Death on the Tracks: Manchester, Stephenson’s Rocket and the first rail casualty

11th March 2020

When it opened in September 1830, the Liverpool & Manchester Railway set the mark for many world firsts in the rail industry. It was the first inter-city railway in the world, the first to rely solely on steam-powered locomotives over horse-drawn traffic; and the first to be double track throughout its entire length. However, the route was also the site of a much grizzlier world first.

Revolution of Wheels and World

Rail travel signalled a new dawn in British industry, connecting ports to industrial hubs like Manchester with a reliable alternative to the oft crooked turnpikes and meandering canals. Dignitaries from across the UK and Europe were invited to attend the inaugural rail procession from Liverpool Crown Street to Manchester Liverpool Road – now the site of the Science and Industry Museum. In their number was William Huskisson, the Liberal MP for Liverpool.

Huskisson had recently gone under the knife to correct an inflammation of the kidney and had been strongly advised against attendance by royal doctor, William George Maton. Undeterred, the Liverpool MP cast this advice aside, seeing it as too great a moment to miss.

A special train had been organised, pulled by The Northumbrian, a locomotive driven by the great George Stephenson himself. The train would carry a multitude of important people, including a special, ornate carriage for the then Prime Minister, The Duke of Wellington. The Northumbrian was to travel along the southern track while seven other trains, including the legendary Stephenson’s Rocket, would take the northern rails.

Shaking rails and Onrushing Disaster

Things came to a head at Parkway Station near Newton-le-Willows when the train made a scheduled stop to take on water. Passengers seized the opportunity to disembark and stretch their legs, ignoring warnings on the dangers of alighting. Among them was Huskisson. Recently expelled from the Duke’s government after a disagreement, Huskisson sought to make amends, striking up conversation with Wellington from the train’s side.

A shout went out, abruptly warning of an approaching train. Stephenson’s Rocket appeared along the tracks, barrelling toward the disembarked dignitaries, inviting panic. Passengers were either lurched back aboard the train or sought to cross the northern track to safety.

Thwarted by a lack of mobility in the immediate aftermath of his recent surgery, Huskisson tried twice in vain to cross the rails before abandoning his attempts. With the Rocket fast approaching, he sought instead to escape onto the Duke’s carriage, reaching out for a nearby door handle.

Little did he know, the door was not properly latched and it swung open. Huskisson was left dangling awkwardly from the handle directly in the path of the oncoming Rocket. The train’s engineer tried in vain to apply the brakes in time, the Rocket screeched in a painful but fruitless attempt to stop. It was too late.

The train smashed into the open door, sending Huskisson sprawling onto the tracks ahead, his leg splayed in the Rocket’s path. The train tore by, Huskisson’s leg beneath its wheels: shattered.

To Meet Death

Onlookers threw off their horror and moved quickly to the stricken MP’s aid. A door was ripped from its hinges to carry Huskisson aboard a small train car intended for the procession band. The Northumbrian was uncoupled from its carriages, taking on the band car, and the injured man was raced to the vicarage at Eccles for emergency treatment.

It was deemed along the way that a field amputation would be impossible and a tourniquet was instead applied to stem Huskisson’s suffering. As a group of friends and the vicar’s wife sought to comfort Mr Huskisson, he is reported to have exclaimed: ‘I have met my death – God forgive me!’

Huskisson survived into the night, drawing up a final will before finally succumbing to his injuries that evening. A memorial stands in his memory at Newton-le-Willows, built the following year in 1831.

The events of the day were reported across the country, announcing grimly the world’s first rail passenger fatality.