by David Wilkin
While such an occurrence probably happens often enough these days, Warren Buffet in a room with Stephen Hawking and the US President, perhaps, before mass transportation, the airplane, and instant telecommunications, this event would have been hard put to have taken place.
I should hazard that in the time of the Regency era, it hardly ever happened.
While researching previous Regency era novels, I developed a fascination for the early introduction of trains and railways. In The End of the World which is set in the exact area that rail tracks were laid down well ahead of train engines being invented, I had found that the practice was developed to haul copper from the mines to the coast. A theme shown in that book.
The research on early locomotion led me to learn of George Stephenson and his son Robert. Prior to this I had heard of Stephenson’s Rocket. Now I learned more about the locomotive engine that won the Rainhill Time Trials for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway of 1829.
The day our three greatest titled men on earth met was for the opening of that very railway, and it turned out to be fateful in many ways.
It certainly would have taken men of vision to realize that the steam engine had so many uses, including the change of how we felt about distance. That is a societal change that I would argue, though not here, altered the world. Prior to this event, the use of steam engines to power a means of transport, we were reliant on our feet, horses (camels, elephants, etc.) and shipping either by rowing, or wind powered. (Of course that last mode required water as well.)
The advent of steam which leads to the use of railways, I thought to make a centerpiece of a Regency story, but the events of September 15th, 1830 were so momentous that I had written three chapters in The Fastest Love on Earth before I realized that it was the predominant opening theme that brought my hero and heroine together.
Not only they, did I have attend this event, but in reality so too did the Prime Minister of England, Arthur Wellesley the Duke of Wellington.
One of the few investors, or owners if you will, of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway was the friend of the Duke and also the wealthiest man of the 19th century. The Marquess of Stafford, or George Granville Leveson-Gower was thus there with the most powerful man, Wellington.
With Wellington as the world’s most powerful man, Leveson-Gower as its richest, and Stephenson whose inventions fundamentally change the world as its smartest man, none could see that what they were doing that day would bring such a great change to all mankind, or the fall of the very government that had backed it within a matter of weeks.
While the government of Great Britain understood the event to be momentous enough that the Duke travelled north to participate, the success that railway travel became was not anticipated by the company at the time.
This new form of transport proved so successful that in the first six months of 1831, over 188 thousand passengers were carried on the trains. By the end of one full year from the start, September of 1831, nearly half a million travelled on the railway.
But the first day when these great men came together is what is important. The key additional personality that would cause the fall of Wellington’s government was that of William Husskisson.
On this momentous day, there were several political realities also taking place. The North was much different from London and the South and Wellington’s presence was not only to praise the achievement of the railway, but also to show that he was concerned with the people of the North.
Husskisson was the MP for Liverpool and had been a member of Wellington’s Cabinet. He had been Secretary of State for War and the Colonies. He resigned over the lack of representation for Manchester. He was thus very much involved in the political life of the North, representing one end of the railway, and concerned with the other end.
Now at this juncture, it was thought that Huskisson and Wellington would make amends and they would shake hands while the events of the day played out.
There were so many special attendees on the day of the event that several locomotives were put into service. There was also so much to do that things got started late. By 11, the trains were rolling.
All seemed as it should, a band had been playing and was on one of the cars pulled by the Northumbrian locomotive to continue playing. Behind the car with the band was a special car that Wellington and the most important of those invited that day were on. Not Husskisson, though.
After the late start the next thing to go wrong was a collision. The first day of rail travel on Earth (aside from some small time freight hauling) there was a crash. Two lines were being used that day and one train had a wheel jump the track. The train following, not able to fully determine that this one had stopped hit it, but no one was injured as the trains were not traveling very fast.
This was minor. A few miles later though, at Parkside, things turned the day of triumph into one mixed with tragedy.
Recognizing that people would not be used to any sort of vehicle moving so fast, speeds of 10 and fifteen miles an hour, the Liverpool and Manchester had printed flyers advising the celebrants to not disembark from their train cars and visit with the other passengers. This though was ignored.
Mr. Husskisson especially had reason to leave his car and walk to that of the Duke’s carriage attached to the Northumbrian. Should the two find common ground, it would mean much for both. Husskisson might return to the cabinet, while Wellington would get support in the North.
With an eye to reconciliation, Husskisson approached the Duke and the two shook hands. Even as this occurred, others saw that the Rocket locomotive was approaching on the parallel track. Soon the cry was taken up that an engine was coming and all needed to the clear the track. There were no steps up to the Duke’s car, as these were detachable and had not been deployed. When the oncoming train was within 80 feet all that remained on the tracks were William Holmes, The Prince Esterházy, and Husskisson.
All but Husskisson reached safety. The Member for Liverpool, and once again hopeful of joining the Wellington government was struck by the Rocket. His leg and thigh crushed. (The first day of passenger rail service, the first passenger rail accident.)
There were three doctors amidst the contingent of celebrants, one of whom was Henry Herbert Southey who most recent posting had been with the recently deceased King, George IV. One would believe the man to be a very accomplished doctor since he had been the physician to the king. Yet he and the other two, had no practical experience with such accidents.
As all became calm enough to think, George Stephenson proposed transporting the injured MP to Manchester as the trains were pointed that way. The cars behind the Northumbrian locomotive were detached, and Husskisson was placed on the band’s carriage, the band now turning to walk back to Liverpool. (As the day grew longer, a hard rain came as well and poured on these entertainers.)
The Northumbrian departed and worked up to speeds of 40 miles an hour, the fastest speed ever achieved. It did little to save Husskisson, who insisted to be carried to his friend’s home, Reverend Blackburne who lived at Eccles, 4 miles short of Manchester. While there, Husskisson became too traumatized to be operated on by the time competent surgeons arrived to assess the situation. He died sometime after nine PM.
During this time it took a while to have the trains with the celebrants continue their journey. The mobs of people began to get restless and remembered how much they disliked Wellington. They even pelted his car with vegetables.
The trains were to have made their round trip and finish by 4 PM, by 9 they still had not done so. The death of William Husskisson, and certainly the actions of the crowd that day would lead Wellington to decide that he could not return to the North for the funeral of the man. Husskisson was not only noted for his views in the North, but wanting to reconcile with Wellington. The Duke however, through his actions, or inactions after Husskisson’s death lost the support of those who were friends of the deceased lawmaker.
When Wellington decided not to attend the funeral of the man who had only moments before the cause of his demise, had shaken the Duke’s hand, it forced a breach in his support large enough that by two months from the opening of the railway and the fateful events of that day, there was a no confidence vote against him. He was replaced as Prime Minister by Earl Grey.
The beginning of modern transportation, the age of Steam, saw the end of Wellington’s government. If Husskisson had survived, or never been injured. If the trains had returned to course, or Wellington had journeyed back to the funeral. It is highly possible that the world would have known a different outcome, then what did occur.
What I see, when looking at the facts, and the ability to share them with my readers is that the truth is stranger than fiction. I don’t think it is possible to arrange for so much fodder for a good story, than what occurred on September 15th, 1830.
Wolmar, Christian (2007). Fire & Steam
Garfield, Simon (2002). The Last Journey of William Huskisson
Mr. Wilkin writes Regency Historicals and Romances, Ruritanian and Edwardian Romances, Science Fiction and Fantasy. He is the author of the very successful Pride & Prejudice continuation; Colonel Fitzwilliam’s Correspondence.
His work can be found for sale at: David’s Books, and at various Internet and realworld bookstores including the iBookstore, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords.
He is published by Regency Assembly Press
And he maintains his own blog called The Things That Catch My Eye