Liverpool has been the 'first' at a number of
remarkable discoveries and achievements, and one of the most
significant is that, in 1830, the world's first passenger train,
drawn by a steam locomotive, travelled from the town to Manchester.
Soon, railways were criss-crossing Britain, and driving ever onward
its industrial and commercial revolution. But that remarkable
inaugural day was marred by a dreadful tragedy.
It was the 18 September, and in the early afternoon
the bunting was out and the bands played. Great crowds of excited
people thronged the railway tracks at Crown Street station, in the
Liverpool district of Edge Hill, as a convoy of trains pulled out
on their journey to their sister city.
The duke of Wellington (1769-1852), who was prime
minister at the time and travelling with other VIP guests, was in
his own carriage on the southern track. This was being pulled by
the locomotive Northumbrian. On the parallel northern track
was a procession of trains, each pulled by a different locomotive.
These were Phoenix, North Star, Dart,
Comet, Arrow, and Meteor. Leading the cavalcade
was Rocket, which had been designed and built by George
Stephenson and his son Robert. This had won a competition, held the
previous year at the Rainhill Steam Trials, to find the most
successful design for a new form of locomotive engine.
The train that carried all the distinguished guests
had stopped to take on water halfway along the route, at the Parkfield
watering station, about 27.4 kilometres (seventeen miles) out of
Liverpool. Amongst the important people in the prime minister's special
train was the local MP, William Huskisson (born 1770), accompanied by
his wife. During the 1820s Huskisson had been one of the primary
backers of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway and, in 1826, had
helped to secure the legislation that would allow construction to
begin. The dignitaries' train had stopped, which provided an
opportunity for the trains and carriages full of people on the
northern track to pass by and get a look at the 'great and the good'.
At this point, the VIPs got out of their open-topped
carriages to socialise and stretch their legs - despite being warned
against this by railway officials. The duke remained in his carriage,
acknowledging greetings from his fellow travellers.
William Husskisson thought that, because of the
general mood of good will, this would be a perfect opportunity to
heal a long-standing rift between himself and the prime minister.
So he made his way between the two lines of railway tracks, up to
the duke's carriage.
Warmly welcomed by his political adversary, the
Liverpool MP opened the carriage door in order to shake the duke's
hand, which was now being extended towards him. But then Husskisson
realised that the other trains, led by George Stephenson's
Rocket, were advancing towards him along the parallel track,
only a few feet away from him.
All the people who had been walking around quickly
began to scramble back aboard their own carriages, leaving Huskisson
as the last person standing on the ground, with his hand on the open
carriage door. It was clear to observers that he was too close to the
approaching locomotive, and the engineer shouted out to him.
'Hi, sir! Stand clear! Stand clear!'
At the same time, people called to him from his
carriage: 'Mr Huskisson, sir, the locomotive, it's upon you, sir!'