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From Liverpool to Manchester in 1830

From Samuel Smiles, The Life of George Stephenson, Chapter 24 (1857)

About the middle of 1829 the tunnel at Liverpool was finished; and being lit up with gas, it was publicly exhibited one day in each week. Many thousand persons visited the tunnel, at the charge of a shilling a head, - the fund thus raised being appropriated partly to the support of the families of labourers who had been injured upon the line, and partly in contributions to the Manchester and Liverpool infirmaries. Notwithstanding the immense quantity of rain that fell during the year, great progress had been made; and there seemed every probability that one line of road would be laid complete between the two towns by the 1st of January, 1830.

As promised by the engineer, a single line was ready by that day; and the "Rocket," with a carriage full of directors, engineers, and their friends, passed over the entire length of Chat Moss, and also along the greater part of the road between Liverpool and Manchester. The coal traffic had already been commenced at different parts of the railway; but the passenger traffic was delayed until locomotives and carrying stock could be constructed, which involved a considerable additional expenditure. In consequence of the wetness of the season, the completion of the works was somewhat postponed; but in the meantime Mr. Stephenson and his son were engaged in improving and perfecting the locomotive, and in devising new arrangements in those which were in course of construction in their workshops at Newcastle for the purposes of the railway. It was soon found that the performances of the "Rocket" on the day of competition were greatly within the scope of her powers; and at every succeeding effort she excelled her previous feats. Thus, in June 1830, a trial trip was made between Liverpool and Manchester and back, on the occasion of the board meeting being held at the latter town. A great concourse of people assembled at both termini, and along the line, to witness the spectacle. The train consisted of two carriages filled with about forty persons, and seven wagons laden with stores - in all about thirty-nine tons. The "Rocket," light though it was as compared with modern engines, drew the tram from Liverpool to Manchester in two hours and one minute, and performed the return journey in an hour and a half. The speed of the train over Chat Moss was at the rate of about twenty-seven miles an hour.

The public opening of the railway took place on the 15th of September, 1830. Eight locomotive engines had now been constructed by the Messrs. Stephenson, and placed upon the line. The whole of them had been repeatedly tried, and with success, weeks before. A high paling had been erected for miles along the deep cuttings near Liverpool, to keep off the pressure of the multitude, and prevent them from falling over in their eagerness to witness the opening ceremony. Constables and soldiers were there in numbers, to assist in keeping the railway clear. The completion of the work was justly regarded as a great national event, and was celebrated accordingly. The Duke of Wellington, then prime minister, Sir Robert Peel, secretary of state,Mr. Huskisson, one of the members for Liverpool, and an earnest supporter of the project from its commencement, were present, together with a large number of distinguished personages. The "Northumbrian" engine took the lead of the procession, and was followed by the other locomotives and their trains, which accommodated about 600 persons. Many thousands of spectators cheered them on their way, - through the deep ravine of Olive Mount; up 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 gazed with wonder and admiration at the trains which sped along the line, far above their heads, at the rate of twenty-four miles an hour.

At Parkside, seventeen miles from Liverpool, the engines stopped to take in 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 landing 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 existed, 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 of "Get in, get in!" Flurried and confused, Mr, Huskisson endeavoured to get round the open door of the carriage, which projected over the opposite rail; but in so doing he 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 neighbouring parsonage of Eccles. It was cited at the time as a remarkable fact, that the "Northumbrian" engine conveyed the wounded body of the unfortunate gentleman 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 unlocked for phenomenon.

The lamentable accident threw a gloom over the rest of the day's proceedings. The Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel expressed a wish that the procession should return to Liverpool. It was, however, represented to them that a vast concourse of people had assembled at Manchester to witness the arrival of the trains; that report would exaggerate the mischief if they did not complete the journey; and that a false panic on that day might seriously affect future railway travelling, and the value of the Company's property. The party consented accordingly to proceed to Manchester, but on the understanding that they should return as soon as possible, and refrain from further festivity.

The opening of the line was, however, accomplished. . . .

It is scarcely necessary that we should here speak of the commercial results of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Suffice it to say that its success was complete and decisive. The anticipations of its projectors were, however, in many respects at fault. They had based their calculations almost entirely on the heavy merchandise traffic - such as coal, cotton, and timber - relying little upon passengers; whereas the receipts derived from the conveyance of passengers far exceeded those derived from merchandise of all kinds, which, for a time, continued a subordinate branch of the traffic. In the evidence given before the committee of the House of Commons, the promoters stated their expectation of obtaining about one-half of the whole number of passengers that the coaches then running could take, which was from 400 to 500 a day. But the railway was scarcely opened before it carried on an average about 1200 passengers a day; and five years after the opening, it carried nearly half a million of persons yearly. In the first eighteen months, upwards of 700,000 persons, or about 1270 a day, were conveyed on the line without an accident. Formerly, the transit by coach had occupied four hours. The railway passenger trains performed the journey in an hour and a half on the average.

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 of the civil engineers did not believe this to be praticeable, and they laughed outright at the idea of an engine running twenty miles in the hour. But very soon after the railway was opened 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 upon the railway, expressed their wonder at the traveling being smoother and easier than any they had hitherto experienced even on the smoothest turnpikes of Mr. Macadam. At the highest speed, of twenty-five miles an hour, they said, "we could observe the passengers, among whom were a good many ladies, talking to gentlemen with the utmost sang froid." Such things were considered wonderful then. It was regarded as quite extraordinary that men should be enabled, by this remarkable invention, to proceed to Manchester in the morning, do a day's business there, and return to Liverpool the same night. So successful, indeed, was the passenger traffic, that it engrossed the whole of the Company's small stock of engines.

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