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.