by Niall McArdle
William Huskisson could have been remembered in history for many things. The son of a Staffordshire family with strong ties to the Royal Navy, he lived in Paris as a teenager and witnessed the beginning of the French Revolution. Interested in finance, Huskisson came to prominence in Paris after he gave a speech on the issue of French Government assignats. He became the protege of the British ambassador, the Marquess of Stafford, and returned to England and embarked on a political career that would eventually see him in cabinet and a key figure in the buliding of the British Empire.
History, however, remembers him as the first casualty of a railway accident.
Thirty-five miles separated the bustling port of Liverpool and the burgeoning industrial town of Manchester. The only way to transport goods in bulk was by means of the canals, which were slow and expensive. It cost as much to ship raw cotton from Liverpool to Manchester as it did to ship it from America to England.
In the 1820s work began on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (the L&M), which would become the first railway to have a scheduled passenger service. One of the canals, the Bridgewater, was owned by Huskisson’s mentor, the Marquess of Stafford. Stafford was fearful of the competition of the railway, but Huskisson, a fierce proponent of it, persuaded him that rail was the future. He encouraged Stafford to invest in the L&M and to give over some of his lands for its use.
The 35-mile route was designed by George Stephenson. He laid out four equally spaced tracks, and in a move typical of Victorian need for efficiency, he deliberately put the rails close together to reduce the amount of land used in what was becoming the most expensive engineering project in British history.
On September 15th, 1830 the line was officially opened. With all the pomp and ceremony expected of such an occasion, a huge crowd had gathered at Liverpool and at Manchester to see the trains depart and arrive. At ten o’clock, Prime Minister Arthur Wellseley (the Duke of Wellington) arrived to open the station to the sound of See, the Conquering Hero Comes.
The Duke’s train was drawn by Stephenson’s most advanced lovomotive, the Northumbrian. The Duke’s carriage had been specially designed by cabinetmaker James Edmondson, and it featured “a lofty canopy of crimson cloth, 24 feet in length, rested upon eight carved and gilt pillars, the cornice enriched with gold ornaments and pendant tassels, the cloth fluted to two centres, surmounted with two ducal coronets. An ornamental gilt balustrade extended round each end of the carriage, and united with one of the pillars which supported the roof. Handsome scrolls filled up the next compartments, on each side of the doorway, which was in the centre.” Huskisson and his wife, along with other dignitaries, were in the carriage directly behind.
At eleven o’clock eight trains departed. Wellington’s train ran on its own track; the other seven ran parallel. Thirteen miles past Liverpool one of the trains derailed and collided with another. Nobody was injured, but it was a bad omen.
The trains then stopped at Parkside station – about halfway along the line – so that the steam locomotives could take on water. Railway officials urged passengers to stay on board, but several people including Huskisson, stepped down on to the tracks.
Huskisson and Wellington, former friends, had fallen out in 1828 over the issue of parliamentary reform. Huskisson had resigned from cabinet over the issue. Now, two years later, and on such an auspicious day, Huskisson thought he and Wellington could reconcile. He approached Wellington’s carriage to shake his hand.
He didn’t see the locomotive, George Stevens’ the Rocket, approaching on an adjacent track. The Rocket was an engineering prototype and had not been equipped with brakes. Huskisson panicked and tried to climb up on to the Duke’s carriage, but the door swung open instead, leaving him hanging directly in the path of the Rocket. He fell on to the tracks and the locomotive ran over him, lacerating his leg.
Although he was seriously injured, he didn’t appear to be in pain. His leg shook uncontrollably, but he lay placidly and looked at it.He declared “This is the death of me”. Others attempted to reassure him, but Huskisson replied “Yes, I am dying, call Mrs Huskisson”.A man threw his coat over William Huskisson’s leg to spare Emily Huskisson from seeing the extent of his injuries, and she was helped from the carriage in which she had been sitting. In hysterics, she attempted to throw herself onto Huskisson, but was restrained by fellow passengers. A certain Lord Wilton applied a makeshift tourniquet he had made using handkerchiefs and an elderly passenger’s walking stick.Other passengers ripped the door of a nearby railway storeroom from its hinges, to serve as a makeshift stretcher. Huskisson was lifted onto the door, shaking his head and saying “Where is Mrs Huskisson? I have met my death, God forgive me.”
In the initial confusion, many thought Wellington had been assassinated. One report in Blackwood’s Magazine, credited to “a railer” goes :
On looking out, I observed the Duke’s train drawn up parallel to another train, with a considerable number of persons on foot assembled in the intervening space; and, at the same time, I perceived an appearance of hustling, and stooping, and crowding together for which I could not well account. In another moment, a gentleman rushed forth, and came running up the line towards us; as he neared, I saw evidently that he was much agitated, and pale, and breathless—in short, that something dreadful had happened was obvious. At length he stopped, and fifty voices exclaimed, “Has any thing happened? What is the matter?” In a state of distracted nervousness, and in broken unconnected words, he at last broke silence—”Oh God! he is dead! He is killed! he is killed!”—”Who, and when, and how?” burst from every mouth; the first passing thought on my own, and probably every other mind, being, that some desperate and successful attempt had been made on the Duke’s life. The truth, however, soon spread like wildfire to the right and left, acting, as it fell upon every car, like a spell. Smiles and cheerful countenances were changed for one general gloom. Amongst those who were near the fatal spot, the first feeling was one of thankfulness, that their own immediate relative was not the victim; the next, and most permanent, was sympathy with the unhappy lady who saw her husband stretched, lacerated and bleeding, on the ground. A further sympathy was, I am sure, as generally and as sincerely felt—a sympathy with those gentlemen, who, as directors, had for so long devoted themselves to the accommodation of the public, and looked forward to this day as a gratifying and auspicious termination of their labours; conscious, too, as they were, that had their printed directions, issued with the tickets, been adhered to, no such accident could by any possibility have occurred.
Huskisson died later that evening.
Wellington wanted to cancel the rest of the day’s events, but a large crowd had gathered in Manchester to see the arrival of the trains, and was getting rowdy. People were crowding on to the tracks, and the trains had to move at slow speed so as not to injure anybody. When the trains did finally reach Manchester, the crowd was openly hostile and pelted vegetables at the passengers. Wellington refused to get off the train and ordered that they return to Liverpool.
Even that proved difficult; mechanical failures meant that most of the locomotives couldn’t be turned. Of the eight trains, only three locomotives were able to journey back to Liverpool, hauling a total of 24 carriages. They arrived six and half hours late after having been pelted with objects thrown from bridges by the drunken crowds lining the track.
Because of the tragedy of Huskisson’s death and the inauspicious start to the L&M, the event was widely reported, and people learned that cheap and rapid long-distance transport was now possible. Huskisson’s death, ironically, helped secure the L&M’s success.