Daily Archives: March 23, 2011

‘The Last Journey of William Huskisson’ by Simon Garfield

2002, 229 p


My real work has taken me away from the Resident Judge of Port Phillip, John Walpole Willis, to the Puisne Judge of the Kings Bench of Upper Canada, the same John Walpole Willis.  So here I am, wading through the Colonial Office correspondence from Upper Canada that looks and sounds so similar to the Colonial Office correspondence from New South Wales.  Because it’s dated some fifteen years earlier, it is addressed to Secretary of State for War and the Colonies Huskisson instead of Secretary of State for War and the Colonies Russell, then Secretary of  State for War and the Colonies Stanley.  Huskisson, Huskisson- where do I know that name? Corn Laws? And then I remembered this book, written by Simon Garfield, that lies directly in my eyeline in the bookshelf beside the television in Mr Judge’s loungeroom. William Huskisson, as well as being  the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, was also the first victim of a railway accident in 1830.

From the title and the preface, you know that this is not going to end well:

There were a great many witnesses to the terrible accident which befell William Huskisson, but none could agree precisely what occurred.  Some said his left leg fell on the track in one way, some quite another, and some said it was his thigh.  A few observed a ‘fiery fountain’ of blook, but others saw only a trickle.  Some claimed there was shrieking, but the rest believed he was rendered mute by the shock. Yet there was one thing on which everyone agreed. They all said that the accident was the worst thing they had ever seen, and the one thing they would never forget.

The following pages recount how a day of triumph became a day of despair at the turn of a wheel.

This is only a short book, and Garfield certainly takes his time getting the accident that we all know is going to occur- 140 pages no less. On the way, he takes us on quite a journey into British parliamentary politics, the economics of railways compared with canal transport, the rivalry between competing inventors and the  entrepreneurial drive of railway promoters.  Not that it’s a boring trip- in fact, it is quite fascinating- but it does take rather a long time to get there.

The book is generously illustrated with black and white photographs and images, and it has a lively conversational tone.  The irony that this popular, if somewhat politically clumsy politician should be run over by the first train running on the railway that he had done so much to champion,  is rich and runs throughout the narrative.  Garfield has captured well the energy of industrializing Britain, the edginess of pre-Reform Bill politics and the bustling self-importance of Victorian Man.  It’s an interesting, easy ride.