William Huskisson

William Huskisson

William Huskisson was born at Birch Moreton Court, Warwickshire on 11th March 1770. After a private education in England he was sent to Paris to live with his uncle, Dr. Gem, the physician to the British Embassy. By 1790 Huskisson was asked by Lord Gower, the British Ambassador in France, to become his private secretary. In this post Huskisson met William Pitt, the British prime minister.

Huskisson returned to England in 1792 and after Pitt introduced him to George Canning, he was asked to become secretary to the admiralty. Huskisson met Lord Carlisle who offered him the opportunity to become the MP for Morpeth. Elected as a Tory in 1796, Huskisson did not speak in the House of Commons until February 1798. On the death of Dr. Gem in 1800, Huskisson inherited his estates in Worcestershire and Sussex. Huskisson was now financially secure and could concentrate of a political career.

Huskisson was defeated in the 1802 General Election and had to wait until February 1804 before he was elected as MP for Liskeard. When William Pitt became Prime Minister in May 1804, he appointed Huskisson as his secretary to the treasury. Huskisson returned to the back-benches when Pitt resigned from office in January 1806. Huskisson took a keen interest in financial matters and in 1810 he published Depreciation of the Currency. This pamphlet helped Huskisson achieve a reputation as one of Britain's leading economists.

In 1812 Huskisson was elected to represent Chichester in Sussex. Huskisson made several speeches on financial issues and in March 1813 called for changes in the taxation of imports. The following year Huskisson entered the government of Lord Liverpool and was given responsibility for the proposed corn laws. In 1815 Parliament passed a Corn Law which prohibited the importation of corn when the price fell below a certain minimum average.

William Huskisson rarely spoke in the House of Commons on matters other than those dealing with the economy. He voted for Catholic Emancipation but did not take part in any of the debates on the issue. Despite the strong opposition to the Corn Laws, Huskisson remained convinced that they were needed to protect Britain's farmers. In February 1822, Huskisson spoke against government plans to spend £4,000,000 on agricultural distress.

Huskisson entered the cabinet in April 1822 when Lord Liverpool appointed him as President of the Board of Trade. The following year Huskisson became MP for Liverpool. Huskisson worked closely with the merchants from the city and soon developed a reputation as the leading representative of mercantile interests in Parliament. This was reflected in the drafting and passing of several new bills that related to trade, including the Merchant Vessels' Apprenticeship Act and the Registration of Ships Act. Huskisson also took measures towards a policy of free trade. He reduced duties on cotton, sugar, glass, paper, bottles, copper, zinc and lead.

Although Huskisson admitted in debate that he was having doubts about duties on corn, he advocated a delay in their repeal. He finally introduced new measures to reform the Corn Laws in 1826 but the bill was abandoned after the opposition of the Duke of Wellington and other leading Tories in the House of Lords.

When the Duke of Wellington became Prime Minister in 1828, Huskisson refused to serve under him and resigned from office. Huskisson became unpopular with some members of the Tory Party when he made a speech in the House of Commons claiming that Wellington had forced him to leave the government.

Huskisson now became of the main reformers in the Tory Party. He advocated Catholic Emancipation and supported Lord John Russell, the leader of the Whig reformers, calls for Leeds and Manchester to be represented in the House of Commons.

Huskisson also supported the building of railways and in 1830 was invited by the directors of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway to attend the official opening on 15th September. After the guests were given a ride on the Northumbrian, Huskisson, crossed from his own carriage to speak to the Duke of Wellington. Warnings were shouted when people realised that the Rocket, driven by Joseph Locke, was about to pass the Northumbrian. Huskisson was unable to escape and was knocked down by the Rocket. The locomotive badly mangled one of his legs. A doctor attempted to stem the bleeding and George Stephenson used the Northumbrian to take him for further treatment. Despite these attempts to save him, Huskisson died later that day.

Primary Sources

(1) Lady Wilton was in the same carriage as the Duke of Wellington, when William Huskisson had his accident. She later told Fanny Kemble what happened.

The engine had stopped to take a supply of water, and several of the gentlemen in the directors' carriage had jumped out to look about them. Lord Wilton, Count Batthyany, Count Matuscenitz and Mr. Huskisson among the rest were standing talking in the middle of the road, when and engine on the other line, which was parading up and down merely to show its speed, was seen coming down upon them like lightening. The most active of those in peril sprang back into their seats; Lord Wilton saved his life only by rushing behind the Duke's carriage, and Count Matuscenitz had but just leaped into it, with the engine all but touching his heels as he did so; while poor Mr. Huskisson, less active from the effects of age and ill-health, bewildered, too, by the frantic cries of "Stop the engine! Clear the track!" that resounded on all sides, completely lost his head, looked helplessly to the right and left, and was instantaneously prostrated by the fatal machine, which dashed down like a thunderbolt upon him, and passed over his leg, smashing and mangling it in the most horrible way.

(2) The Observer (19th September 1830)

Several of the passengers of the Northumbrian got out to walk on the railway, and among them was Mr. Huskisson. He was discoursing with Mr. J. Sanders, one of the principal originators and promoters of the railroad, when the Rocket engine came slowly up, and as the engineer had been for some time checking its velocity, so silently that it was almost upon the group before they observed it. In the hurry of the moment all attempted to get out of the way. Mr Huskisson. hesitated, staggered a little, as if not knowing what to do, then attempted again to get into the carriage. As he took hold of the door to do this, but the motion threw him off balance, and before he could recover he was thrown down directly in the path of the Rocket. Mrs. Huskisson, who, along with several other ladies, witnessed the accident, uttered a shriek of agony, which none who heard will ever forget.

(3) Samuel Smiles, George and Robert Stephenson (1899)

Mr. Huskisson had alighted from the carriage, and was standing on the opposite of the road, along which the Rocket was observed rapidly coming up. At that 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 true, for he expired that same evening in the parsonage of Eccles. It was cited at the time as a remarkable fact, that the Northumbrian engine, driven by George Stephenson himself, conveyed the wounded body of the unfortunate gentleman a distance of about 15 miles in 25 minutes, or at the rate of 36 miles an hour.