PR disasters don’t get much bigger than this. It’s worse than that time the bottled water company realised its product was basically poisonous, a step above Nestle and its baby milk and pushing towards Exxon Valdez levels – but at least the only casualty in that were fluffy birds rather than leading politicians. The death of William Huskisson in 1830 on the opening day of the Liverpool-Manchester railway, the world’s first purpose built passenger line, was a cock-up of astonishing proportions. Imagine if Alastair Darling was attending the launch of a revolutionary form of transport (say a motorway for flying cars – because we’re about due one), something that had been built in the face of brutal opposition and predictions of an impending apocalypse if it were created. The world’s press would be there, along with leading politicians and celebrities of the day. But during the first run our Chancellor’s wonderful eyebrows would be crushed along with the rest of his slender frame after stepping into the path of a flying car.
Actually, scratch that, this was even weirder. Because Huskisson was so entwined with the fortunes of this new “rail-way” that an equivalent situation would require Darling to be an active investor in these routes for flying cars, to have advised the builders and to have personally guided the required legislation through parliament. Oh, and then just before his moment of death an attempt would be made to pull him to safety by a close political rival with Prime Minister watching – say, David Miliband attempting a rescue as Gordon Brown looked on.
On the opening day of the railway William Huskisson, MP for the prized seat of Liverpool and nominal leader of liberal Tory faction in the House of Commons was run over by the ‘Rocket’ locomotive in sight of the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, after going walkabout on the track as the train approached. Following emergency treatment from political rivals he was driven away from the accident by the same locomotive that had just mulched his leg.
Holmes and Huskisson clung onto the side of the Duke’s carriage, but then panic gripped them both. This carriage was 8 feet wide, and overhung the parrallel rail by two feet. Clinging on, the remaining 2-foot gap between the carriage and the advancing engine should have been just sufficient to ensure safety. But Huskisson doubted this judgement, and began to move about. He manoeuvred his leg over the side of the carriage, but those inside failed to pull him in. Holmes cried to him by his side, ‘For God’s sake, Mr Huskisson, be firm!’ at which point Huskisson grabbed the door of the carriage. Unable to bear his weight, the door swung wide open, suspending him directly into the path of the engine. The Rocket hit the door, and Huskisson was thrown beneath its wheels.
(Just to complete this bizarre confluence of great historical moments and men: the world’s first railway ambulance was driven by the pioneering engineer George Stephenson who had personally designed the trains, surveyed the line and made all this possible.)
They attempted to carry on with the party but no one was really in the mood. No wonder, given the description of Huskisson’s injury from eyewitnesses.
The wheels had passed slantingly over the calf of the leg and the middle of the thigh, crushing and tearing the muscles but leaving the knee itself uninjured – a triangular wound unfamiliar even to medical men. The upper part of the leg had a multiple fracture, and the muscles were exposed in one wet and weeping flap. Blood soaked up crushed bone like chalk powder. The arteries had not been severed, but lay flattened and pulsing in the sinewy turmoil. Observers noticed that the true pain did not encroach for almost a minute, and for a while Huskisson regarded his split limb with revulsion and astonishment as it shook beyond his control.
But the strangest thing is that despite the grief, the coverage of the disaster and Huskisson’s enormous funeral bringing Liverpool to a halt the new railway soon recovered. Death or not, the new link had made it possible to travel from the trading floors of Manchester to the docks at Liverpool and back within a day. The accident had been well publicised but with vast sums of money to be made it would take more than a solitary casualty, no matter how high profile, to put them off. So Huskisson was quickly forgotten. The most prominent reminder of him is a splash of white, briefly seen from a train window as you approach Newton-le-Willows station. That’s where he was hit and also the spot where the railway company erected a memorial to their backer in 1831.
In the 1830s you would have been afforded a good stare at the marble the train trundled past at 20mph, now even the slowest train doesn’t give you the chance to take it in. So when we visiting various sites of dubious importance in the North-West we went to have a look.
Huskisson’s train stopped here to take on water at the midpoint between the two cities and it’s still a strange Manc/Scouse hinterland – that way goes to St. Helens, this way to Warrington. There’s also about five lines that converge here so check the map before you go and park away from the bridge – it’s easiest to go 200 yards further north to the crossroads.
Here be Warrington. Huskisson’s memorial is the white speck with the pin on top.
It’s a disappointment, as it probably should be. If it was half-decent there would be more of a ‘destination’ with a cracked information display funded by English Heritage in the early 90s and featuring bad attempts at contextualising the event for kids. Instead it is a curio, ‘that thing’ that commuters spot every morning on their way between the towns of Lancashire. But it’s a nice meeting point – old vs new, a liberal Tory struggling to reconcile his aristocratic party with progress and as a meeting point of the various lines that sprung up in the 1830s.
The monument is a classical design that has more to do with aristocratic grand tours of Italy than the sleek railway age. It resembles a modest mausoleum, albeit one that’s now hemmed in by heavy Network Rail spikes. Really big Network Rail spikes that scream “Hey, we don’t care if you’re just a history student with too much interest in quirky deaths, you’re not even touching the memorial – and anyway, you’re probably so skinny and uncoordinated that you’d slip onto the track and get run over by the 10.52 to Eccles. And we won’t build a memorial for you.” It was soggy and cold so we agreed and just had a look. There’s not much to be seen outside this cage and the best view is probably got from walking along the edge of the field on the northern side of the tracks. It’s set well back from the track but definitely in the danger zone – make your own judgements about how close to get. It’s a bit sad that something you can’t really visit (and something well outside St Helens) is one of only ten heritage sites on the St Helens tourist board website. Take what you can get, I guess.
Two fine fellows on a soggy bridge outside Warrington.
The real shame is that Huskisson is only remembered for his gruesome end. Only minutes before his death he had rekindled contact with Wellington after an impasse that had lasted several years. He was no revolutionary and certainly no Northern man – he was from educated gentry stock, spent his late adolescence with a relative in France witnessing the revolution and lived near Chichester. But he could spot that the tide was turning and the best way to preserve the old regime was not to fight the tide. He’d grown to love the astonishing innovations that he saw in his Liverpool constituency. And he’d resigned over a point of principle regarding the reform of parliament having already spent years irritating his superiors in the Tory party by pushing for free trade over economic protectionism at various positions in the government – a pro-free market educated man with integrity? Pretty cool even without his brutal end.
It’s bigger up close. Decide for yourself whether you want to risk the wrath of Network Rail and get over those chunky railings.
The memorial has been recently restored and the shattered inscription tablet has been replaced with a replica. The full inscription shows the Victorians at their best – fascinated with death and able to spin that into some good lines:
A tribute of personal respect and affection
Has been placed here to mark the spot where on the
15th of Sept 1830 the day of the opening of this rail road
The right honble William Huskisson M.P.
Singled out by the decree of an inscrutable providence from
He midst of the distinguished multitude that surrounded him.
In the full pride of his talents and the perfection of his
Usefulness met with the accident that occasioned his death;
Which deprived England of a illustrious statesman and
Liverpool of its most honored representative which change
A moment of the noblest exultation and triumph that science and
Genius had ever achieved into one of desolation and mourning;
And striking terror into the hearts of assembled thousands,
Brought home to every bosom the forgotten truth that
“IN THE MIDST OF LIFE WE ARE IN DEATH.”
At this moment in the midst of our lives we were pretty cold and hungry and so left for Bury market in search of black pudding.
*All the block quotes are from “The Last Journey of William Huskisson” by Simon Garfield which is out of print but can be found on amazon for a couple of quid – it’s a good read full of gory details about amputations that you can finish it in an afternoon.