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Dickens on the move

On the bicentenary of Charles Dickens's birth, Jonathan Grossman explores the ways in which the 19th century transport revolution impacted on the author's life and work

Published: February 6, 2012 at 12:14 pm
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On 9 June 1865, the South Eastern Railway’s timetable clearly put the Saturday tidal train coming from Folkestone into Headcorn station at 5.20pm. A foreman working further down the line from Headcorn near Staplehurst calculated he had plenty of time. The crew could replace the last of the baulks of the small viaduct on which they were working. They took up the track.


Unfortunately, 9 June 1865 was a Friday, not a Saturday. The foreman had the day wrong. That afternoon, the tidal train, its itinerary dovetailed to the boat that had crossed from France, would arrive in under half an hour. The doomed train partly managed to leap the trackless little bridge. Charles Dickens, in the second passenger carriage, barely made it across. The next eight passenger carriages did not.

“I was in the carriage that did not go down, but that hung inexplicably suspended in the air over the side of the broken bridge,” Dickens later reported. “It was caught upon the turn by some of the ruin of the bridge, and hung suspended and balanced in an apparently impossible manner.” Dickens carefully clambered out onto the step of his carriage. “Some people in the two other compartments were madly trying to plunge out at a window, and had no idea that there was an open swampy field 15 feet down below them and nothing else! The two guards (one with his face cut) were running up and down… quite wildly. I called out to them.”

Identifying himself as Charles Dickens, and recognised, he asked for their key to open and empty his carriage. (Train carriages were locked back then from the outside.) Next, with brandy in his flask and water in his hat, he set to work. He spent hours aiding the hurt and dying and extricating the dead.

One blood-soaked man, Dickens confessed, had “such a frightful cut across the skull that I couldn’t bear to look at him,” but Dickens cleaned his wound and gave him drink. It was to no avail. In his last words, the man declared: “I am gone.”

Ten died in total, 40 were injured. “No imagination,” wrote the man with one of the greatest imaginations ever, “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.”

“I don’t want to write about it,” Dickens confided to a childhood friend. In a deeper sense, however, he already had and would again. In both his novels and many journalistic essays, Dickens brilliantly observed the revolution in public transport of his times – fatal railway accidents included. He grasped the promise that the public transport revolution held out in networking people together. Dickens cheered this revolution. He helped us to imagine and understand a networked world. He also lamented the tragedies that this networking wrought.

Formative years

Born in 1812, 200 years ago, Dickens saw advances in networking passenger transport during his formative years that were arguably even more important than the stunning application of steam power to mobility.

John Loudon McAdam, for instance, invented a new method of road building. After draining the route and shaping a level surface, he strewed the highway with stone pieces broken to less than an inch diameter. These small stones mashed together under wheels and horses’ hooves, and a smooth, waterproof surface resulted. Once miry, potholed ways became, we would now say, ‘paved’. (They would have said, ‘macadamised’, hence the later portmanteau word ‘tar-mac’.)

No one who has driven down an old, unmaintained dirt road is likely to contest McAdam’s achievement. As an 1825 Ode to McAdam sang: “Who shall dispute thy name!/Insculpt in stone in every street/We soon shall greet/Thy trodden down, yet all unconquer’d fame!”

The macadamised roads were not, however, actually a lone genius’s glorious feat. The institution in the 18th century of a system of turnpikes – tolls erected to fund road repair – produced Britain’s improved highways and the professional road engineers, like McAdam. These turnpike trusts importantly represented the beginnings of the systematising of public transport.

For the stagecoaches running on the roads, the decisive boost toward becoming systematised came in 1784, 28 years before Dickens’s birth. That year, John Palmer, a theatre manager who often travelled the Bath road, noticed that “the post at present, instead of being the swiftest, is almost the slowest conveyance in this country; and though from the great improvement in our roads, other carriers have proportionally mended their speed, the post is as slow as ever.”

Palmer decried mail delivery being “trusted to some idle Boy… mounted on a worn-out Hack.” Instead, he successfully proposed the government implement a swift network of Royal Mail carriages. Some incidental revenue would come from selling inside seats to passengers, and, almost by accident, the new Royal Mail coaches ignited commercial competition among stagecoaches. A race in networking the nation was on.

New stagecoaching technologies soon accelerated and bettered the ride. Applying, for instance, elliptical metal springs to coach construction produced the first truly successful shock absorbers.

In the 1820s and 30s, for the first time in history, it generally became faster to book your place as a passenger in a wheeled vehicle than to gallop out solo on a steed. Carrying four inside and up to 12 outside, laden with luggage, the stagecoaches travelled at an unprecedented average pace of ten miles per hour, with top speeds of around 14. Inns, stationed roughly every ten miles, provided a fresh set of horses at each stage. Changes took a matter of minutes. Day and night, around 4,000 ‘machines’, as the stagecoaches were called, began to knit together people moving in time.

Near the network’s height, one newspaper calculated that “a person has 1,500 opportunities of leaving London in the course of 24 hours by stagecoaches.” This accelerating stage coaching system represented to Dickens and his contemporaries the dawning of a revolution in public transport. Individuals’ road movements between towns were pooled, regularised, increased, and accelerated into a connective, infrastructural network.

Dickens would repeatedly return to depict the stagecoaches in his novels long after their displacement by the railways. Understandably, some people today have therefore mistakenly believed that Dickens was looking back nostalgically to a simpler and slower time. In reality, Dickens understood himself to be examining and re-examining the public transport revolution’s networked formation.

In 1829, in speed trials at Rainhill, George Stephenson’s locomotive, the Rocket, had first outraced horse-drawn coaches. The very next year, commercial steam railway commuting commenced. Passenger coaches that had been ‘trained’ together started providing services between Manchester and Liverpool. In 1836, when Dickens put quill pen to ink pot and began writing his first novel, the first railway station in London also opened. By then, a whole new set of railed roads were rapidly being cut, embanked, spanned, and levelled across the nation’s landscape.

The new rail system was fast. Dickens’s train was doing a respectable 50mph on the level track near Staplehurst. Here is Dickens in 1851 celebrating the speeding journey; this time he is travelling (safely) in reverse direction from London through Staplehurst to Folkestone: “Here we are – no, I mean there we were… Flash! The distant shipping in the Thames is gone. Whirr!… Dustheaps, market gardens, and waste grounds. Rattle! New Cross Station. Shock! There we were at Croyden. Bur-r-r-r! The tunnel… I am… flying for Folkestone… Reigate Station… Bang!… Everything is flying.

“The hop-gardens turn gracefully towards me, presenting regular avenues of hops in rapid flight, then whirl away. Now a wood, now a bridge, now a landscape, now a cutting – Bang! There was a cricket match somewhere with two white tents, and then four flying cows, then turnips – now the wires of the electric telegraph are all alive, and spin, and blur their edges, and go up and down… Corn sheaves, hop gardens, Stations… now fresher air, now the sea, now Folkestone at a quarter after ten.”

By the 1850s, London to Folkestone was 2½ easy hours by rail. It had taken five hours by coach in the 1820s, 11 in the 1770s, and days in the 1600s. Taking in the whole distance, including the cross-channel steam packet crossing, Paris shrank more than three times closer to London. And, as Dickens observes, telegraph lines run next to the rail tracks.

The two cities can communicate instantaneously. (The first cross-channel cable was laid between Dover and Calais in 1851.) No wonder Dickens decided to tell the history of Paris and London by merging them together into a single story: A Tale of Two Cities (1859).

Roman legions

What was new in Dickens’s time was the systematic regularisation and alacrity of round tripping. In Rome, for instance, Dickens once observed of some fellow English visitors that “Mr and Mrs Davis, and their party, had, probably, been brought from London in about nine or ten days. Eighteen hundred years ago, the Roman legions under Claudius, protested against being led into Mr and Mrs Davis country, urging that it lay beyond the limits of the world.” Dickens was seeing those limits swallowed by a passenger transport network.

“The world,” Dickens is reported often remarking “was so much smaller than we thought it; we were all so connected… without knowing it; people supposed to be far apart were so constantly elbowing each other.”

Dickens’s novels, with their gallery of characters and their multi-stranded, intersecting plots, teach us about the act of imagination required to grasp this bewildering, bustling interconnectivity. For his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, Dickens conjured up a hero, Pickwick, named for the Bath stagecoach line and sent him out to journey around the regional stagecoach system.

The novel that tells of Pickwick’s adventures revels in a public transport system that brought people together. It depicts how the system unified people whatever they were doing, simultaneously speeding them on their individual ways. Who knows what adventures will befall Pickwick? “The only question is,” Pickwick announces, “where do we go next?” As a well-off, jovial, roaming spirit, Pickwick showed the network’s sunny, unifying side.

By contrast, Dickens focused on a vulnerable young girl, burdened with responsibilities beyond her years and targeted by others for exploitation, to expose the network’s darker, exclusionary side in a subsequent novel: The Old Curiosity Shop. This tale recounts the brutal trek of little Nell from London to Birmingham by foot.

Little Nell goes ‘off the grid’, as we would say today. She thereby escapes the toils of others’ plots, but only at the cost of her life. Meanwhile, the heroes and villains chasing after her grimly expose that the network binds them all together – utterly regardless of whom they are or what they are trying to do.

In Little Dorrit, Dickens rendered the complexity of crisscrossing plots across an international terrain. His plan for this novel: “People to meet and part as travellers do, and the future connexion between them in the story, not to be now shown to the reader but to be worked out as in life.” Readers would be kept in the dark. Characters, too. This novel would show how, “as in life,” we never see enough to know how we might be connected to the strangers who pass us on our journeys.

In the calamity at Staplehurst, the public transport system abruptly made itself felt on a train full of strangers, who found their fates intimately bound together.

On the train with them was also Dickens’s manuscript to Our Mutual Friend, and in a postscript to the novel, Dickens described the accident. He playfully evoked the crash as interrupting his imaginary characters’ lives.

“On Friday the Ninth of June in the present year, 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 the viaduct, and caught aslant upon the turn – to extricate the worthy couple. They were much soiled, but otherwise unhurt. The same happy result attended Miss Bella Wilfer on her wedding day, and Mr Riderhood inspecting Bradley Headstone’s red neckerchief as he lay asleep.”

As Dickens knows we know, the characters’ time inside the story cannot really be co-ordinated with events outside the book – with the foreman misreading the schedule or the train plummeting off the bridge. Only inside the novel do we get to experience the characters’ lives interweaving in time.

Yet the serious message lurking behind Dickens’s playful description is perhaps that, as for real people, an accident in the public transport system offers a reminder that as we go here and there about our different activities, we are all connected.

Dickens Transport milestones



A series of parliamentary acts establish turnpike trusts during the 18th century. Roads return to a level of repair not seen since the Romans.


Mail coaches

In 1784, royal mail coaches begin carrying the mail. Passengers embrace riding the new speedy and tightly scheduled vehicles.


Steam paddle ships

On the river Clyde, running between Glasgow and Greenock, Henry Bell’s steam paddle ship, the Comet, inaugurates a European commercial commuter service in 1812, the year of Dickens’s birth.


Horseback eclipsed

The fast-driving stagecoaching network peaks in the 1820s and 30s. Intercity travelling as a post or stagecoach passenger supersedes horseback riding – even for the well-to-do.


Channel crossings

The first steam-powered cross-channel passenger packet, the Rob Roy, puffs out of Dover for Calais in 1821. International steam travel begins.


The Rocket

George Stephenson’s steam locomotive, the Rocket, officially defeats the stagecoach at the Rainhill Trials in 1829.


Railway mania

Speculative ‘railway mania’ in the 1840s, creating financial bubbles, accompanies the establishment of a national rail network.


Atlantic crossing

Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s SS Great Britain crosses the Atlantic in 1845. Combining a massive iron hull with screw propulsion, the ship launches an era of leviathan steam liners.


The great railways

The Great Indian Peninsula Railway and the American transcontinental railway open for coast-to-coast travel in the 1860s. Both serve an international network as well as domestic passengers.


Ocean ‘shortcuts’

The Suez canal opens in Egypt in 1869. Ocean ‘shortcuts’ dramatically speed global passenger travel.

Transport in Dickens’s novels

The Pickwick Papers 

Dickens’s first novel (1836–37) celebrates the coming together of a regional public transport system. Its hero, Pickwick, takes his name from the Bath stagecoach line that was run by Moses Pickwick. The story’s adventures are structured as five separate round-trip journeys from London. These generate a sense of community radiating from the network. A brief interruption, in which Pickwick is imprisoned, reverses the novel’s illumination of how mobility can unify people.

The Old Curiosity Shop 

A young girl called little Nell walks from London to just beyond Birmingham in this novel, dated 1840–41. As one character warns her, the long, macadamised highways are “paths never made for feet like yours”. This fatal trek severs her from the people – family, friends, and even enemies – that she left behind in London. They simply cannot track her down. In this story, Dickens recounts a tragedy about the limits of the network and those whom it excludes.

Little Dorrit 

In this novel (written 1855–57), Dickens carefully plots the crisscrossing lives of “Fellow Travellers” who will never know they were all in Marseilles together at their story’s opening. This novel is the first by Dickens to open abroad. Appropriately, a steamer crosses the far horizon on the illustrated cover of the serialised version as if to signal a new international connectivity.

A Tale of Two Cities 

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” How to define the period of the French revolution? Dickens’s answer in his novel of 1859 is partly to show that, looking back from the railways and steam ships of the 1850s, the revolution that mattered most was perhaps not political. There was another revolution freeing the people. It would drive fast to the grave aristocrats who ran down children on the pavement-less, muddy Paris streets.

Great Expectations 

Written in 1860–61, Great Expectations tells the story of a boy who mistakenly believes he has grown up in an isolated village and who must learn that he cannot account for his life simply by what happens to him locally. The unknown, invisible activity of others, even as far away as the other side of the globe, also defines his life. Pip discovers as much at the novel’s climax when Magwitch, a stranger he encountered in the marshes as a boy, returns from Australia to reveal unexpectedly that he is Pip’s benefactor.

Jonathan Grossman is an associate professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)


This article was first published in the February 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 


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