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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Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.