High Speed 2: The Victorian Perspective

After yesterday’s speech from Ed Balls at the Labour party conference, the High Speed 2 rail link is in the news again. Today’s blog is from a guest blogger, Alex Locock-Harrison, MA student at the University of St Andrews who joined us over the summer as an intern. He takes a look at the ongoing controversy over HS2 from a Victorian perspective…

Modern proposals to create a high-speed rail line between London and Birmingham are controversial for many reasons, but not because of safety concerns. Almost two hundred years earlier, the opening of a similar line would result in the gruesome death of a prominent member of Parliament. The burgeoning Victorian culture of industrial and technological revolution, however, wasn’t discouraged or suppressed; if anything, it was spurred on by the enormous media attention the fledgling railway network received.

On 15 September 1830, the Prime Minister the Duke of Wellington and several other governmental figures, among them the Chief Whip William Holmes; the MP for Staffordshire, Edward Littleton; and the MP for Liverpool, William Huskisson, were on the first ever passenger train from Liverpool to Manchester. This would be the first line connecting two major cities – and just as in modern times, the project had encountered resistance, in this case from powerful landowners such as the Earls of Derby and Sefton. Critics like Wordsworth would denounce railway travel’s ‘false utilitarian lure’ as corrupting pristine English countryside, and many of these noblemen agreed, condemning this ‘scheme so pregnant with evil – so profitless, wild and visionary’. The initial bill authorising the Liverpool-Manchester line was initially defeated before a concerted lobbying campaign and strong public opinion on the side of the railway helped see the bill become an Act in February 1826.

If the maiden voyage had panned out as it did today, the railway might have suffered a crippling blow. During a stop to take on water, several men left the train to stretch their legs. William Huskisson was among them. The restrictive design of the tracks meant that when the famous Rocket approached on the second track, there was nowhere to go. Most managed to squeeze between the trains; Huskisson attempted to get back on board, but too slowly to avoid the train. His leg was horrifically mangled, and he died that evening.

It is a testament to the particular spirit of the times that this incident paradoxically served to advance the railway cause. Contemporary accounts took pains to emphasise the human error; the Manchester Guardian‘s article declared that ‘no harm could possibly have happened’ if the passengers hadn’t panicked, and ‘A Railer’ writing in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine ensured that his audience understood the railway itself was not to blame. The most popular newspapers of the day such as the Illustrated London News would in later years run lurid stories about rail disasters which diluted their own sensationalism with admiring descriptions of the railway as a whole. The horror stories may have served to put some people off the railway, but far more people were exposed to this latest technological revolution as a direct result of these excitingly gruesome deaths.

In the days when people were mesmerised by a ‘high-speed rail’ which reached the dizzying heights of almost 25 miles per hour, the member of Parliament who did the most for the new form of transport may well have been not the legislators who shepherded the bill through the House or the railway’s loudest proponents, but rather its victim. People could hardly know about Huskisson’s death but not about the revolution taking place under their noses; helped on by a government which had opened the service up by legislating a maximum fare of 6d. per mile, his death was a catalyst for its widespread popularity rather than a body-blow to the fledgling railway. As they say, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.


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