The opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, 1830

The Liverpool and Manchester Railway, which opened in 1830, was the first modern, inter-city passenger railway. It was the first to rely exclusively on steam power, run a scheduled passenger service and use a system of signalling. Earlier railways had used horse power, fixed steam engines and locomotives.

The opening of the railway was a momentous occasion, but it was marred by tragedy, when William Huskisson, MP and former cabinet member, was fatally wounded by an oncoming train.

The bill is passed

Parliament gave permission for the new railway to be built in 1826. On 5 May, a bill was passed, ‘An Act for making and maintaining a Railway or Tramroad from the Town of Liverpool to the Town of Manchester, with certain Branches therefrom, all in the County of Lancaster(Gazette issue 18246). A previous bill had been rejected in July 1825, due to inaccuracies with two surveys. A third survey was accurately completed by Charles Blacker Vignoles. George Stephenson, engineer, was appointed to design and build the line.

Much of the building of the 35-mile line was done by hand by workers with picks, shovels and wheelbarrows. It was hard physical labour, under squalid working conditions.The men, nicknamed 'navvies', lived near construction sites, and serious injury and deaths were not uncommon. Edwin Chadwick, social reformer, would later speak out against the plight of rail workers and pressured for legislation for better working conditions and rights.

The Rainhill trials

With the construction almost complete, the 1829 Rainhill trials took place to find the best locomotive (or stationery steam engine which pulled carts by links or cables) for the job. On the third day of the trials, George Stephenson won with his locomotive Rocket, which he had built with his son, Robert. It averaged 12mph, with a top speed of 30mph, and was the only locomotive to complete the trial’s several tasks. Robert Stephenson Company gained the contract to produce locomotives for the line.

The new railway was intended to speedily transport raw materials, goods and passengers between the two towns – Manchester, the centre of the textiles industry, and the key port of Liverpool. It was to be a double track, built to 4 feet, 8.5 inches.

William Huskisson: Gazette citations

Returned as MP for Chichester in 1812 (Gazette issue 16665), Huskisson rose from commissioner of ‘His Majesty's Woods, forests, and Land Revenues’ in 1814 (Gazette issue 16923) to president of the board of trade and treasurer of the Navy in 1823 (Gazette issue 17893). He became secretary of state for war and the colonies and leader of the House of Commons in 1827 (Gazette issue 18393), resigning from this office in 1828. In 1830, he was present at the state funeral of King George IV (Gazette issue 18696).

He was returned as an MP for the borough of Liverpool in 1823 (Gazette issue 18717), succeeding George Canning, a position he held at the point of his death.

The final mention of Huskisson in The Gazette is in December 1830, nearly three months after his death, when he was replaced as an MP for Liverpool, ‘William Ewart, Esq, in the room of the Right Honourable William Huskisson, deceased’ (Gazette issue 18753).

The day of the opening

Huskisson, along with other dignitaries, including Prime Minister Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, attended the opening on 15 September 1830. Eight trains, including the Rocket, took part in the procession. The company’s chief engineer, Stephenson, drove the Northumberland at the lead.

The Liverpool and Manchester Railway Company organised much celebration, timed for the day of its opening, where thousands of spectators gathered, jostling for the best vantage points.

After 17 miles, the engines made a scheduled stop for water. On stepping down from the train at Newton-le-Willows (despite passengers being advised to stay inside the carriage), Huskisson approached the Duke of Wellington to shake hands in a move of reconciliation after earlier disagreements.

Unbeknown to Huskisson, the Rocket, driven by Joseph Locke, was approaching on the adjacent track. "An engine is approaching. Take care, gentlemen!" was heard. Others managed to move out of the way and on to the embankment or back into their carriages, but Huskisson panicked and, clinging to the duke’s carriage door, found himself in the path of the oncoming train. On impact his leg was badly mangled, and he was rushed to Eccles by train, driven by George Stephenson. 

There were calls, especially by the prime minister, to cease the day’s events and return to Liverpool. However, a large crowd had gathered in Manchester to see the trains arrive and were becoming increasingly restless. Some were using the public occasion to call for political reforms. Advised that it would be safest to resume, and aware of the bad publicity and unrest if they retreated, they proceeded to the destination, with the mood understandably much subdued (though the reception and banquet was to go ahead). Huskisson died a at around 9pm, having made a will when he was aware that he had been mortally wounded.

The funeral was on Friday 24 September, and almost every business in Liverpool was closed as a mark of respect to Huskisson. The railway went on to be a financial success and ushered in a modern age of travel. Within 20 years there were 6,200 miles of rail in Britain.

Soon to follow were the 1844 Railway Regulation Act (Gazette issue 20373), which made provision for less well-off rail passengers, and Regulating the Gauge of Railways Act 1846 (Gazette issue 20635), which legislated that railway lines were to be built at a uniform width of 4 feet, 8.5 inches across the country – a legacy of Stephenson’s Liverpool and Manchester Railway.

Further reading and sources

Fyfe, Paul, ‘On the Opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, 1830’. BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net.

Garfield, Simon, The Last Journey of William Huskisson, Faber and Faber, 2002.

Find out more: the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester. 

Image: George Stephenson's Rocket, wood engraving, 1878