The Last Journey of William Huskisson

About the book.

I have been interested in trains from a young age, which puts me in a group with about 18 million other men. Oh, it’s the romance - the steam, the noise, the prospect of getting away. I’m not fussy: I tend to like all trains, from model to tube. I had a train set when young, but I never went mad: I didn’t build a track with plastic painted hills, and I didn’t attend enthusiasts’ conventions or stand on the edge of platforms taking numbers. I collected old London Underground maps, but that was about it. Or rather, that was about it until I started thinking about an obscure politician called William Huskisson.

Huskisson may be remembered by historians of pre-Victorian international commerce as an advocate of free trade, and by citizens of Liverpool as a man who cared about their city, but predominantly he will be remembered as a man who fell under the oncoming Rocket on 15 September 1830, the first glorious day of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.

The image of a person being crushed by the wheels of a thundering steam train is not something you can easily put away. Like many people who once sat at a wooden desk in shorts, I found the demise of Huskisson to be one of the most shocking and romantic events of my school history lessons. I may even have looked up for a minute. I was taught that he was the first person to be killed by a train, and I think I learnt that he expired instantly, although both of these statements were untrue. People had been killed by railways before, but most of these were the labourers engaged in building the things, not a prominent politician who some believed would soon lead the country. (And the death was drawn out for hours, a detail that may have been judged too gory for young minds.)

In all the films I’d seen, anyone in trouble on a track - teenagers on the lam, or Jenny Agutter in bloomers, or a squealing damsel in some silent caper - had always avoided calamity in the final yard. This time an intelligent man just couldn’t get out of the way no matter what he did.
The story also appealed to me because of the impact that Huskisson’s fate had on those who saw it; industrial accidents were rarely witnessed by the diary-keeping classes. I was attracted by the idea that vast crowds had gathered to witness one story - the first day of George and Robert Stephenson’s wonderful creation, the first inter-city passenger route - and had departed with another, and it was hard to judge which was the more significant, the birth or the death. In quick time, as the train girdled the world, Huskisson’s life faded from memory until he was just an alarming but winning anecdote. If ever I referred to the incident in the following years I may have called him by the name of Huskinson, a common misconception, because it sounds to us that it ought to be that way. I had always liked the fact that the steam train that killed him was Rocket, which I once assumed was the first ever built. The very name, as was the intention, suggested something ballistic, and I imagined that the accident happened at great speed, rather than in slow motion.

Amid all these half-truths and misconceptions, I set out to find some facts for myself. My book is an attempt to explain why so many people gathered together for one day in September 1830, and with such high hopes. It is an attempt to show precisely why Huskisson was drawn to the railway, and how his life and this short piece of historic track became entwined long before the accident (he was the MP for Liverpool, and one of the railways’ greatest supporters). I began writing it not long after the Hatfield crash of 2000, and finished the proofs a few weeks before the accident at Potters Bar.

The story may also be regarded as a chronicle of a death foretold. I am fond of the notion that if you were in Liverpool on this magnificent day, and were told that one person was to suffer a truly memorable death, then you would have been able to scan the 700 passengers who rode in the sumptious carriages, and the hundreds of thousands who gathered to cheer them on, and picked out your man with uncanny certainty. Why, poor Huskisson even died with a speech in his pocket celebrating the glory of James Watt and technological progress.

I loved writing this book. It was a real Boy’s Own adventure. In the epilogue I describe my hunt for Huskisson memorabilia, a journey that exposed me as an amateur enthusiast in a world of experts. I write of how surprised I was at the scale of the railwayana business. Almost every week there are fairs and auctions to satisfy every extreme demand. Whenever I went to these things I found I had to battle my way past an eager crowd of pensionable men with uncommon hair partings and the whiff of heartbreak about them, as if they’d been spending too long in airless rooms with their timetable collections and had begun to question whether they’d been wasting their weekends. Their aim was completion, but their task was impossible: there was now just too much railway stuff out there. They were a knowledgeable bunch, and the thing they knew most about was each other. At every trestle table you could hear, ‘Hello Charles, got anything for me?’ By which they meant, ‘Got any new Severn & Wye Joint Railway routing labels?’ or ‘Got any more photographs of fish-train mishaps at Duddington pre-June 1959?’ Auction prices for certain items were clearly out of control. A few years ago the loco nameplate Knight of the Golden Fleece was sold for £30,200.

These events would take place at The Model Railway Club behind King’s Cross, at Myers Grove School in Sheffield, at St Leonard’s Hall in Stafford, or at any other venue where stalls of tickets and timetables and share certificates and maps could be laid out economically. The first rule I learnt was, whatever you don’t want to buy will be dirt-cheap, and the one thing you need to take home will be the costliest thing on the stall. The second rule was, any official report of a railway accident will be highly sought after, and normally unaffordable. Why this should be intrigued me, and I had a few explanations. An accident report may help us avoid the same fate in the future (possible but unlikely, as many of these reports were a century old and concerned exploding boilers). Or it could be because they are elegantly and exactly written (which they certainly are), and contain rare observations unobtainable elsewhere. But I came to conclude that, above all else, everyone just loves a good gawp.

In the space of a year I picked up five things of interest. I bought a small signed letter from Huskisson from 1806 detailing a problem he was having with an estate agent over whether or not fixtures and fittings were included in the sale of a house (irrelevant, but I wanted his signature, £20). I bought an empty envelope that Huskisson had signed and sent through the free parliamentary post to Davies Gilbert MP (the same man who had helped Richard Trevithick design his early steam engines, which I considered poignant and afforadble at £6). The signatures were almost identical, although in the second the W was slightly more slanted. The envelope was stamped with Huskisson’s red wax seal, which featured an elephant’s head on top of a shield and the motto secura quies, short for At secura quies, et nescia fallere vita, which works out as ‘But quiet slumbers and a life innocent of deceit’.

One item I bought and enjoyed made me think I was indeed turning into an obsessive, or an expert, or both. An LP entitled Trains In the Night, on the Argo label, was pressed up in 1962 after a man named Peter Handford went out with a reel-to-reel tape-recorder to the Lickey Incline at Bromsgrove, and set his ear to the wind. His sleeve notes indicate what he got. As well as Lickey he also went to Steele Road Station on the Carlisle-Hawick-Edinburgh line, and at dawn one day a V2 engine, number 60927, ‘crosses the small road bridge, staggers slightly in an effort to keep a grip on the rails, then slips violently, belching steam and smoke, but with expert handling recovers and pulls strongly, if slightly more slowly, away, taking the heavy train round the curve towards Riccarton as the echoes of the exhaust beat mingle with the sounds of the early morning birds.’ George and Robert Stephenson and their friends unleashed this dramatic and handsome world on us, and the world of the fanatic who tried to tape it for posterity. The steam music has gone, of course, but so has the use of Riccarton Junction. Other records in this series include West of Exeter and Trains in Trouble, in which engines struggle desperately in snow and fog, and the listener is rewarded with the unmistakable sound of drivers shouting a lot.

I also got a bronze medal, designed by S Clint and issued in 1830 to commemorate Huskisson’s life and death (on one side was a profile of the statesman in relief, and on the other the inscription ‘The successful vindicator of his own enlightened system of commercial policy. He lived to triumph over prejudice and to found a lasting fame.’ £18.)
Since this book was published I have only bought one other item, the medal given to those who rode on the railway on that fateful day. I feel a warm glow when I look at it now. Someone famous once said that they couldn’t see a passing train without wishing they were on it, and I have felt that way about one locomotive in particular these last few years. Not Rocket, but Northumbrian, as it sliced down towards Eccles after the crash with a groaning man at the back, pleading for this terrible journey to be his last. Not really the way he might have wished to be remembered, but the only way to ensure that he would.

The extract takes place a few hours before the accident, as the railway officials and guests gather to see the opening ceremony.

The audio clip, read by Philip Franks and produced for BBC Radio 4 by Chris Wallis at Watershed Productions, features many reasons why Huskisson should have thought twice before attending.