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What the Dickens? Lost letter reveals the railway mishap that torched novelist’s Christmas turkey

Letter from Charles Dickens discovered in the archives of the National Railway Museum.

A letter written by Charles Dickens in 1870 has sparked a fresh mystery: did the celebrated author spend his last Christmas without his prize turkey, thanks to a railway mishap?

The letter has been rediscovered in the archive of the National Railway Museum in York and responds to the Great Western Railway which accidentally set fire to a parcel containing a 30lb turkey destined for Dickens’ dinner table.

Find out more about the letter on our blog.

Dated two months after the incident, Dickens replies: ‘I have no doubt my Christmas fare was destroyed by an unavoidable accident, and that I bore the loss with unbroken good humour’.

In the Christmas week of 1869, a horsebox laden with parcels from the Hereford district caught fire near Hanwell Station destroying the contents. Mr Kingett from the Great Western Railway wrote to the senders, one of whom was Charles Dickens, to explain the circumstances and to apologise.

However, it is not known if Dickens ever found a replacement turkey for his Christmas dinner.   

Ed Bartholomew, Lead Curator at the National Railway Museum, said: “Every now and then we are fortunate to uncover a hidden gem in our railway archive—which stretches back more than 200 years. Dickens played a key role in popularising the image of Christmas as we know it today, which included the then luxurious choice of turkey in A Christmas Carol, instead of the more traditional goose. The bleak irony of this discovery is that the man who did so much to shape our Christmas experiences may himself have been left with an empty stomach on his last ever Christmas day. Hard times indeed.”  

Charles Dickens had a difficult relationship with the railways, having famously survived the Staplehurst rail crash of 1865 which killed ten people and injured 40. Charles was travelling with his mistress Ellen Ternan at the time of the crash when the train derailed while crossing a viaduct. He was badly affected by the incident and died five years to the day of the crash on 9 June 1870.   

However, as one of the most famous celebrities of the Victorian era, the railways were a necessary means for Dickens to travel between speaking engagements and he would have regularly travelled by rail.

The full text of the letter reads: 'Sir, in reply to your letter I beg to say that I have no doubt my Christmas fare was destroyed by an unavoidable accident, and that I bore the loss with unbroken good humour towards the Great Western Railway Company. Faithfully Yours, Charles Dickens.'

A letter written by Charles Dickens

The parcel was sent by George Dolby, the manager of Dickens’ reading tours. The letter was kept by Mr Kingett who was the Superintendent of the Great Western Railway Parcels Department at Paddington Station and it was later published in the Great Western Railway Magazine in 1908.

The letter is clearly signed by Charles Dickens and the envelope bears his stamp with the letters C.D. and was written only four months before his death on 9 June 1870. 

The letter will now go on display in the National Railway Museum’s Highlights Gallery—just in time for Christmas.

Ends

For more information, please contact:

Simon Baylis, PR & Press Manager
01904 686 299

simon.baylis@railwaymuseum.org.uk

Peter Livesey, Communications Officer
01904 809 646
peter.livesey@railwaymuseum.org.uk)

Notes to Editors 

  • The National Railway Museum in York has the largest collection of railway objects in the world and attracts more than 780,000 visitors per year
  • The National Railway Museum has a library, archive and image collection, accessible through Search Engine, our research centre. This contains three kilometres of shelving housing personal and business archives; 750,000 engineering drawings; sound archives containing over 500 interviews; 22,000 books; and 1.75 million photographs
  • The National Railway Museum’s art collection contains over 1,000 paintings, more than 11,000 posters and 2,350 prints and drawings 
  • The National Railway Museum forms part of the Science Museum Group, along with the Science Museum in London, the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester, the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford and Locomotion in Shildon

Admission to the National Railway Museum is free, for more information visit: www.railwaymuseum.org.uk