YORK, United Kingdom — The author known for introducing turkey to our Christmas menu may have lost his preferred poultry in what was his last Christmas on Earth.
Charles Dickens was eagerly awaiting a 30-pound turkey for his Christmas meal when he learned the bird was burned in an unfortunate accident in 1869. The shipment of goods accidentally caught fire on the Great Western Railway, which was revealed in a letter the author wrote to the railway company in 1870.
The letter was recently discovered in the archives of the National Railway Museum in York, United Kingdom.
What hits home is how Dickens must have felt to have a spoiled Christmas when he so famously shaped how we celebrate the season today. The holiday wound up being Dickens’ last Christmas, as he died in June 1870.
“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,” Ed Bartholomew, lead curator at the rail museum, said in a statement.
“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,” he said.
No one knows whether Dickens ever got a replacement turkey for his meal, the museum said. It’s too bad there wasn’t a real-life Ebenezer Scrooge to yell out onto passersby on the street and pay someone to fetch Dickens a new bird.
“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,” Dickens wrote in the letter two months after the accident.
The letter was signed by Charles Dickens and the envelope bore the initials C.D. with his signature stamp.
Superintendent James Charles Kingett of the Up Parcels Department at Paddington station received the letter and held onto it, the museum said. He later published it in the Great Western Railway Magazine in 1908.
The manager of Dickens’ reading tours, George Dolby, had shipped the package with plenty of time for the fine bird to arrive by Christmas, according to his memoirs, the museum said.
The shipment was traveling from the Hereford District in western England to Dickens’ town of Kent in the East, the museum said. The accident likely happened between the towns of Gloucester and Reading.
Things went awry when Dolby received a frantic message from Dickens.
“WHERE IS THAT TURKEY? IT HAS NOT ARRIVED!!!!!!!!!!!” the message read in all caps.
The shipment with the turkey and other Christmas packages had been badly damaged in a fire and it was too burned to be delivered, the museum said.
It is not known what caused the fire, but the museum suggests one possible explanation: Sparks from the engine may have lit a wooden train car on fire as it went through a tunnel.
The items were being transported in what’s called a horse box, a train car that carries horses or goods.
In the end, Dickens commented that he saw it as a blessing when he never got his prized bird, according to Dolby’s memoirs. People in need received the charred remains of the bird for sixpence per serving.
After the incendiary event, the railroad wrote a letter of apology to Dickens and the other customers affected by the fire, the museum said. Kingett apologized and offered compensation.
The letter is going on display in the National Railway Museum, just in time for another Christmas.