The Liverpool and Manchester Railway

Steven Hartshorne, Curator of Science, Technology and Medicine Rare Books, discusses the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway in September 1830

The Liverpool and Manchester Railway, which opened on the 15th September 1830, is acknowledged for achieving a number of notable firsts. It was the first exclusively steam-powered railway in the world; it was the first inter-city railway (though Manchester and Liverpool were still only towns at the time); it was the first railway to be fully timetabled; it was the first railway to carry mail; and it recorded the first ever rail passenger fatality on its opening day.

There are some phrases which have gained currency in recent times which the Victorians would have understood without too much difficulty. Take for example ‘Northern Powerhouse’: from Parliament to pub, field to factory, many would have recognised the importance of the north’s industrial centres to the nation’s continued prosperity. The rapidly expanding towns of Manchester and Liverpool in particular relied on each other for mutually beneficial trade. Amongst other goods and commodities, Liverpool was Britain’s principal import centre for raw cotton, which would be transported to Manchester’s mills and weaving sheds to be transformed into textiles for sale in the domestic and overseas markets.

Unfamiliar though the expression might have been, they would have immediately grasped the meaning of ‘supply chain problems’. Such problems were especially a concern for the factory owners, shopkeepers and householders of Lancashire. In a much quoted passage from The Observer in 1830, it was noted that “goods would arrive in a shorter time from New York to Liverpool, than they could afterwards be conveyed from Liverpool to Manchester”.

It was with these concerns firmly in mind that a wealthy Liverpool corn merchant, Joseph Sandars published an open letter in 1824 On the subject of the projected rail road between Liverpool and Manchester. In it he outlined the case for a rail link between the two towns, citing amongst other things the spiralling costs of canal transportation. Then, as now, increasing expenses and transport delays were having a negative effect on the national economy and the income and expenditure of local merchants and customers. Not only were the mill owners of Manchester paying over the odds to transport their cotton from the port of Liverpool, the householders of Liverpool paid extortionate amounts for coal from the Lancashire coalfields.

A sepia portrait of George Stephenson with the railway crossing Chat Moss in the background
A portrait of George Stephenson with the railway crossing Chat Moss in the background (T. L. Atkinson after Lucas, 1849. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Shortly after the publication of the letter, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway company was founded and soon appointed celebrated engineer and industrialist George Stephenson as chief engineer. Stephenson immediately started work on a survey for the proposed line, though opposition from local landowners and proprietors of the canal companies was fierce. As a result, the required legislation to permit the construction of the railway took two years to get through Parliament: much of the work to shepherd the bill towards becoming law was carried out by the MP for Liverpool, William Huskisson, whose name would become better associated with the Liverpool and Manchester Railway for more tragic reasons.

Plan of the proposed railway line and new warehouse, bottom of Castle Field, No. 4 by George Stephenson
Plan of the proposed line and new warehouse, bottom of Castle Field, No. 4 by George Stephenson, from Proceedings of the Committee of the House of Commons on the Liverpool and Manchester Railroad bill : Sessions, 1825

Work began on the track almost immediately. The line was to be 31 miles long and construction was split into western, central and eastern sections. The engineering work was considerable: the western section necessitated the digging of a 2,250 yard (2.06km) tunnel from Liverpool Docks to Edge Hill, the central portion involved the construction of the nine-arch Sankey Viaduct and the eastern section of track traversed the almost bottomless marsh of Chat Moss.

Plate showing the viaduct across the Sankey Valley, from the work "Coloured views on the Liverpool and Manchester railway" by T.T. Bury
The viaduct across the Sankey Valley, from Coloured views on the Liverpool and Manchester railway by T.T. Bury, 1831

The line opened on 15th September to great acclaim and excitement. The Liverpool Mercury’s correspondent likened it to the public response to Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar. Enthusiastic crowds lined sections of the track, some in specially built grandstands. Others thronged the stations from the Manchester terminus at Liverpool Street (in buildings now occupied by the Science and Industry Museum), to the final stop at Liverpool Crown Street. The railway was opened by the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, who was accompanied by numerous dignitaries, including Prince Esterhazy, the Austrian ambassador, and William Huskisson the aforementioned Liverpool MP. Eight engines drew the carriages of specially invited guests: seven trains on the northern line, including Stephenson’s famous Rocket, and the Duke of Wellington’s train, pulled by The Northumbrian and driven by George Stephenson himself, on the southern track.

Setting out from Liverpool, the procession stopped at Parkside in Eccles to take on fuel and water. Despite explicit instructions not to get down from the carriages, some of the passengers decided to alight and walk alongside the trains between the tracks. Among them were Prince Esterhazy and William Huskisson, who took the opportunity to make conversation with the Prime Minister. At the same moment, the engines on the southern track started to move off and cries went up for the dignitaries on the tracks to get back on the train. Some, including the Austrian ambassador managed to clamber back into one of the carriages with the aid of the passengers, others pressed themselves up against the side of the train or the embankment opposite. Unfortunately Huskisson panicked and in grabbing for the carriage door, fell back onto the southern track and straight into the path of the oncoming engine, the Rocket. The engine and several of the carriages ran over his leg, causing severe injury. He was taken immediately to the vicarage at Eccles, where he was attended to by two doctors who had been amongst the invited guests. He died later that evening, with his wife and several other of the dignitaries in attendance.

Extract from the editorial of the Manchester Guardian, 18th September 1830
Extract from the editorial of the Manchester Guardian, 18th September 1830 © ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Guardian and Observer

What seems remarkable today is that despite this tragedy, the opening ceremony resumed. Although the Duke of Wellington wanted to return straight away to Liverpool, he was persuaded by the directors of the railway to continue on to Manchester, so as to not disappoint the assembled crowds of well-wishers. As a concession to the newly required solemnity of the occasion, the carriage containing the band was detached and pulled back to Liverpool and the remaining passengers were requested not to respond to the cheers of the crowd.

Even had William Huskisson’s death not cast a pall over proceedings, it’s likely that Wellington’s arrival in Manchester would have been less than festive: many working class men and women had turned out in protest and it was decided that the Duke would remain in his carriage at Liverpool Street, before returning to Liverpool after an hour’s stay.

The railway’s operations started immediately the following day, conveying 130 passengers from Liverpool, many of whom were Quakers on their way to a Quarterly Meeting in Manchester. The journey took under 2 hours and even though it was envisioned as a solution to commercial woes, it proved to be a hit with passengers, who could make the trip between Manchester and Liverpool faster and cheaper than ever before. A mark of the venture’s success was that less than a month later, the directors of the company decided to petition Parliament for permission to open their first branch line, the first steps in changing public transport in Britain forever.

The John Rylands Research Institute and Library holds a substantial amount of historical material relating to railway history, both in its printed and archive collections. The Railway Collections comprise approximately 6,000 items including maps, periodicals, pamphlets and books covering social history, engineering, cartography and railway publishing. The earliest work is J. T. Desaguliers’ A Course of Experimental Philosophy (1734), probably the first ‘railway’ book, with its description of the wooden railway constructed at Prior Park, Bath, by Ralph Allen to carry stone from quarry to riverside.

There is significant pictorial material such as Thomas Talbot Bury’s Views on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (1831) and a collection of ephemera including railway tickets, postcards, leaflets, timetables and magazines relating to railways and steamships.

The Archive also contains material related to the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, including files in the Manchester Medical Collection relating to the death of William Huskisson, who was treated at the Eccles vicarage by John Atkinson Ransome, a founding physician at the Manchester Medical School.

Steven Hartshorne, Curator of Science, Technology and Medicine Rare Books

Further Reading:

Booth, Henry Account of the Liverpool and Manchester railway… (Liverpool, 1830)

Bury, T.T. Six coloured views on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (London, 1831)

Carlson, Robert E. The Liverpool & Manchester Railway Project, 1821-1831 (Newton Abbot, 1969)

Donaghy, Thomas J. Liverpool & Manchester Railway operations, 1831-1845 (Newton Abbot, 1972)

Ferneyhough, Frank Liverpool & Manchester Railway (London, 1980)

Sandars, Joseph A letter on the subject of the projected rail road between Liverpool and Manchester… (Liverpool, 1924)

Shaw, I. Views of the most interesting scenery on the line of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (Oldham, 1980)

 Thomas, R.H.G. The Liverpool and Manchester Railway (London, 1980)

Walker, James Scott,  An accurate description of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway… (Liverpool, 1831)

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