Monday, 9 December 2019

Memorials to William Huskisson, Liverpool MP

Imagine having a successful political career, including spells as a cabinet minister and Leader of the House of Commons, yet only being remembered nearly two centuries later for your clumsiness. That was the fate of William Huskisson, best-known as the first passenger to be killed on the railway.  

Having grown up in the Midlands, Huskisson was sent as a teenager to Paris where his great-uncle was physician to the British embassy. He developed a reputation as a financier, but was also interested in politics and when he returned to Britain in 1792, soon became an MP and under-secretary of state. He moved in and out of Parliament, and moved constituencies from Morpeth, to Liskeard, Harwich, Chichester, and finally Liverpool, while also continuing to be esteemed as a financier. Huskisson was a Tory, and supported the gradual - but not immediate - abolition of slavery, criticising abolitionists' methods. He opposed a (very low) minimum wage for weavers and supported free trade and the relaxation of the Corn Laws. 

Huskisson had resigned from cabinet office in 1828, so it was as MP for Liverpool that he attended the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in September 1830. He rode on the Duke of Wellington's train, driven by Robert Stephenson himself; when the train stopped to take on water, he and a number of fellow passengers got out. Warned to keep out of the way of an oncoming train, most returned to their places but Huskisson didn't. He panicked and ended up hanging onto the carriage door as it swung into the path of the Rocket. The notoriously clumsy MP suffered severe leg injuries and died that night. 

There are several striking memorials to the hapless MP in Liverpool. The best-known is his mausoleum, the centrepiece of St James Cemetery. 

There is also a rather grandiose statue, incongruously placed against the backdrop of a modern block of flats. Perhaps he is pondering his descent from noted statesman to railway trivia...

1 comment:

Ralph Hancock said...

Thomas Baker's huge and turgid epic The Steam-Engine records the incident:

The trains are stopp'd, the mighty Chiefs of Flame
To quench their thirst the crystal waters claim ;
While from their post the great in crowds alight.
When by a line-train, in its hasty flight,
Though striving to avoid it, Huskisson
By unforeseen mischance was over-run.
The stroke, alas ! was death in shortest time ;
Thus fell the great financier in his prime !
This fatal chance not only caused delay,
But damp'd the joy that erst had crown'd the day.
At length the Steam-Chiefs with replenish'd force,
To Manchester pursued their pageant course ;
A grand reception there secure they found ;
And though acclaim still made the air resound,
The blithe response was clogged with grief's alloy.
The fate of Huskisson still chill'd their joy.

There's another statue of Huskisson in London, on the Embankment near Dolphin Square, also clad in a toga and holding a scroll. In the time of William IV as in ancient Rome, trousers were considered infra dig.