On 15 September 1830, a revolution began. Not a political or violent revolution, but a social and cultural revolution that would shape the Western world we live in today. In the north-west of England, 35 miles of railway line were opened to the public, providing the world's first scheduled rail passenger service between two cities, and beginning the age of mass transport.
The Liverpool and Manchester Railway (L&M) had been seven years in the making. The idea of the local merchants who founded the company was relatively simple: a transport link between the textile mills of Manchester to the port of Liverpool that was cheaper and quicker than using animal-drawn carts or canals. In 1824, the renowned engineer George Stephenson was appointed as chief engineer.
However, the first parliamentary bill for the line submitted in 1825 was thrown out. Political interests in the local canals meant the idea of a new form of transport was unpopular amongst the local elites, and they used any mistakes by the uneducated Stephenson to justify their decision. Stephenson was briefly ditched, the line was rerouted, and there was a brief period of politicking to win over the elites. The second bill in 1826 was passed but left significant engineering challenges, leading to the reappointment of Stephenson, who was now fresh from his success in the north-east with the Stockton and Darlington Railway.
Stephenson's principles of keeping railway lines as straight and flat as possible led to numerous bridges being built, the largest being the nine-arch Sankey Viaduct, and cuttings and tunnels being excavated. It also meant traversing the notorious Chat Moss, a long and deep peat bog. Stephenson's ingenious solution was to 'float' the line across the bog using wooden and heather hurdles and stones.
The railway was an enormous engineering achievement for its time; as the railway historian L.T.C. Rolt wrote:
the Liverpool & Manchester was so soon eclipsed by the building of the great trunk lines that we are apt to forget that at the time of its completion there was only one other civil engineering work in England with which it could fairly be compared so far as the scale of the earthworks were concerned. This was Telford's Birmingham & Liverpool Junction Canal.(1)
In 1829, the L&M initiated a series of locomotive trials to determine the type of locomotive that should be built to haul the railway's trains. These trials took place around Rainhill in October, and there were five entrants. The eventual winner would be Rocket, a ground-breaking engine designed by Robert Stephenson, son of George. On its trial runs it achieved a maximum speed of 30 miles per hour and was the only locomotive to complete the runs without any problems. As a result, Stephenson won the £500 prize and the contract to produce the engines for the railway his father had designed.
The official opening came a year later, on 15 September 1830. The first train was hauled by the locomotive Northumbrian from Crown Street station in Liverpool to Liverpool Road station in Manchester. On board were many notable guests, including the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington. Seven other trains followed, running behind the inaugural train but on the opposite track so that they could pass when the first train stopped to take on water.
The train left at 11 a.m. and was greeted by large cheering crowds along the route. It stopped at Parkside station, around halfway through the 35-mile journey. Though railway staff advised the dignitaries on board to remain in the carriages, a number of them alighted, including the Liverpool MP William Huskisson. An influential member of the more liberal, reformist faction of Tories in the House of Commons, he had resigned as Secretary of State for War and the Colonies in 1828 after falling out with the Duke of Wellington. He saw this opening day as a chance to reconcile himself with the prime minister, and left his carriage to visit him.
Huskisson walked along the opposite track to Wellington's carriage. Unbeknownst to him, another train was approaching on that track, hauled by Rocket. Driven by Joseph Locke, the future engineer of much of today's West Coast Main Line, it was not equipped with brakes and therefore could not slow down particularly quickly. When Huskisson eventually noticed the train approaching, he tried to clamber into Wellington's carriage, but the carriage door swung open and he fell onto the tracks in front of Rocket.
Suffering serious leg injuries, Huskisson was rushed to Eccles on board the inaugural train. George Stephenson was at the controls of Northumbrian and drove it flat out, reaching a record 36 miles per hour. But Huskisson was already resigned to his fate, and little could be done to save him. He died as a result of the massive blood loss from his wounds a few hours later, and became the first widely-reported fatality of the Railway Age.
The remaining trains eventually headed on from the accident scene to Manchester, where Wellington received a hostile reception from local bystanders protesting against his unpopular anti-reform regime. He refused to leave his carriage, and his train was quickly turned around to head back to Liverpool, though the seven trains on the opposite track could not be turned around immediately and were eventually fastened together to make one long train. This eventually arrived in Liverpool at 10 p.m., eight hours behind schedule.
But from this disastrous start came a considerable benefit for rail travel. As Rolt wrote:
despite all the unforeseen difficulties, with the exception of poor Huskisson the railway had brought all its passengers home safely, refuting the dire prophecies of disaster and the wild rumours which had spread abroad as a result of the delays.(2)
As well as this, ironically Huskisson's death was a major news story which gave the Liverpool & Manchester Railway an enormous amount of national publicity, increasing awareness of this new form of transport.
The new passenger service would prove to be a great success and an immediate inspiration for new routes. Lessons were learned from the tragedy: opposing tracks became spaced further apart, brakes were fitted to locomotives, and advancements in design meant stops for water became less frequent.
Though Wellington hated the railways from that fateful day on, the general public were captivated. Within eight years, London was linked with Birmingham; within twenty years, there were over 10,000 kilometres of railway in Britain. This transport revolution allowed people to move around the country with ease for the first time, spurring migration and creating the phenomenon of commuting. Other countries soon took heed as well, and the successful template was quickly exported to Europe and North America.
Though the Liverpool & Manchester Railway was certainly not the first railway in the world, it was the most crucial in the global development in rail transport. It remains part of our large national network today, a testament to the achievements of the Stephensons and the other great railway pioneers of the nineteenth century.
By James Bennett an MA in Modern History student at the University of Warwick whose current research focuses on the history of football culture.
(1)L.T.C. Rolt, George and Robert Stephenson: The Railway Revolution (London, 1978), p. 179.
(2)Rolt, George and Robert Stephenson, p. 202.
Garfield, Simon, The Last Journey of William Huskisson (Faber & Faber, 2002).
Igloo Books, British Steam (Sywell, 2012).
Rolt, L.T.C., George and Robert Stephenson: The Railway Revolution (London, 1978).