William Huskisson and the Dubious Railroad Distinction

Had the events of Sept. 15, 1830, turned out a little differently, William Huskisson probably would be remembered for his political career, not for his dubious railroad connection.

But as it turns out, Huskisson’s name is forever preserved in the annals of railroad’s history books, not for his career as a politician but for his taking a bad step — into the path of an on-coming train and becoming the world’s first ever railroad fatality.

Born in 1770, Huskisson’s political resume included a stint in British Parliament.

Huskisson served as the first commissioner of Woods and Forests from 1814 until 1823. Between 1823 and 1827, he was president of the Board of Trade. For the next two years, Huskisson served as Britain’s colonial secretary.

In 1827-8, he was leader of the House of Commons.

On Sept. 15, 1830, Huskisson was among the dignities attending an opening ceremony for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, a day that was supposed to be a celebratory event.

By the end of the day, Huskisson would go down in history as the world’s first railroad fatality when he was killed by George Stephenson’s locomotive, Rocket.

During festivities for the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, Huskisson was riding in a car pulled by the locomotive, Northumbrian. When the train stopped near Daresbury, Huskisson stepped out and starting crossing the tracks to talk to the Duke of Wellington — why is open to some debate as Huskisson and the Duke previously had a disagreement.

He didn’t however, look both ways before crossing the tracks and in the meantime, the locomotive Rocket, driven by Joseph Locke, approached on a parallel track.

“Everybody scrambled out of the way, and those who could got again into the first car,” Charles Granville wrote of the day’s happenings. “This Huskisson attempted to do, but he was slow and awkward; as he was getting in some part of the machinery of the other car struck the door of his, by which he was knocked down.”

Huskisson was unable to escape from harm’s way and his left leg was caught under the locomotive and crushed.

Fatally wounded, Huskisson was loaded onto a rail car and transported to Eccles, a town in Greater Manchester, where he died.

A monument was later erected at the spot where Huskisson was killed.

Published in the January 2006 edition of The Cross-Tie.