The crack dealers and prostitutes plying their trade amid the dilapidated Georgian splendour of Toxteth, Liverpool, are unlikely to know that one of their grandest streets is named after William Huskisson, a Tory MP for the city in the early 19th century. If he is remembered for anything, it is for his tragic end, summed up succinctly in the title of Simon Garfield's book. The opening ceremony for the world's first steam-locomotive passenger train took place on 15 September 1830. As one of Britain's most eminent public figures of the day relaxed halfway through the journey from Liverpool to Manchester, he found himself in collision with George Stephenson's Rocket, which was travelling at the then-breakneck speed of 35mph. In true Keystone Cops fashion, Huskisson had tried to avoid his hideous fate by attempting to clamber into a nearby stationary carriage, but his strength failed him, and he fell from the outswinging door from which he was suspended. Spectators reported blood spurting everywhere, as Huskisson's legs were bizarrely flattened and lacerated but left attached to his body. Manchester's finest surgeons were unable to save him.
Garfield acknowledges the blackly comical aspect of the death, which is given added farce when we read that Huskisson was chronically accident-prone all his life, and that a spectator also lost his eyesight on the day, as a result of the cladding from a cannonball fired for the launch landing in the crowd. If nothing else, the former middle management of Railtrack might take comfort from this story.
Although a Tory, Huskisson's outlook was broadly progressive for his time. As a young man, he witnessed the French Revolution at first hand, and while never fully endorsing the views of the Jacobites, he flirted with some of their ideals. As his career matured, he never lost this edge, and was one of the main refuseniks within the Duke of Wellington's government. In the wake of the Peterloo massacre of 1819, he pushed for parliamentary reform, and the abolition of "rotten" boroughs (which had tiny electorates while the growing urban sprawls of Manchester and Birmingham remained without representation). In addition, he had a huge sense of civic pride, and his laissez-faire approach to trade elevated his adopted city to a place of economic power.
By the height of Victoria's reign, Liverpool was, in many ways, a more important city than London, and much of this was down to Huskisson's vision. In parliament, he promoted the railways while others were still insisting that the world was flat.
The events of his death are used here only as a backdrop for a much wider picture. What unfolds is an engaging look at the political climate of Britain on the brink of empire and industrial might, with the railways as one of the most vital tools for implementing this. The book should appeal to more than just the trainspotter that Huskisson most certainly wasn't.
Doug Stenson works for the NS