William Huskisson, Railway's First Victim

Jan 7, 2022 1 comments

William Huskisson was a British statesman, financier, and Member of Parliament. A leading advocate of free trade, Huskisson had been a highly influential figure in the creation of the British Empire, but he will always be remembered as the first widely-reported person in history to be fatally injured in a railway accident.

The tragic incident occurred during the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway on 15 September 1830. The Liverpool and Manchester Railway was the first inter-city railway in the world, connecting the industrial city of Manchester with the nearest deep water port at the Port of Liverpool, 35 miles away. Although horse-drawn railways already existed elsewhere, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway was the first railway to rely exclusively on locomotives, and the first to provide a scheduled passenger service. The L&M was also the first to be entirely double track throughout its length, the first to have a signaling system, the first to be fully timetabled, and the first to carry mail.

The Duke of Wellington's train being prepared for departure from Liverpool to Manchester, 15 September 1830.

The opening day of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway was a major public event and huge crowds lined the tracks at Liverpool to watch the trains depart for Manchester. Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington and the prime minister, rode on one of the eight inaugural trains, as did many other dignitaries and notable figures of the day. Among them was William Huskisson.

At the age of sixty, Huskisson was well past his prime. He was known to be clumsy, and had endured a long list of problems from his regular trips and falls. He had twice broken his arm and never fully recovered the use of it. Above all, he had been diagnosed with strangury, a tender inflammation of the kidneys, and had recently undergone surgery. His doctor advised him full rest and to cancel all forthcoming appointments, which included the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. But Huskisson chose to ignore this advice, believing the opening event was too important to cancel. Huskisson had fallen out with the prime minister over the issue of parliamentary reform and had resigned from the cabinet. He felt that the opening of the railway was a good opportunity to meet the Duke and reconcile with him.

William Huskisson

It was decided that for the opening, the dignitaries and guests would assemble in Liverpool, and eight locomotives would haul them in special trains to the Liverpool Road railway station. For the Duke of Wellington and his companions, cabinetmaker James Edmondson was commissioned to design a couple of luxurious coaches, as described by Egerton Smith:

The floor – 32 feet long by 8 feet wide, supported by eight wheels, partly concealed by a basement, ornamented with bold gold mouldings and laurel wreaths on a ground of crimson cloth. A lofty canopy of crimson cloth, 24 feet in length, rested upon eight carved and gilt pillars, the cornice enriched with gold ornaments and pendant tassels, the cloth fluted to two centres, surmounted with two ducal coronets. An ornamental gilt balustrade extended round each end of the carriage, and united with one of the pillars which supported the roof. Handsome scrolls filled up the next compartments, on each side of the doorway, which was in the centre.

The train that the Duke of Wellington and his dignitaries rode was pulled by the locomotive Northumbrian which was driven by its designer George Stephenson himself. The Duke's train was the only one to run on the southern track. The other seven trains ran on the northern track in procession. This was to ensure the Duke would not be delayed should any of the other trains encounter problems.

Route of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway

The Northumbrian slowed periodically to allow the seven trains on the northern track to parade past it, but generally ran ahead of the other trains. At Parkside railway station, near the midpoint of the line, the Duke’s train made a scheduled stop to take on fuel and water. Passengers were warned to remain on the trains while this took place, but many dignitaries ignored the warning and alighted to stretch their legs. Huskisson walked along the tracks to the front of the carriage where the Duke of Wellington was sitting, and extended his hand through the open window. The duke reciprocated and reached out of the carriage to shook Huskisson’s hand.

As Huskisson and the Duke of Wellington exchanged greetings, another train pulled by Rocket approached on the other line. Rocket was being driven by Joseph Locke, George Stephenson's assistant and future eminent engineer in his own right. The crowd saw the approaching train and someone shouted to those standing on the tracks: “An engine is approaching, take care gentlemen.”

Some of the passengers stepped over the northern line and completely out of the way. Others stood with their backs pressed against the coaches of the stationary train. The space between the rails was 4 feet 8 inches, and the carriages overhung the outside rails by 2 feet. This left a gap of only 8 inches between the trains which was just enough for a person to stand pressed against the sides and escape without injury. Huskisson made two efforts to run across the track to safety, but each time he changed his mind and returned to the side of the carriage. “For God's sake, Mr Huskisson, be firm,” shouted one of the passengers. But Huskisson panicked. He tried to clamber back into the Duke’s carriage by grabbing at the door of the carriage. The door was unlocked, and under the weight of Huskisson, it swung open and right into the path of the incoming locomotive, with Huskisson hanging on to it.

Parkside railway station

Parkside railway station where the accident occurred. Watercolor by Thomas Talbot Bury (1809–1877)

When Joseph Locke, the engineer driving the locomotive Rocket, saw that there were people on the line ahead, he threw the engine into reverse gear, a process which took ten seconds to engage. It was too late. Rocket crashed against the swinging door and the impact threw Huskisson onto the tracks in front of the train. The Rocket ran over his leg, shattering it in the most horrific way.

Some of the passengers ripped the door of a nearby railway storeroom from its hinges, to serve as a makeshift stretcher and Huskisson was carried on it and loaded on a flat-bottomed wagon of the Duke's train. The remaining three carriages of the Duke's train were detached, and with Stephenson driving, the distressed victim was taken to Manchester. The train, now almost unladed and with Stephenson running the engine flat-out, the train reached the speed of almost 40 miles per hour, briefly giving those on board the world speed record. The crowds lining the route, unaware of what had happened, cheered and waved as Northumbrian rushed past.

En route, it was decided to alight in Eccles, four miles short of Manchester, and Huskisson was taken to the vicarage of the Rev. Thomas Blackburne, where he was attended to by doctors. As the evening progressed, Huskisson’s condition worsened but he still managed to pull together enough strength to dictate his will and sign it with a shaky hand. Huskisson died later that night.

The locomotive that killed William Huskisson, Rocket at Science Museum, London

The locomotive that killed William Huskisson, Rocket at Science Museum, London. Photo: Son of Groucho/Flickr

Two weeks after Huskisson’s death, a Liverpool surgeon named Thomas Weatherill accused the doctors who had attended the victim at Eccles vicarage of not trying enough to stem the bleeding. According to Weatherill, amputation would have stemmed the blood loss and saved Huskisson’s life. Manchester surgeon William Whatton, who led the team of doctors at Eccles, spoke in defense that amputation was not possible because the patient's pulse had not stabilized, to which Weatherill retorted that if Huskisson had been fit enough to dictate a will, he may well have been fit enough to withstand an operation.

Huskisson's death on the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway was reported widely, and this greatly increased public awareness of the potential of rapid transport as well as its dangers. Although William Huskisson is often reported as the first railway fatality, this is untrue. At least two people were killed on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway prior to its opening to the public.

Huskisson was buried at St James Cemetery in Liverpool. A marble statue in his likeness was housed in a mausoleum there until 1968, when it was transferred to the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. Huskisson’s wife Emily also commissioned a second marble statue showing Huskisson in Roman garb for the Custom House in Liverpool. This statue now stands in Pimlico Gardens in London. Another statue of him stands at the Chichester Cathedral.

Huskissons memorial

Huskissons memorial at St James Cemetery in Liverpool. Photo: tomjkelly/Flickr

Statue of William Huskisson by John Gibson in Pimlico Gardens, London. Photo: James Gray/Wikimedia Commons


  1. He is stated as the first "widely-reported person" killed in a train accident. So, not the first fatality? Something I shall have to dig into.
    Thanks for the article.


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