The maiden journey on the Liverpool-Manchester railway in 1830 was a momentous event in the history of modern transportation. George Stephenson’s well-staged event demonstrated the power and speed of the locomotive, captured the imagination of the British public, and was laced with drama, excitement, and even tragedy The following account first appeared in Smiles, Life of George Stephenson, published in 1860.
At length the line was completed and ready for the public ceremony of the opening, which took place on September 30, 1830. This important event attracted a vast number of spectators from all parts of the country. Strong palings were erected for miles along the deep cuttings near Liverpool, to keep off the pressure from the multitude and prevent them from falling over in the eagerness to witness the passing trains. Constables and soldiers were there in numbers to assist in keeping the line clear. The completion of the railway was justly regarded as an important national event, and the ceremony of the opening was celebrated accordingly. The duke of Wellington, the prime minister, Sir Robert Peel, secretary of state, Mr. Huskisson, one of the members for Liverpool and an earnest supporter of the project from the commencement, were amongst the number of distinguished public personages present.
Eight locomotives constructed at the Stephenson works had been delivered and placed upon the line, the whole of which had been tried and tested for weeks before with perfect success. The various trains of carriages accommodated in all about six hundred persons. The “Northumbrian” engine, driven by George Stephenson himself, headed the procession; then followed the ‘‘Phoenix,’’ driven by Robert Stephenson; the ‘‘North Star.’’ By Robert Stephenson, senior (brother of George); the ‘‘Rocket’’’ by Joseph Locke; the ‘‘Dart,’’ by Thomas L. Gooch; the ‘‘Comet,’’ by William Allcard; the ‘‘Arrow,’’ by Frederick Swan-wick; and the ‘‘Meteor,’’ by Anthony Harding.
The procession was cheered in its progress by thousands of spectators, - through the deep ravine of Olive Mount, up to the Sutton incline, over the Sankey viaduct, beneath which a multitude of persons had assembled, carriages filling the narrow lanes and barges crowding the river; the people below gazing with wonder and admiration upon the trains which sped along far above their heads at the rate of some twenty-five miles an hour.
At Parkside, about seventeen miles from Liverpool, the engines stopped to take water. Here a deplorable accident occurred to one of the most distinguished of the illustrious visitors present, which threw a deep shadow over the subsequent proceedings of the day. The ‘‘Northumbrian’’ engine, with the carriage, containing the duke of Wellington, was drawn up on one line, in order that the whole of the trains might pass in review before him and his party on the other. Mr. Huskisson had unhappily alighted from the carriage and was standing on the opposite road along which the ‘‘Rocket’’ engine was observed rapidly coming up. At this moment the duke of Wellington, between whom and Mr. Huskisson some coolness had exited, made a sign of recognition, and held out his hand. A hurried but friendly grasp was given, and before it was loosened there was a general cry from the bystanders, ‘‘Get in, get in.’’ Flurried and confused, Mr. Huskisson endeavored to get around the open door of the carriage, which projected over the opposite rail; but in so doing was struck down by the ‘‘Rocket,’’ and, falling with his leg doubled across the rail, the limb was instantly crushed.
His first words on being raised were, ‘‘I have met my death,’’ which unhappily proved too true, for he expired that same evening in the neighboring parsonage of Eccles. It was cited at the same time as a remarkable fact that the “Northumbrian” engine conveyed the wounded body a distance of about fifteen miles in twenty-five minutes, or at the rate of thirty-six miles an hour.
This incredible speed burst upon the world with the effect of a new and unlooked-for phenomenon.. .
It was anticipated that the speed at which the locomotive could run upon the line would be about nine or ten miles an hour; but the wisest of the lawyers and the most experienced engineers did not believe this to be practicable, and they laughed outright at the idea of an engine running twenty miles an hour.
But very soon after the railway opening for traffic, passengers were regularly carried the entire thirty miles between Liverpool and Manchester in little more than an hour. Two Edinburgh engineers who went to report on the railway expressed their wonder at the traveling being smoother and easier than any that had hitherto experienced, even on the smoothest turnpikes of Mr. M’Adam. ‘‘At the highest speed of twenty-five miles an hour,’’ they said, ‘‘we could observe the passengers, among whom a good many were ladies, talking to gentlemen with the utmost sang-froid.’’
Source: Smiles, Life of George Stephenson (1860), as quoted in James
Harvey Robinson and C. A. Beard, Readings in Modern European History, Vol. II (New York: Ginn & Company, 1909), 407-409.