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.