year. Gallimore's defence was that if he was to be held responsible then so also should other more senior manager's, because there had been a general failure by the company to ensure that regulations were followed. At the direction of the judge Gallimore was acquitted but Benge was sentenced to nine month's hard labour. The entries in the Death Register cannot however be changed and still show the phrase "feloniously killed by Joseph Gallimore and Henry Benge".
Although Charles Dickens escaped unharmed from the accident, the memory of it seems to have remained with him for the rest of his life, and it is interesting to note that he died on 9 June 1870 at Gad's Hill his home in Kent - exactly five years later!