June 10, 2013
Death on the railways: part 1
I love travelling by train and recently I enjoyed one of my favourite journeys by rail: from the south to my home city of Manchester. Ever since I was a student in London in the 1980s, steaming up through the English countryside to the north has been a treat. While I was in Manchester I had dinner very close to the Museum of Science and Industry. Especially as the museum is currently embroiled in a desperate battle to avoid possible closure, I felt moved to be so close to this wonderful place: the site of the very first modern railway in the world.
The Liverpool to Manchester line was officially opened on 15 September 1830. Local business was suspended for the morning as enormous crowds gathered at both ends to witness this momentous occasion. While everyone was waiting for the arrival of the train in Manchester, the sky became overcast and a severe thunderstorm broke out with heavy showers of rain. Just after one o’clock, amid the crashing thunder and vivid strikes of lightning, the spectators strained to catch a glimpse of the Northumbrian. This was the first train to arrive in the procession drawing the carriage with the Prime Minister and 1st Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley who was not a fan of the steam-powered invocation – he worried that it might ‘encourage the lower classes to travel about’.
As the Duke and his entourage of local dignitaries alighted from the train, the news was delivered of a ‘melancholy accident’ that had taken place earlier that morning. When the engines had stopped for fuel during their journey from Liverpool, several gentlemen had dismounted including local MP and former President of the Board of Trade William Huskisson. He was walking along the rails to the carriage where his wife was sitting when he caught the eye of the prime minister. As Huskisson advanced to shake the hand of The Duke of Wellington a cry of danger was heard: Stephenson’s Rocket was coming down the other side of the track. Everyone scrambled back into the carriages but Huskisson missed his footing, fell back onto the track and was run over by the locomotive. Lord Wilton bound his mangled legs with a silk handkerchief to stem the bleeding and as he was lifted from the track, Huskisson shouted, “I have met my death. God forgive me.” He died later that evening.
Despite this terrible event, the first modern railway journey was a huge success. Although originally constructed for the movement of freight, the Liverpool to Manchester line saw a massive boom in passenger travel and the railway began to transform the lives of many working people, regardless of the fears of the Duke of Wellington.