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Modern Britain

Liverpool: AD 1830 Run Over by a 'Rocket': A Tragic Claim to Fame

by Ken Pye, taken from Bloody British History: Liverpool, 2 June 2013

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 their 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 a different locomotive. These were Phoenix, North Star, Dart, Comet, Arrow, and Meteor. Leading the cavalcade was 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 which carried all the distinguished guests had stopped to take on water halfway along the route, at the Parkfield watering station, about 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 which 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 metres 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!'

Railway accident 1830
The remarkable inaugural day of running on the Manchester to Liverpool railway line was marred by a dreadful tragedy

Read the previous BBH entry

But this only confused him.

As he struggled to pull himself up into the duke's carriage, his strength failed and, already weakened by a recent illness, he lost control of the carriage door, which swung outwards, knocking him into the path of the oncoming Rocket.

The unfortunate MP was struck by the engine and he fell to the ground. As he did so, his left knee was thrown across the northern track in a bent position, and the wheels of the succeeding carriages crushed his thigh and leg - producing a loud 'crunching' sound, according to eye-witnesses, and 'squeezing it almost to a jelly'!

One of the eyewitnesses to the accident was a reporter from Gore's Liverpool Advertiser. He takes up the story:

Though we distinctly heard Mr Huskisson shriek as the carriage passed, we had no idea that any serious mischief had happened... Several of the Directors, and of the distinguished visitors from the Duke of Wellington's carriage, immediately crowded around to offer their services...

Mr Huskisson said, 'Where is Mrs Huskisson? I have met my death. God forgive me.'

The Northumbrian engine, and the carriage which contained the band, were detached from the state carriage; and Mr Huskisson, having been carefully placed on a board, was carried upon men's shoulders, and deposited in the carriage of the band...

Mr Stephenson, taking charge of the engine, set out towards Manchester at a most terrific rate, travelling from the place where the accident happened to Eccles Bridge, at the rate of fifty-five kilometres an hour...

At Eccles, the mortally injured man was taken to the local vicarage, whilst George Stephenson continued with the Northumbrian, to find medical assistance at the Manchester station. By this time it was about four o'clock in the afternoon. Meanwhile, Huskisson was losing massive amounts of blood, and was failing fast. When the surgeons eventually arrived at the vicarage they decided not to amputate, as this was bound to kill him, so he was given massive doses of laudanum. This did nothing to relieve the dreadful agony he was suffering. Huskisson then took hold of the arm of one of the surgeons, a Mr Whatton, and spoke to him.

Every day, without realising it, thousands of passengers on modern trains pass the site of Huskisson's accident at Parkside. A memorial was placed here at the time and it still stands, bearing an inscription which reads: 'The accident changed a moment of the noblest exultation and triumph that science and genius had ever achieved into one of desolation and mourning...'

Here, the reporter takes up the narrative once more:

'I wish you to tell me candidly what you think of my case.'

Mr Whatton replied: 'It is a very bad one, and I fear, sir, that you cannot survive.'

Mr Huskisson rejoined, 'No, that I have fully made up my mind to, from the first; but how long do you think I have to live?'

The answer was, 'It is impossible to say exactly; but probably not more than four, five, or at most six hours.'

'Thank you,' said Mr Huskisson, and terminated the conversation.

William Huskisson dictated his last will and, with his wife, he took the sacrament, although his breathing was by now much laboured. Shortly after this, the dying man said, 'I hope I have lived the life of a Christian,' and then thanked the surgeons for 'their kind attentions to him'.

Mr Huskisson then 'took an affectionate leave of the sorrowing friends who surrounded his bedside, and a most tender farewell of his devoted wife, and precisely at nine o'clock, expired.'

William Huskisson was a much-respected man in Liverpool, and throughout Britain, even though his campaigns for radical new policies, such as Catholic emancipation, made him the target of much vitriol; hence his original conflict with the prime minister. Huskisson's death, and the manner in which it occurred on such an otherwise illustrious day, shocked the nation. The public subscription which was rapidly taken up was sufficient to erect his magnificent tomb and mausoleum, which now stands in the centre of St James' Cemetery. This marks his life, and commemorates him as the world's first railway fatality.

Read the previous BBH entry


Images and text copyright © The History Press and author(s). This is an excerpt from a History Press publication produced with permission and in conjunction with the History Files.


Bloody British History at the History Press