I was on my daily perambulations when I came upon this statue, in a tiny park near Vauxhall Bridge.
On the socle is his name: William Huskisson. His dates are given – 1770 to 1830. For information we merely have the word “Statesman”.
I become curious. For hundreds of years it would have been impossible to easily gather more information on this man. A library perhaps… Thirty years ago, if you’d spent £200 you might be able to ask Microsoft Encarta – the limited and subjective attempt at a digital encyclopedia before the internet grew up. Nowadays information has a superhighway that we don’t even question. Wikipedia might be written by the users. Perhaps it can be partisan at times and even more subjective than Encarta. But its incredible. And its free. And you should donate so it doesn’t get polluted like so much of the internet these days. I went there to find out more. Standing in front of this proud replica, I found myself laughing at the poor man, not for the way he lived, but for the way he died.
If he WAS a true statesman, as the statue tells us, then he was an exceptionally rare creature. We have none in parliament at the moment. We have rarely seen one in living memory. I’m not sure he was one. I have a feeling that the park we were in was his old townhouse garden. He gives the people some land, we erect a statue to pretend he was important. Deal done.
Unfortunately his lasting claim is not the way he lived. It’s the way he died. He was the first widely reported railway passenger casualty. And he was killed by that great innovation, Stephenson’s Rocket itself. Run over by a train with a top speed of 30mph, probably as it was going at less than 10.
In September 1830, William made an appointment to see the royal doctor, William George Maton.
“What seems to be the problem?”
“It is my waters. They are more and more urgent, more and more frequent. Even after I have passed, I am almost immediately seized by the need to pass once more. The act itself is accompanied by great pain, and despite a sense of need I am often disappointed by just a few small strangled droplets, produced with great discomfort.”
“Let me just inspect you a while…”
“Are you sure this is quite necessary, doctor?”
“It’s the only way I can be quite certain, Sir. Yes. Mmmm. Yes. You appear to be suffering from Strangury, sir. It’s an inflammation of the kidneys. You are to rest yourself immediately. I advise you strongly to cancel any public engagements, and remain at home. Drink plenty of water, lay off the sherry and dance clockwise around a horse every sunset wearing a top hat and matching codpiece.”
“Preposterous. I cannot cancel my appointments. And I shall not lay off the sherry What rot. Why, It is the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester railway on the fifteenth. The Duke of Wellington himself will be there. Even if we never saw eye to eye with his absurd ideal that a minimum wage should be laid into law, now he’s left parliament and the danger of such foolishness has passed, I would like to mend bridges with him. After all, he still has much power in the Lords.”
“Very well, sir. But don’t blame me if you end up dead.”
That’s the scene set. Off goes William Pisskidneys, secretary of state for war and colonies, to see the remarkable Rocket up close.
One thing I haven’t mentioned of William is that he was known to be rather clumsy. An exceptional man with figures, no doubt. He served the enshrined duty of elected officials in this country to be certain that the greatest possible sums of money are taken from the hands of the many and put into the hands of the few. Had he lived now he would have been a hero of the current cabinet, breaking the ministerial code with the fearless impunity that is traditional. But he would have tripped over paving stones on television interviews, and fallen down on the steps of airplanes. Even his statue has lost most of the fingers, not to mention that he’s forgotten his clothes and been forced to wrap himself in a sheet.
So we have a clumsy but clever man who is unwell. And we have a locomotive that can reach the impossible speed of 30mph. And we have The Duke of Wellington, and a hatchet that needs to be buried. And we have a grand opening that doubtless involves large amounts of free sherry. And we have low kidney function.
William got on a special train that was laid on for the Duke and the dignitaries. He wanted very much to talk to the Duke and bury the hatchet, but of course he was not alone in that. He had a reasonably long journey waiting for his moment, sitting in an unfamiliar moving locomotive, drinking free sherry with bad kidneys. By the time he saw his chance it is likely that this clumsy fellow was three sheets to the wind. “Do not alight here,” the announcer called as the Duke got out at the then tiny Parkside Station to stretch his legs. Just a bit of track really. Fifty people alighted after the Duke. Among them was William, hoping to seize his moment. His moment hadn’t come before the announcement came: “An engine is approaching. Take care gentlemen.”
Stephenson’s Rocket was the approaching engine – the famous groundbreaking train in its heyday was slowing down, approaching on the other track.
“Another train is coming. I must get out of the way. Where is the Duke? Perhaps I can shelter with him as it comes in and we can bond in a shared moment of wonder. It is coming closer. I must evade it. But which side of these tracks should I choose? How should I best position myself to catch a moment with his excellency?”
As the train approached in slow motion, William began to panic. A train on a track, so understood by us all, was virtually completely new to William. He crossed the line to one side, realised perhaps that he would then have the train between himself and the Duke, crossed to the other side, realised he might then get left behind, and attempted to clamber back into the train he had originally left, entering from the tracks and not the platform. The half door he was clambering over was not latched closed and it opened slowly under his weight, swinging him back into the path of the approaching Rocket.
It’s all happening in slow motion. There he is, tired sick and tipsy in his finery, turning to face the Rocket helplessly as he clings to the top of an open half door dangling over the tracks. There’s a scream as the great train applies the brakes too late. There’s his scream as he realises it’s unavoidable. In the carriage, the Duke stops mid sentence and drops his gin as he looks through the window. “By God, is that Huskisson? What are you doing, you bloody fool!”
Rocketing along at some 10mph the famous locomotive grinds the door off the Duke’s train and hurls our William into the track before rolling over and absolutely destroying one of his poor legs. He is rushed to the vicarage in Eccles by carriage with an attempted tourniquet but nobody really knows how to treat such a severe injury so they have tea and he makes a will. He is dead from shock and blood loss by 9pm. RIP William.
Now his statue, inexplicably wearing a toga, stands in a tatty garden in Vauxhall. One hand holds a scroll, the other has no fingers. He never got to patch it up with Wellington. Carpe Diem. Poor William. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.