I can't make up my mind about William Huskinson. “Tall, slouching, and ignoble-looking”, he was
considered one of the best economic brains in England, and represented Liverpool in Parliament as a Tory (the conservative party). At the same time he also agitated for liberal issues, like equal rights for Catholics and Jews and election reform. But it wasn't William's contrariety in politics that confuses me, it was the way he kept falling over things. While on his honeymoon in April of 1799, a horse fell on him. Two years later he dislocated an ankle. He had broken his right arm so many times it was almost useless But was this genial scarecrow just a klutz, or did his bumbling rise to the exalted level of ironic? It was certainly ironic that the Liverpool and Manchester Railway was built only because of the enthusiastic intervention of the sixty year old. But it was also the L and M which was responsible for William's brutal demise. When, I wonder, does unfortunate become ironic?
William was effective in English politics because he was almost universally liked. His official biography described him as “extremely agreeable...generally cheerful, with a great deal of humor, information, and anecdote...As a speaker in the House of Commons...he had no pretensions to eloquence; his voice was feeble, and his manner ungraceful.” Still, because of his brains and his sense of humor, people tended to like him - important people, like Granville Leveson-Gower (above), the richest man in England. In Scotland, Granville, aka the Duke of Sutherland , aka the Marquess of Stafford, is reviled for his wholesale evictions of highland farmers, but in England he was respected because....well, because he was the richest man in England, and because of the two things he had inherited from his in-laws - his talent for “absorbing heiresses” (he outlived three wives) and what he had inherited from his third' wife's uncle, the first “true canal” in England, the Bridgewater.
After its opening in 1761 the 39 mile long canal had cut the price of coal powering the linen mills in Manchester by half, while making the first Earl of Bridgewater very wealthy. In 1776 a connection was cut to the river Mersey which allowed the finished Manchester fabrics to be inexpensively shipped out of the port of Liverpool, the transport taking only 30 hours, and thus making the Earl even richer. So it was no surprise that Granville, who inherited the canal in 1803, was not anxious to see Manchester wool merchants build a railroad and cut into his profits. Even with the canal, it cost as much to move the finish garments to Liverpool as it had cost to ship the raw cotton from America. Granville successfully fought the railroad for years, until the Liverpool MP (minister to parliament),William Huskinson, suggested to his fiend that it might be more profitable joining the Manchester merchants rather then fighting them. With Wilkinson’s adroit assistance, a deal was struck. Granville became a partner in the railroad. And on Wednesday September 15, 1830, a gala grand opening was staged for the 35 mile long Liverpool to Manchester Railroad, including a “whistle stop” visit from the man who had beaten Napoleon, the Prime Minister and ex-political ally of William Huskinson, Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington.
As a politician the Duke (above) was the perfect model of modern major General. He gave ground where it cost him little, as when he urged the repeal of laws restricting Catholics. But he dug in against repeal of the infamous Corn Laws. These slapped taxes on any grain exports from England, and just made things worse for the starving Irish during the potato famine. But the “Iron Duke” was a landowner and willing to defend the Corn Laws to the last Irishman. William Huskinson grew so frustrated with the Duke, he resigned from the government. However his resignation had not driven the Duke to back down, and William was hoping the ceremonies around the opening of the railroad would give him a chance to repair his relationship with his old friend Wellesley.
The Manchester and Liverpool railroad was the invention of George Stephenson, who had even manufactured a prototype locomotive – the Rocket - for the system. Stephenson had insisted on two tracks, one southbound from Manchester to Liverpool, and the other northbound, so the line could safely carry twice as many trains. It was a good idea, but doubled the cost of construction. So Stephenson had saved money by placing all four of the rails equal distance apart. His rational was that this not only eliminated an enormous amount of grading, but should a train have to carry anything wider than eight feet, it could simply shift to the two center rails, providing more elbow room on either side. What Stephenson could not know was that as speeds increased in the future, passing carriages would create a lower air pressure between them, which, without more space between the rails, would suck the carriages into each other. That was one of the things experience would teach railroad engineers like Stephenson. And what happened this opening day, would teach them a few other things.
There were eight separate inaugural passenger trains which left Liverpool beginning at eleven that morning, The Duke's train was first on the southbound tracks, pulled by the 14 horse power engine Northumberland, and made up of a car carrying a band, followed by six carriages each with 12 to 24 passengers. In the carriage just in front of the Duke's sat William Huskinson with his wife Emily, and several important politicians. The other seven trains, with about 60 passengers per car, traveled on the northbound tracks, leap frogging the Duke's train, to provide numerous opportunities for all the celebrants to cheer and laugh and stare at the victor of Waterloo as the trains climbed their way the 35 miles uphill toward Manchester.
The trains all paused at Parkside station, an hour out of Liverpool and about half way to Manchester.
Here the Duke's train stopped, while the Phoenix and the North Star trains passed ("like the whizzing of a cannon ball", said the Duke) with many shouts and cheers, to wait a few hundred yards beyond the station. As the water tanks of the Northumberland was slowly refilled, about 50 men disembarked between the rails to stretch their legs and probably unload their personal water tanks, in a light drizzle. William Holmes, the Chief Tory Whip suggested this would be a prime opportunity for William to bond with the Prime Minister, and Huskinson agreed. The two men walked the few yards back to the Duke's carriage where William extended a hand. The Duke, happy at seeing his old friend again, grasped William's hand firmly. They were about to speak when a shout went out, “"An engine is approaching, take care gentlemen!”
It was the Rocket, Stephenson's prototype, pulling another train of passenger cars. The driver, Joesph Locke saw the men on the tracks about 80 feet ahead of him. There was plenty of time, except the Rocket had no brakes. Locke threw the little engine into reverse. There was still ample time to avoid injury, unless you were a major klutz – guess who. All the other men in the way managed to easily escape, either being pulled into the Duke's car, or running the ten feet or so across the tracks. But William Huskinson could not make up his mind. Initially the Duke tried to lift the scarecrow into his car, but William yanked free and started to dash across the tracks. Then, abruptly he changed his mind and returned to the car's side. The Duke shouted, “"For God's sake, Mr Huskisson, be firm!" and grabbed for him again. But William dodged rescue and bolted across the tracks again. Some one threw open the door of the Duke's car suddenly, and William reversed course once again and jumped for the swinging support. He grabbed onto it just as the Rocket smashed it to smithereens. Huskinson, said eyewitness Harriet Arbuthnot, “was... thrown down and the engine passed over his leg and thigh, crushing it in a most frightful way. It is impossible to give an idea...of the piercing shrieks of his unfortunate wife, who was in the car (ahead).”
They dumped the band, because their car was the only one with a flat bottom, and carrying the right Honorable Huskinson on a door ripped off a track side shack, placed him gently aboard. The rest of the cars were then detached, Stephenson opened the throttles full, and the engine, the coal car, the wounded man and two doctors headed for Manchester at 40 miles an hour. Crowds cheered as the speeding machine raced past them. It was perhaps the fastest humans had ever traveled, except for the few unfortunates fired from a catapult. At this rate they would have made it to Manchester in less than half an hour, except ….except the clouds opened up and a storm broke upon the desperate mission. As they approached the little village of Eccles, less than four miles from Manchester, the conditions forced them to stop, supported by Huskinson who said he had a good friend in the village, the Reverend Thomas Blackburne. They managed to lug William up the steep slope to the village, dropping William a couple of times before depositing him on a couch in the vicarage. The Reverend Blackburne was not there, of course. He was in Manchester, waiting with the crowds to welcome the triumphant voyagers. Mrs. Blackburne, who was home, served tea.
“Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine" noted that back at Parkside station, after much discussion, “The final decision being in favor of advancing, seats were resumed, and we moved on; but ...the whole now wore the sombre aspect of a funeral procession. The military band was left to return as it could; I saw them, crest-fallen, picking their way homeward through the mud and mire...” At about nine that night William Huskinson died in a generous laudanum haze - generally considered the first man ever killed by a locomotive. An inquest was opened the very next morning, but the instant the jury seemed to show an interest in any failure by railroad staff or design, it was pulled up by the coroner. Within a few hours, the verdict was “accidental death”. It does not seem Emily Huskinson agreed.
Half the population of Liverpool, about 69,000 people, attended William Huskinson''s funeral on Friday September 24, 1830. Emily did not. She never returned to Liverpool again, and died in 1856, never having traveled on a train again, either. Meanwhile the publicity surrounding the accident attracted passengers to the new rail line. In the next year half a million people rode the Liverpool and Manchester line at 7 shillings for the two hour round trip. All future locomotives built by George Stephenson were fitted with hand brakes, and he never again built a two track line with so little room for error between the rails. But the question remains unanswered to this day - was William Huskinson's death merely a tragedy, or was it ironic?
- 30 -