On this day in 1830, a former Cabinet minister became the first bloody idiot to get mown down by a train

The Duke of Wellington's train and other locomotives being readied for departure from Liverpool, 15 September 1830. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Today marks the 187th anniversary of two different momentous landmarks in the history of transportation.

One was the opening, on 15 September 1830, of the world’s first intercity railway line, the Liverpool & Manchester. Other trains had run before, drawn by horses, or by steam over short distances – but this was the first proper railway line of the industrial age, powered entirely by cutting edge steam engines, and with the first regularly scheduled passenger services.

The other momentous thing that happened on 15 September 1830 was that the 60 year old William Huskisson, an MP and former member of the Cabinet, attempted to ingratiate himself with the prime minister, and screwed it up so spectacularly that he instead ended up becoming the first person ever killed by a train. It was the equivalent of, say, Iain Duncan Smith managing to get himself mown down by a hyperloop. It was a hell of an end to a political career.

The Liverpool & Manchester was the HS2 of its age, running for 35 miles, through the southern Lancashire countryside, linking the industrial colossus of Manchester with the port of Liverpool. Its creation inaugurated three decades of “railway mania”: in just a few years, steam railways would spread to almost every town in Britain, effectively shrinking the country and completely transforming the economy.

Those first trains ran at around 17mph, covering the distance in a minimum of two hours plus breaks. That may not sound like much today – it’s less than the speed limit on the roads around schools (“20’s plenty!”). But stopping trains between the two cities can take over an hour even today, and until 1830, getting goods out of the textile factories of Manchester required loading them onto horse-drawn canal boats. A horse walks at around 4mph: 17mph was practically light speed.

And so, on Wednesday 15 September, the new line opened with such a fanfare that crowds turned out to watch the first trains leaving Liverpool. It was such a big day that literally dozens of dignitaries came along for the ride; they included the prime minister, and hero of the Napoleonic wars, Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington.

In all, eight trains left Liverpool that day. Seven of them formed a convoy on the northern of the two tracks; Wellington’s, being special, had the southern to itself. Inevitably, there were teething problems: at one point, a train derailed, and the one behind banged into it. But there were no serious injuries, yet, so the train was lifted back onto the track and continued on its way.

Then the convoy reached Parkside, a long closed station between Wigan to the north and Warrington to the south, pretty much the halfway point of the line. Everything was scheduled to stop here, to enable the trains to take on water. The railway staff warned the passengers to remain on their trains.

The passengers didn’t listen.

In all, around 50 people got off to stretch their legs. One of them was William Huskisson, then MP for Liverpool, who had resigned from Wellington’s Cabinet in a huff after a row about parliamentary reform back in 1828. Reports after the event said that he was hoping to be reconciled to Wellington, though one wonders how anyone knew this: this might just be an attempt to romanticise what happened later.

Look at this twat: Richard Rothwell’s portrait of William Huskisson. Image: public domain.

Whatever the truth of things, he was hanging around outside Wellington’s carriage, chatting to the prime minister, when a train approached on the other track. It was Robert Stephenons’s Rocket, so we can probably assume it was going at a fair old whack, and Huskisson was now in its path. “An engine is approaching!” someone is reported to have shouted – before, this being 1830, adding, “Take care gentlemen!”

Most of the gentlemen did indeed take care. At this point there were a number of things Huskisson could have done. Some of the passengers rushed back to their own seats; others got moved away from the railway lines altogether. Still others noticed that there was enough clearance between the two lines to stand very still and allow the engine to pass.

Huskisson, though, didn’t choose any of these. Huskisson was a klutz. He started to cross the line, changed his mind, went to cross it again, changed his mind again, and went for the stand-very-still option. By this point Joseph Locke, the guy driving the Rocket, could see the danger and was trying to stop the train, but it was too late; it couldn’t brake fast enough.

The still panicking Huskisson tried at last to clamber onto the Prime Minister’s train (flopping onto Wellington’s lap no doubt would have repaired their relationship perfectly). But in his haste he seems to have placed all his weight on the carriage door.

It swung open, leaving him dangling directly in the path of a train. The train hit the door. Huskisson hit the tracks.

His leg was horribly mangled by the accident. He was taken, on a station door repurposed as a stretcher, to a vicarage in nearby Eccles. He survived long enough to see his wife and make a will, but died, later that evening.

Railways, it turned out, could be dangerous.

The gory fate of William Huskisson did at least mean that the opening of the railway was widely reported – more widely, perhaps, that it would have been if everything had gone well. The world now knew that railways had arrived, and that you should probably not stand around in the middle of them when a train might be coming.

William Huskisson had been in the Cabinet. He’d spent four years as President of the Board of Trade. He’d been Secretary of State for War & the Colonies, and Leader of the House of Commons. He was a founder of the era of free trade and imperial expansion that would last for nearly a century after his death. He was an important figure.

But – lots of parliamentarians were involved in creating Victorian Britain, and we don’t remember any of them for it either. We do remember William Huskisson, though: not for his achievements in life, but for the humiliatingly clumsy manner of his death. He may or may not have succeeded in patching things up with the prime minister. But he ensured his place in the history books all the same.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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To fix the housing crisis, we need to decide what success would look like

Building houses in Ilford, 1947. Image: Getty.

Recent years have seen growing public and political recognition that there is a crisis in housing. This has led to a widening debate on the causes and potential solutions.

However, within this debate there has been little in the way of a consensus view of what constitutes the current housing crisis – or what a “crisis-free” housing system might look like. There seems little clear idea of any measurable goal. The nearest we have as a target to aim at has been a series of aspirational numbers for new-build homes, with limited clarity on what to expect if we were to hit those numbers.

Clarity about what success would look like is essential. Without a framework for what we need and want from housing, our ability to understand and fix it appropriately will be compromised. A lack of clarity also increases the risk of unintended consequences from misguided policy interventions.

The current housing debate is, to quote UCL’s Michael Edwards, “bedevilled by rival simplifications”. There are several, quite often competing explanations for why we have a housing crisis. For many it is our failure to build homes at the same rate as projected household formation. This failure might be assigned to the planning system, the greenbelt, housebuilder business models, the land market, or NIMBYs.

For others, the crisis is a result of falling interest rates, rising credit supply, low income growth, wealth and income inequality, tax incentives, or simply our fixation on house price growth. For some, there is no shortage of homes, rather a poor distribution. And for others there isn’t really a housing crisis.

Despite the apparent contradictions in this mix of positions, each of the arguments that support these various views may hold significant elements of truth. Housing is a complex and interconnected system within the economy and society. There is no simple single housing market: there are multiple markets defined by location, property type, tenure, and price. Therefore, there is no simple single housing crisis. Instead we have multiple overlapping issues affecting different parts of the country in different ways and to varying degrees.

There may be factors that influence all housing markets across the UK, indeed across much of the globe. There will be others that impact more locally and within specific housing sectors.

So, for instance, there is growing acceptance by many experts that the cost and availability of credit has been one of the biggest, if not the biggest, drivers of increases in national house prices over the last twenty years.

But it is not the only factor. The growth in buy-to-let has contributed to the financialisation of housing, with homes increasingly thought of as an investment rather than a place for people to live. A lack of supply is predominantly an issue for London and its surrounds, but there are localised shortages elsewhere, particularly of specific types or tenure of homes.

Planning (including a lack of) and the land market limit the responsiveness of supply to rising demand. Housing is unevenly distributed, mostly across generations but also spatially and within generations. Some areas don’t need a net increase in housing but desperately need existing poor-quality homes improved or replaced. In many areas the biggest issue is low (or negative) income growth and employment insecurity.

All these issues and others play a part in defining “the housing crisis”. Having a framework for what we need and want from housing, combined with an understanding of the complexities and interactions that run through the housing market, is essential to resolving the problems they create.

The problem with ‘households’

A misunderstanding of the complexities of housing can be found in one of the most frequently stated explanations for the crisis: a lack of new supply compared with household projections.

Unfortunately, this argument is flawed. Household projections are not a measure of housing demand. The effective demand for new housing is determined by the number of people or companies willing and financially able to buy property. Meanwhile new supply only accounts for around 12 per cent of total transactions and probably less of available homes for sale.

Importantly, even if some analysis may suggest there is no shortage of supply, that does not mean there is no need for new supply. Household projections are a statistical construct based on the past, not a direct measure of future housing demand. But they are still important if used appropriately within a framework for what we need and want from housing.

If we are more explicit about the role of household projections in measuring housing need and the assumptions they contain, then the ‘supply versus household projections’ argument might be recast as a debate on changing household sizes and the consumption of housing (both in terms of space and multiple properties).

This then implies that we should be clearer about the minimum acceptable amount of housing people need, while also accounting for what they want. Should younger people still expect to form households at the same rate and size as their parents? The assumptions and projections around future household sizes should be moved from the background, where they are typically only discussed by planners and researchers, to the centre of the debate.

They should be just one part of a framework for success that explicitly states what we need and want from housing – not just in terms of size but also cost, tenure, quality, security, and location – and better defines the minimum we are prepared to accept. That will provide a clearer understanding of where housing is failing to meet those requirements and help set objectives for how to fix it. These could then be applied appropriately across different markets.

“Rather than trying to return to the relatively short-lived 20th century ideal of mass home-ownership, perhaps we should be focussing our efforts on making renting cheaper”

If measurement against the framework shows that households are not able to form at an appropriate rate and size relative to what they need, then we probably need to increase supply while possibly encouraging older households to move out of larger homes. If rents are too expensive then we may need to reform the rental sectors and increase supply. If housing quality is poor, then we need to work harder at improving and replacing existing stock. If many areas are struggling due to low (or negative) income growth and employment insecurity, then we probably need to look beyond just housing. It might even question whether we need to rebalance the economy and infrastructure investment away from London and its commuter zone.

Having a framework for success may even highlight which issues we can fix and which we can’t. For example, it looks likely that we are stuck with a low interest rate and hence high house price to income market. Under those conditions, prospective first-time buyers will continue to struggle to raise a deposit and access home-ownership irrespective of how much new supply can be realistically delivered.

Rather than trying to return to the relatively short-lived 20th century ideal of mass home-ownership, perhaps we should be focussing our efforts on making renting cheaper, higher quality, and more secure as a long-term home. Increasing new supply would be an important tool in achieving that outcome.

When we have a framework for what success could look like, our ability to understand and fix housing appropriately will be dramatically improved. It would be an important step towards making housing available, affordable, and appropriate for everyone that needs it. It would also be more useful than simply setting a nice round number national target for new homes.

Neal Hudson is an independent housing analyst, who tweets as @resi_analyst. This article originally appeared on his blog.