Dickens's "The Signalman" and Information Problems in the Railway Age
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Technology and Culture 42.3 (2001) 436-461



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Dickens's "The Signalman" and Information Problems in the Railway Age

Norris Pope

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This examination of public attitudes toward railway signaling and railway safety takes as its starting point a short story by Charles Dickens titled "The Signalman." This story first appeared as a chapter of Mugby Junction, the 1866 extra Christmas number of Dickens's weekly journal All the Year Round. 1 Its title was an obvious play on Rugby Junction, an important stop on the London and Northwestern Railway and the Midland Railway, and at the time probably the most well-known junction station in England. For Dickens, Mugby Junction served as both an organizing device and a metaphor, naming a place where multiple narratives cross and interact, and where possibilities for various beginnings and various endings are drawn together. The story's initial reception was unremarkable, apart from arousing some mild indignation on the part of a railway official and two pamphlet writers, who sought to defend the refreshment room at Rugby Junction. Dickens had a longstanding gripe about railway refreshment rooms, and an incident of rudeness that he had experienced there in April 1866 provided him with comic material for a satire on such establishments in the third chapter of Mugby Junction. 2 Largely in response to the railway material [End Page 436] in Mugby Junction, Dickens was asked to speak at the annual dinner of the Railway Benevolent Institution in 1868, where he gave an amusing speech in praise of railway servants and in support of the institution. 3

"The Signalman" appeared as the fourth chapter of Mugby Junction, under the heading "No. 1 Branch Line." It was written entirely by Dickens, and is classed among his ghost stories--a "Tale of Presentiment," as Charles Kent labeled it in a December 1866 review. 4 It has never been seriously considered, however, within the context of railway signaling technology, the system for providing advance information about traffic and line conditions on which railway safety depended. 5 This omission is puzzling, because Dickens wrote the story little more than a year after the Staplehurst accident, in which he was involved as a passenger. The result of a signaling failure, this accident was the most traumatic experience of the final decade of his life. Moreover, Dickens's weekly periodicals Household Words and All the Year Round each devoted articles to railway signaling. 6 The most interesting of these had just appeared in All the Year Round, in October 1866. Titled "The Hole in the Wall," this essay provided a vivid description of the workings of a very important and technologically advanced signal box that controlled access to the two lines accommodating all inbound and outbound traffic serving the Brighton Line platforms at Victoria Station. 7 "The Signalman" thus touched upon issues of railway operation and railway safety that closely [End Page 437] concerned Dickens's mid-Victorian readers, the first generation to experience high-speed railway travel and high-density railway traffic.

Technological development always takes place within multiple contexts, of which public sentiment is only one. But public sentiment was especially important in the case of Victorian railways, which were created by parliamentary act and depended upon the public for patronage. Indeed, public concern about railway safety played a critical role in shaping the behavioral and regulatory context within which Victorian railways operated, just as consumer demand for greater speed and more frequent service played a part in increasing the dangers to which critics reacted. My goal here will be to help illuminate the reception of Victorian railways by emphasizing growing public awareness of the railways' unprecedented need for rapid and unfailingly accurate information handling--the precondition for safe and efficient operation within increasingly complex systems.

Although by no means a technical expert on railways, Dickens provides an instructive lens through which to view this topic. As Humphry House pointed out many years ago, Dickens was a particularly acute observer of the effects of the railway revolution, both individual and social, and he touched upon railway...