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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12 things we learned by reading every single National Rail timetable

Some departure boards, yesterday. Image: flickr.com/photos/joshtechfission/ CC-BY-SA

A couple of weeks ago, someone on Twitter asked CityMetric’s editor about the longest possible UK train journey where the stations are all in progressive alphabetical order. Various people made suggestions, but I was intrigued as to what that definitive answer was. Helpfully, National Rail provides a 3,717 page document containing every single timetable in the country, so I got reading!

(Well, actually I let my computer read the raw data in a file provided by ATOC, the Association of Train Operating Companies. Apparently this ‘requires a good level of computer skills’, so I guess I can put that on my CV now.)

Here’s what I learned:

1) The record for stops in progressive alphabetical order within a single journey is: 10

The winner is the weekday 7.42am Arriva Trains Wales service from Bridgend to Aberdare, which stops at the following stations in sequence:

  • Barry, Barry Docks, Cadoxton, Cardiff Central, Cardiff Queen Street, Cathays, Llandaf, Radyr, Taffs Well, Trefforest

The second longest sequence possible – 8 – overlaps with this. It’s the 22:46pm from Cardiff Central to Treherbert, although at present it’s only scheduled to run from 9-12 April, so you’d better book now to avoid the rush. 

  • Cardiff Central, Cardiff Queen Street, Cathays, Llandaf, Radyr, Taffs Well, Trefforest, Trehafod

Not quite sure what you’ll actually be able to do when you get to Trehafod at half eleven. Maybe the Welsh Mining Experience at Rhondda Heritage Park could arrange a special late night event to celebrate.

Just one of the things that you probably won't be able to see in Trehafod. Image: Wikimedia/FruitMonkey.

There are 15 possible runs of 7 stations. They include:

  • Berwick Upon Tweed, Dunbar, Edinburgh, Haymarket, Inverkeithing, Kirkcaldy, Leuchars
  • Bidston, Birkenhead North, Birkenhead Park, Conway Park, Hamilton Square, James Street, Moorfields
  • Bedford, Flitwick, Harlington, Leagrave, Luton, St Albans City, St Pancras International

There is a chance for a bit of CONTROVERSY with the last one, as you could argue that the final station is actually called London St Pancras. But St Pancras International the ATOC data calls it, so if you disagree you should ring them up and shout very loudly about it, I bet they love it when stuff like that happens.

Alphabetical train journeys not exciting enough for you?

2) The longest sequence of stations with alliterative names: 5

There are two ways to do this:

  • Ladywell, Lewisham, London Bridge, London Waterloo (East), London Charing Cross – a sequence which is the end/beginning of a couple of routes in South East London.
  • Mills Hill, Moston, Manchester Victoria, Manchester Oxford Road, Manchester Piccadilly – from the middle of the Leeds-Manchester Airport route.

There are 20 ways to get a sequence of 4, and 117 for a sequence of 3, but there are no train stations in the UK beginning with Z so shut up you at the back there.

3) The longest sequence of stations with names of increasing length: 7

Two of these:

  • York, Leeds, Batley, Dewsbury, Huddersfield, Manchester Victoria, Manchester Oxford Road
  • Lewes, Glynde, Berwick, Polegate, Eastbourne, Hampden Park, Pevensey & Westham

4) The greatest number of stations you can stop at without changing trains: 50

On a veeeeery slow service that calls at every stop between Crewe and Cardiff Central over the course of 6hr20. Faster, albeit less comprehensive, trains are available.

But if you’re looking for a really long journey, that’s got nothing on:

5) The longest journey you can take on a single National Rail service: 13 hours and 58 minutes.

A sleeper service that leaves Inverness at 7.17pm, and arrives at London Euston at 9.15am the next morning. Curiously, the ATOC data appears to claim that it stops at Wembley European Freight Operations Centre, though sadly the National Rail website makes no mention of this once in a lifetime opportunity.

6) The shortest journey you can take on a National Rail service without getting off en route: 2 minutes.

Starting at Wrexham Central, and taking you all the way to Wrexham General, this service is in place for a few days in the last week of March.

7) The shortest complete journey as the crow flies: 0 miles

Because the origin station is the same as the terminating station, i.e. the journey is on a loop.

8) The longest unbroken journey as the crow flies: 505 miles

Taking you all the way from Aberdeen to Penzance – although opportunities to make it have become rarer. The only direct service in the current timetable departs at 8.20am on Saturday 24 March. It stops at 46 stations and takes 13 hours 20 minutes. Thankfully, a trolley service is available.

9) The shortest station names on the network have just 3 letters

Ash, Ayr, Ely, Lee, Lye, Ore, Par, Rye, Wem, and Wye.

There’s also I.B.M., serving an industrial site formerly owned by the tech firm, but the ATOC data includes those full stops so it's not quite as short. Compute that, Deep Blue, you chess twat.

10) The longest station name has 33 letters excluding spaces

Okay, I cheated on this and Googled it – the ATOC data only has space for 26 characters. But for completeness’ sake: it’s Rhoose Cardiff International Airport, with 33 letters.

No, I’m not counting that other, more infamous Welsh one, because it’s listed in the database as Llanfairpwll, which is what it is actually called.

 

This sign is a lie. Image: Cyberinsekt.

11) The highest platform number on the National Rail network is 22

Well, the highest platform number at which anything is currently scheduled to stop at, at least.

12) if yoU gAze lOng into an abYss the abySs alSo gazEs into yOu

Image: author's own.

“For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved”, said Thomas.

Ed Jefferson works for the internet and tweets as @edjeff.

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