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  • 25 August 1861:The Clayton Tunnel Rail Crash, the Medical Profession, and the Sensation Novel
  • Karen M. Odden (bio)

From its beginning, the triumph of English railways was linked with the spectacle of accidental death, for as enormous crowds watched the inaugural run of the steam locomotive on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway on 15 September 1830, William Huskisson, Liverpool mp and steadfast supporter of the railway, was run over by the Rocket locomotive and killed. This individual death was shocking enough, but soon, derailments and collisions caused large-scale disasters and multiple deaths, and in 1841, a parliamentary [End Page 30] committee generated the first of many reports on the prevention of accidents on railways. Over the subsequent decades of the nineteenth century, the railway crash took on a variety of meanings as the accidents themselves changed as a result of the evolution of railway engines, track, and safety devices, and, more importantly, as new procedures, laws, and medical knowledge were produced to grapple with the accidents and the ensuing injuries and deaths.

As historians have shown, the early railway crash was widely understood to be a different kind of accident from those that came before—shocking and overwhelming in its size, speed, and effects. Unlike a farming or carriage accident, it made no distinctions based upon class, gender, occupation, or age; and it could injure hundreds of people at once. Unlike a factory accident, the railway crash brought together the machine with not only the workers who produced the means of transportation but also the consumers. Unlike natural disasters, the blame could often be attributed—either to the joint-stock railway company collectively or to an individual railway employee—and, beginning in 1846, Lord Campbell’s Act allowed railway employees and passengers who were injured or killed in accidents to sue the railway in question for compensation.

Part of the reason that the railway disaster had such power in the Victorian imagination is that it launched highly public and competing narratives about injury, injustice, guilt (both individual and collective), money, secrets, power, greed, perception, and human worth. Although The Times bemoaned that the railway accidents were so horrifying as to “baffle all description” (“Catastrophe”), a veritable web of narrative evolved around them, including hundreds of parliamentary reports, medical treatises, newspaper articles, novels, poems, cartoons, and ephemera. The Victorian writer most commonly associated with the railway disaster is Charles Dickens, who survived the Staplehurst crash in 1865, and whose subsequent letters and short story “The Signal-Man” have provided critics fertile ground for Victorian notions of “shock” (and, later, hysteria and trauma). But I would like to backtrack (if you will) to four years earlier, in 1861, when an accident spurred two distinct and new strands of narrative from medical experts and novelists.

In many ways, the Clayton Tunnel crash, which took place on the London Brighton and South Coast Railway on 25 August 1861, on the south coast of England, fulfilled people’s greatest fears about railway travel. As one newspaper notes, it was “the most terrible accident which has occurred on a railway” in Britain to that time, killing 23 and injuring 176 passengers (“Frightful” 8). The crash occurred partly because of misunderstandings across three different types of communication systems that were supposed to ensure safety—flags, an alarm bell linked to a signal, and the needle telegraph. Further, the railway inconsistently used two existing safety measures (“block” and “time” intervals on the line); it did not have continuous brakes (so that the sixth car did not smash into the fifth, and so on); and one of the two signalmen had been working for twenty-four hours straight. On that Sunday, [End Page 31] three trains—two excursions and one ordinary—left Brighton within seven minutes of each other, and the last two collided inside a tunnel over a mile long, creating an inescapable “chamber of horror” (“Catastrophe”) in which passengers and railway employees were crushed, burned, and suffocated. The inquest at Brighton lasted nine days but resolved little. Neither of the two signalmen nor the assistant stationmaster was held accountable. A Board of Trade inspector, Captain Tyler, recommended that the railway switch from the timed...


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