August Books 9) The Last Journey of William Huskisson

9) The Last Journey of William Huskisson, by Simon Garfield

It is a story that most people in England (but very few elsewhere) have vaguely heard of – on 15 September 1830, at the opening ceremonies for the world’s first ever passenger steam railway (between Liverpool and Manchester), a leading politician was run over and killed by Stephenson’s Rocket because he had not taken sufficient care before crossing the track to start a conversation with the Duke of Wellington. This little book (which I got remaindered at £3.99 from the original £14.99) tells the story both of the earliest development of the railways, and of the unfortunate Rt Hon William Huskisson MP.

Huskisson seems to have been very accident-prone, politically and physically. At the time of his death he had been out of office for a couple of years, after his offer to resign from the cabinet had been (to his immense surprise and chagrin) accepted by Wellington in 1828. According to those who had spoken to him a few minutes before, when he trotted over to talk to the Duke on the day, he had serious hopes that the conversation would bring him politically back to life; he had, as Garfield convincingly shows, been politically instrumental in bringing about the new and very visible triumph of technology that was the Liverpool and Manchester railway line. The short walk certainly meant that his career ended in circumstances of lasting fame; as far as anyone can tell he was the first person ever to be killed by a train (though Garfield reports a melancholy catalogue of industrial accidents while the railway was being built). He lived for a few hours after the accident, was lucid enough to dictate and sign a codicil to his will, and met his end with dignity.

[H]e had drifted into the realm of the unwell not long after his birth. As a child he was malnourished and frequently laid up with chest complaints. Once, rising from his bed to do schoolwork, he fractured his arm. He was flattened by the pole of a carriage at the entrance to the Horse Guards. When once in Scotland at the residence of the Duke of Athol, he tried to leap the moat but missed, savagely spraining his ankle and lacerating the tendons of his foot, the wrench of both permanently altering his gait and ensuring it would be many weeks before he could travel back to England. A while later he fell from a horse, and again broke his arm. He snapped it again not long after, this time by falling from a carriage… In 1827, Huskisson received what he called a “decided attack of imflamnmation of the trachea”, a condition that rendered his voice permanently raspy. His recovery period in France did not begin well: at Calais he tripped on a cable and lacerated his foot.

It is shamefully difficult not to giggle at this catalogue of disasters.

The story is told well but not superbly. Garfield does manage to bring to life the sources he has found, in particular the actress Fanny Kemble, one of the many witnesses of the accident (few such industrial accidents, as the author points out, have taken place in the full view of dozens of the ruling classes) who sounds like a very interesting character indeed. I wished for a little more on a couple of occasions: Huskisson’s resignation speech to the House of Commons in 1828 is said to have been pretty disastrous, but Garfield doesn’t appear to have read it. All the boards of enquiry and contemporary accounts quoted seem to have come suspiciously rapidly to the conclusion that the only person to blame for the accident was Huskisson himself, for failing to take due care. I wonder if there was anyone who expressed an alternative view, and indeed if there is any evidence for it. The illustrations are OK but again I would have liked more, say a contemporary picture of the scene or a photograph of the monument now on the spot.

There are also more misprints than I would expect from a publisher with Faber’s reputation – several uses of “canon” instead of “cannon”, a “principle” instead of “principal”, an incorrect reference to “Lord Wellington”, and the 1889 railway disaster at “Armargh” – I know that’s how English journalists pronounce it, but it’s not how locals say it and it’s certainly not the right spelling. (Also he gives the wrong number of fatalities, 78 rather than 88.)

So, all in all, an interesting little book, but not one I would urge people to rush out and buy.

[Edited to add: here’s the plaque on the site of the accident:]

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