14 December 2010

Accidents: The First Train Fatality

By Michelle Styles

September 15, 1830, began in great triumph--a spectacle that few could have imagined only a few short years before. The Manchester-Liverpool Railway opened and the age of the steam engine had truly begun. All the important political figures were there from the aging Duke of Wellington to Robert Peel, the prime minister. Mr William Huskisson the Home Secretary also attended. Mr Peel and Mr Huskisson travelled in the Northumbrian. The Duke of Wellington travelled in a different carriage. Relations between Huskisson and Wellington were known to be strained. And with scenes resembling a pageant of old, the cortage set off with the train being driven by the man fundamental to railway development, George Stephenson.

Unfortunately, at a stop for engine water, Mr Huskisson decided to alight and stretch his legs. As he went to speak to the Duke of Wellington, a warning shout came too late. Although others leapt to safety, Huskisson because of ill health and old age hesitated and was hit. The engine which had won the Rainhill trails, The Rocket crushed his leg. Huskisson said when they found him, "I have met my death."

Heroic efforts were made to save the Member from Liverpool who had long championed the railways, in particular the Manchester to Liverpool line. Newspapers later made great play of the fact that Stephanson had driven the Northumbrian at full throttle covering 15 miles in 25 minutes or a speed of 36 miles per hour in an attempt to deliver Huskisson to hospital in time. The speed was hitherto unknown. However, he died later that night.

And the day that had begun in such triumph ended in tragedy.

Huskisson was considered to be one of the country's leading economists and was one of the main reformers of the Tory Party. He was also a leading proponent of Catholic Emancipation. His loss was a great blow to the country and served to show that with progress can come tragedy.

Author Michelle Styles is fascinated by the early railways and the part that various such self-made men played in their development. Her current Harlequin Historical releases, A QUESTION OF IMPROPRIETY and IMPOVERISHED MISS, CONVENIENT WIFE, explore some of the attempts to develop a working travelling engine.


Isabel Roman said...

And yet it took ages for safety measures to be enacted. Still, 36 mph (if it's even remotely true) is pretty good. Even a week before he'd never have made it that quickly.

Maria said...

Very interesting bit of history and yes have to agree with Isabel about how long it's taken for there to be saftey measures in place - and there are still so many issues.

Dr J said...

Loved the info and shared it with hubby who happens to be an absolute train nut!! We manage to get to every train museum on the planet, just about, and our favorite is the one in York, England. Really enjoyed the post.

Michelle Styles said...

Isabel -- I have no reason to doubt the speed recorded. It comes from a newspaper of the period.

Maria -- it has taken years for safety measures to be enacted. Unfortunately there are still fatalities. A former student at my chidlren's highschool was killed last year on an unmanned crossing when he failed to hear the train coming...

Dr J -- Oh I like the York railway museum! If you are ever in the North East of England again, try to get to the Beamish Living History Museum. They have a working replica of the Steam Elephant, one of the first travelling engines. It is so much fun to ride. Plus they have a various other items to do with railways and waggonways.
Until recently, the oldest working railway crossing gates were in my village. Very picturesque but a pain to get caught behind. The signs are great -- still penalities notices in shillings! There are reasons why trains often feature in my writing...

Carrie Lofty said...

Now one death by a train accident would be considered a small-scale tragedy, but the timing of this death made his death a historical incident. Makes me wonder about future endeavors, if space travel will become so routine that deaths such as that of Gus Grissom will take on historical footnote status such as this.

Thanks, Michelle!

librarypat said...

Odd how things work out.
A Professor Dowd published "A System Of National Time For Railroads" in 1870 proposing the standardization of time across the US and Canada with 4 time zones. This would help the railroads set schedules they could keep. In 1883 The railroad companies accepted his plan. In appreciation he was given annual passes on all railroads in the US. In 1904 he was killed by a train in a railroad crossing.