Respected Liverpool MP and one of the world’s first railway casualties
William Huskisson was a renowned British statesman and MP of several constituencies, including Liverpool from 1823 until his death in 1830. Enormously well-respected in Liverpool and beyond, he was one of the prime movers in the creation of the British Empire and a strong advocate of free trade, but had fallen out with the then-prime minister Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington over issues of parliamentary reform.
Present at the Opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway
The opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway on 15 September 1830 promised to be a grand affair. Huskisson had been one of the main backers of the scheme and had actively contributed to the legislation that saw building commence, and so was present with his wife. A host of other distinguished guests filled a number of trains making the inaugural journey to Manchester.
When the engines stopped at Parkside railway station to take on water, around 50 or so dignitaries disembarked from the train to look around, against the advice of railway staff. Huskisson saw this as his chance to heal the breach with his Prime Minister and approached the Duke’s carriage. As the Duke held out a hand to welcome him, warning shouts rang out: Stephenson’s Rocket was fast approaching on the adjacent track.
In his confusion, Huskisson attempted to grab hold of the carriage door, which swung back and knocked him into the path of The Rocket, which mangled his leg as it passed over him. George Stephenson, the engineer who had built the line, personally drove the injured man to a vicarage in Eccles where Huskisson was treated by doctors. But all was in vain. Told that his fate was sealed, Huskisson received the last sacrament and made a last-minute revision to his will, which it is said he had prepared in full only the day before.
William Huskisson: “…singled out by the decree of an inscrutable providence”
He is buried in St James Cemetery, now an urban park behind Liverpool Anglican cathedral but at the time, Liverpool’s city cemetery. His devoted wife, devastated by the tragedy, commissioned a number of memorials to William Huskisson, including an extravagant monument to mark his grave which became the focal point of the cemetery. A marble statue originally located within his mausoleum is now in the Walker Art Gallery, and a bronze casting of a second marble statue stands in Duke Street, Liverpool.
Ironically, it was the manner of Huskisson’s death which helped in spreading news of the new railway line across the world. This was the first public inter-city railway line in the world to use steam locomotives, and despite his tragic death, it raised the profile of the potential of rail travel to become available to all.