Death of Huskisson, Part 3: Manchester and the way back

There is even more conjecture here than normal. Many accounts written at the time and since are partial, evasive or both, Rolt being an exception in his biography of the Stephensons which, like this post, derives somewhat from a collection of anecdotes and reportage.

For those playing catch-up: Part 1, Part 2.

As a reminder, the ducal train was on the southern track pulled by Northumbrian. The seven trains on the northern track running into Manchester Liverpool Road station were drawn by Phoenix, North Star, Rocket, Dart, Comet, Arrow and Meteor and were pulling a total of 24 carriages.

From Parkside to Manchester

For the passengers on the eight trains making up the inaugural procession on the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, the severe injury to Huskisson and a change in the weather had dampened spirits and more. The crowd waiting for the trains to pull into Manchester extended some four miles up the line and was by no means entirely welcoming. Progress was slowed by track incursions that incidentally threw wet sand over the carefully cleaned tracks. The 59th Regiment were in attendance in addition to the railway and civil policemen but the crowd was immense and contained unruly elements.

The social and political context

The people of Manchester had multiple issues with the ultra-Tory Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, including electoral reform (Manchester returned no MPs at this time and the franchise generally was limited) and concern over the railway taking jobs from other transport sectors such as canals and coaching. The living and working conditions of those employed in mills and mines were poor and the owners frequently exploitative. As we have seen, there was also a history of dissent being repressed by violent means. Some among the crowd chose to express their discontent vocally, by holding-up banners and placards, by wearing revolutionary cockades (thoughtfully provided gratis by a local newspaper) and by throwing stones. The atmosphere was very different from Liverpool and doubtless exactly what the Duke had feared.

The crowd at Manchester

The arrival of the procession was signalled by the firing of a cannon, the sound being heard by the mortally injured Huskisson at Eccles some 4-5 miles away. As the engines were due to be serviced again there later, this may have been as much a signal as ceremonial although it provoked Huskisson to express concern for the Duke's safety. For the crowd near the station it might have been perceived as a starting pistol.

Many who had come to see the trains would have been just plain curious and hoping for a sight of the famous Duke above all else, something they could tell their children and grandchildren about in years to come. The extent of the crowd, however, meant that police and military cordons became severely over-stretched and as a consequence the crowd surged through and accessed locations supposedly off-limits such as the track and station.

These people, of course, enjoyed the best view of the engines, coaches and celebrity passengers cooped somewhat anxiously in their gilded carriages. More broadly they probably also valued the opportunity to see Manchester, the adjacent Salford and, of course, the crowds, from the elevated vantage point of the track. Whether politically motivated or not, there was much to see.

The passengers

The consequences for the trains was, however, serious. While the ducal train may (unusually) have run into the station using the normal departure track, the seven trains on the northern line were likely backed off a little and strung out at least as far back as the bridge over the River Irwell. It is probable that they stopped at specific locations where specially positioned turnplates permitted engines to cross to and from the adjacent track. Passengers were supposed to walk to the station and ascend a specially constructed staircase to the first floor of the new goods warehouse where a cold collation awaited them. The ladies were also provided with a withdrawing room at the far end.

How many braved the crowds is not known. Certainly the Duke remained in his carriage resolutely shaking hands with both arms and on occasion even kissing babies as politicians for some reason do. He and his elite co-passengers presumably had sustenance ferried to them. Some of the Directors' wives did descend, however, as we know that the wife and family of John Moss were subsequently left behind. Coordination between trains now became difficult or impossible.

The train and engines

Trains usually dropped their passengers before traversing the Water Street bridge but let us assume that the ducal train pulled into the station on the line normally used for departures and that Northumbrian would subsequently use turnplates on the track to cross to the adjacent line and run round to the front. It's possible that it first dropped off the band car that had been used as a makeshift ambulance for Huskisson but was no longer serving any useful purpose as the band had left the train at Parkside.

Meanwhile Dart, Comet, Meteor and lastly Phoenix deserted their trains, crossed to the southern line (presumably by means of turnplates) and ran to Eccles to pick-up water. The fact that Phoenix left suggests that the action was sanctioned by Stephenson who was nearby in the ducal train. The engines were therefore following a pre-determined plan with the departing locomotives expected to return before the second cohort repeated the operation (as they would do subsequently).

At one level, of course, it was entertaining for the crowds to see the locomotives in motion. However, it had the additional benefits of sweeping the crowd back from the eventual path of the ducal train and reducing the possibility of sabotage of the expensive engines by any Luddite tendency among the crowd.

An alternative (conspiracy) theory

If you like conspiracy theories, there was another possible issue with Eccles beyond watering and the deeply ailing Huskisson. Earlier in the day the vicar's wife, Mrs Blackburne, had heard that men from Oldham were planning to descend on Eccles to attack the trains and she assisted in summoning local special constables to protect three miles of adjacent track. Stephenson may have heard of this problem and sent the engines as a reconnaissance in force to check that there would be no interference with the ducal train as it stopped for water (although it is possible that Northumbrian had been replenished during its earlier visits to Eccles).

Accelerated departure of the ducal train

Unfortunately, the decision was then taken to have the ducal train leave Manchester at short notice at 16:37 as the Deputy Chief Constable was no longer able to guarantee the safety of the party and the Duke in particular. The DCC was one Stephen Lavender who had been a principal detective in London's Bow Street Police Office and was likely experienced in close protection. Lavender had had a distinguished career in London and has appeared since as a character in a number of historical crime novels.

Unfortunately we don't know what specific intelligence framed the decision and whether it applied specifically to the situation in the station or, as seems more likely, to the restive crowd outside who had not had their "turn" (whatever that might involve). In addition a "buffer" of local dignitaries and well-to-do families may now have moved away allowing more dubious groups and individuals to get closer to the Duke. Perhaps Lavender had it in mind that one Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, had already been assassinated in 1812 and he was determined to avoid the possibility of a repeat here. Doubtless Peterloo also weighed heavily on minds.

Whatever the cause, it was the presence of the ducal train that was the inciting trigger and Lavender's gut instinct presumably told him that its departure would help defuse the situation as well as protect the Duke. Overall, however, the Duke's reluctance to continue to the city had been proven well-founded.

No way back from Eccles

By this time the other engines now on the southern line were on their way back from Eccles. As there was no turning place (these had been specifically removed for safety reasons as far as Huyton, possibly under Gooch's orders), they were forced to reverse to run ahead of the ducal train although Phoenix hung back to act as pilot for Northumbrian. Pilot in this context implied inspecting the line for obstructions.

Night fell around 19:00 and the trains improvised by using burning tarred rope to light the way.

The Duke had been scheduled to attend a celebratory dinner in Liverpool but under the circumstances detrained at Roby around 19:30 whence he travelled to Childwall Hall where he was the guest of the Marquess of Salisbury.

Meteor, Comet and Dart meanwhile raced to Huyton where they transferred to the northern line and headed back towards Manchester.

The remaining trains combine at Manchester

In the absence of the apparently errant engines the decision was taken to combine the remaining carriages and engines into one train comprising three locomotives (North Star, Rocket and Arrow) and no fewer than 24 carriages. According to Rolt, however, the engines first went to Eccles for water which must have been an incredibly dispiriting sight for the bewildered passengers left behind (and perhaps takes some shine off the conspiracy theory).

Once the engines returned, they transferred to the northern track and the carriages were shunted together. Once started sometime after 17:00, the progress of the aggregated train was, unsurprisingly, slow, typically 5 mph. There is some suggestion that they paused at Eccles again, perhaps asking after Huskisson (whose condition was beyond hope; he died around 21:00), as some couplings failed there on restarting.

Subsequently they met the three returning engines on the northern line at Parkside, the three having travelled an extra 31 miles from Eccles via Huyton to Parkside. This is the same distance as from Manchester to Liverpool so presumably they picked up additional water and fuel while at Parkside. Dart and Comet (which was leading on the way back and hit a wheelbarrow maliciously placed on the track without derailing) were joined to the train with Meteor (formerly in the rear of the group) now running in advance as pilot.

The passage up the Sutton incline, however, proved too much even with additional engines and gentlemen were asked to dismount and walk alongside the carriages in the dark until the Rainhill Level was reached. The rain was not helping.

Journey's end

On arrival at Edge Hill at 22:00 the combined train would have been split to allow passage of groups of carriages (4-6?) down through the long tunnel to the docks where horse carriages would be waiting patiently to take them home, the "celebratory" dinners in Liverpool having already concluded. There is some suggestion that passengers cheered as they made their way down the tunnel. Whether their calls were answered by those at the docks or by their own echo is uncertain.

It is unclear whether the engines in the Moorish Arch were yet in use or whether this was a simple gravity run with extra breaking provided by pilot wagons. On balance the coupled return of carriages to Edge Hill from the docks powered by the engine in the Arch seems more likely despite evidence from prints that one of the chimneys had yet to be finished.

The last passengers detrained at 23:00.

Looking back

In principle the journey could have taken 5 hours allowing 2 hours stay in Manchester and, indeed, the arrival in Liverpool had been scheduled for 16:00. In practice it had taken a gruelling 11 hours for which the passengers were largely unprepared. Of course, the notion of a day-trip to Manchester for 700-plus people would have been inconceivable prior to the advent of the railway.

From a contemporary vantage-point, the journey had been a nightmare and at the time the newspapers and railway critics made much of the death of Huskisson. Conversely the actor Fanny Kemble mentions in her memoirs how quickly she became emotionally detached from the terrible events of that day. These were, of course, times in which travel delays due to prevailing winds or icy roads were the norm and shipwrecks not uncommon.

As far as the company was concerned, the human cost of their enterprise had already been made apparent as just the previous week one of the assistant engineers had died in an accident. The onus on them was to provide a return for their investors and to exploit any competitive advantage for all it was worth. Significant though the (relatively) successful opening had been, vindication remained for the future. Their eventual success can be judged not only by the global railway system but by the surviving artefacts of that first run, not least Liverpool Road station (now part of the Museum of Science & Industry) and Huskisson's nemesis, the Rocket (in the Science Museum, London).