‘Forced like a cucumber’: Dickens on the railways by Peter Whitehead
Dickens lived at a time of great expansion of the railways. In 1830 the ‘Rocket’ (the most famous of the early locomotives) made its first commercial journey on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Dickens was eighteen. By the time of his death in 1870, there were over 15,000 miles of track. (The current figure is around 10,000 miles.) This rapid expansion had profound effects on Victorian society which Dickens was able to reflect in his writing.
George Stephenson’s Rocket train [via].
From his family home here in Doughty Street in London, Dickens was well placed to observe the building of Euston Station in 1837. The speed of construction of the railways and the potential profits to be made contributed to ‘Railway Mania’. Money from investors poured into railway companies. Many lines were never built as those companies collapsed due to financial problems or were revealed to be fraudulent, robbing investors of their money.
Nonetheless, while Dickens’s early novels of that period, such as Nicholas Nickleby (1838-9), contain many descriptions of travel by horse and coach, the railways don’t feature significantly until Dombey and Son. The book was first published as a series of monthly instalments starting in 1846, the same year that 242 Acts of Parliament were passed authorising the construction of railways. The boom was now in full force and Dombey documents its impact on working class families. In particular, the novel depicts the destruction of the community of ‘Stagg’s Gardens’, thought to be based on Somers Town close to Euston:
'the yet unfinished and unopened railroad was in progress; and, from the very core of all this dire disorder, trailed smoothly away, upon its mighty course of civilisation and improvement.’ (Chapter 6)
As a powerful story device, the railway also directly causes the demise of one of the characters in the novel: Carker, who has eloped with Dombey’s second wife, falls to a grisly death under the wheels of an express train.
The cover of the first edition of Dombey & Son, 1846. Charles Dickens Museum.
The railways altered life in subtler ways too for the author and his fellow Victorians. In the hallway here at Doughty Street hangs an impressive clock that Dickens had at Gad’s Hill Place. Even the time it struck may have been changed by the railways. Previously, towns across the country had used local time. Oxford was 5 minutes behind London and Exeter was 14 minutes behind. This was a concept which the railways could not accept both for timetabling and safety purposes. So in 1840 the Great Western Railway adopted standard Railway Time across its network, swiftly followed by other companies. In effect this saw the standardisation of time across the country based on London time, although this was not recognised by Parliament until 1880.
The increase in railway travel could be said to be one of the factors behind the increased demand for reading material. Mr W H Smith opened a newsstand on Euston station in 1848. He may well have sold copies for travellers to read on their journey of the weekly magazine Dickens edited, Household Words, and the monthly instalments of his novels.
Euston station in 1837 [via]
Dickens also wrote about the railways frequently in his journalism. For example, in the August 1851 edition of Household Words, Dickens reported the discomfort of sitting in a crowded boat train at London Bridge station under the glass canopy of the station on a hot day. He described it as being “forced – like a cucumber, or a melon, or a pine-apple”, an experience which might not be entirely alien to the rail travellers of our present time.
Finally, Dickens’s encounters with the railways included one that had a profound impact on him, and which could well have been fatal. On 9 June 1865, he was returning from France on the boat train when it was derailed near Staplehurst in Kent. Ten people were killed and 40 injured. Illustrations from contemporaneous newspapers showed Dickens tending the dead and dying. Letters he wrote immediately after the crash demonstrated the shock he had sustained and how close he had come to death. His children have recorded how nervous a traveller he was after the crash, and his son Charley thought he never really recovered from the shock. Coincidentally, Dickens was to die exactly five years after the date of the Staplehurst crash.
An illustration showing Charles Dickens at the site of the Staplehurst Railway Crash, assisting an injured passenger. Charles Dickens Museum.
In sum, the development of the railways was a great instigator of change in Victorian England – and this is reflected in both Dickens’s writings and his life. In his novels and journalism, he vividly illustrates its impact on everyday life, whether for good or bad.
Peter Whitehead has been a volunteer at the Charles Dickens Museum since 2013. He leads monthly ‘Highlighting the Collection’ sessions.
This blog takes you behind the scenes at the Charles Dickens Museum, giving fresh insight on everything from discoveries new and old in our collection, to exhibitions, events and learning initiatives.
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