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
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
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
twice before attending.