Liverpool has been the 'first' at a number of
remarkable discoveries and achievements, and one of the most
significant is that, in 1830, the world's first passenger train,
drawn by a steam locomotive, travelled from the town to Manchester.
Soon, railways were criss-crossing Britain, and driving ever onward
its industrial and commercial revolution. But that remarkable
inaugural day was marred by a dreadful tragedy.
It was the 18 September, and in the early afternoon the bunting was
out and the bands played. Great crowds of excited people thronged
the railway tracks at Crown Street Station, in the Liverpool
district of Edge Hill, as a convoy of trains pulled out on their
journey to our sister city.
The duke of Wellington (1769-1852), who was prime minister at the
time and travelling with other VIP guests, was in his own carriage
on the southern track. This was being pulled by the locomotive
Northumbrian. On the parallel northern track was a procession of
trains, each pulled by different locomotives. These were Phoenix,
North Star, Dart, Comet, Arrow, and the
Meteor. Leading the
cavalcade was the Rocket, which had been designed and built by
George Stephenson and his son Robert. This had won a competition,
held the previous year at the Rainhill Steam Trials, to find the
most successful design for a new form of locomotive engine.
The train that carried all the distinguished guests had stopped to
take on water halfway along the route, at the Parkfield watering
station, about seventeen miles [27.4 kilometres] out of Liverpool. Amongst the important
people in the prime minister's special train was the local MP,
William Huskisson (born 1770), accompanied by his wife. During the
1820s Huskisson had been one of the primary backers of the Liverpool
and Manchester Railway and, in 1826, had helped to secure the
legislation that would allow construction to begin. The dignitaries'
train had stopped, which provided an opportunity for the trains and
carriages full of people on the northern track to pass by and get a
look at the 'great and the good'.
At this point, the VIPs got out of their open-topped carriages to
socialise and stretch their legs - despite being warned against this
by railway officials. The duke remained in his carriage,
acknowledging greetings from his fellow travellers.
William Husskisson thought that, because of the general mood of good
will, this would be a perfect opportunity to heal a long-standing
rift between himself and the prime minister. So he made his way
between the two lines of railway tracks, up to the duke's carriage.
Warmly welcomed by his political adversary, the Liverpool MP opened
the carriage door in order to shake the duke's hand, which was now
being extended towards him. But then Husskisson realised that the
other trains, led by George Stephenson's Rocket, were advancing
towards him along the parallel track, only a few feet away from him.
All the people who had been walking around quickly began to scramble
back aboard their own carriages, leaving Huskisson as the last
person standing on the ground, with his hand on the open carriage
door. It was clear to observers that he was too close to the
approaching locomotive, and the engineer shouted out to him.
'Hi, sir! Stand clear! Stand clear!'
At the same time, people called to him from his carriage:
'Mr Huskisson, sir, the locomotive, it's upon you, sir!'