Jonathan Schofield on the momentous opening of Liverpool Manchester Railway 188 years ago
When the Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, opened the Liverpool & Manchester Railway (LMR) in September 1830, he ushered in a transport revolution. This wasn’t a revolution that sneaked in under the radar. One that only later would be recognised as something truly monumental. Everybody knew LMR was an epochal event in transport. In fact they couldn’t stop talking about it.
Even before the official opening, as commentators and writers watched the tests and trials of the new system, speculators began to push forward ideas for railways everywhere; Manchester to Birmingham, Manchester to Leeds and so on. Explicit mention is made in a Manchester Guardian article of the advantage to a line from Liverpool to Hull, coast to coast, through Manchester and Leeds. In 2018 we call that HS3.
People were excited. They saw advancement, prosperity and national pride encapsulated by the application of locomotive power
The prospectus for the Manchester to Sheffield line stated: ‘To all who have reflected upon the rapid advance that has been made in the productive powers of the nation, it must be obvious that it has to a great degree been owing to the improved means of internal communication. By the exertion of that mechanical talent which was latent in the country, and which was soon to be developed in those beautiful applications of science to the purposes of commerce these kingdoms (have been invested) with a power that has enabled them to contend single-handed with almost the whole civilised world.’
People were excited. They saw advancement, prosperity and national pride encapsulated by the application of locomotive power. In other words, they were saying it’s all about the infrastructure, stupid.
Despite the earlier railway line at Stockton and Darlington in the North East of England, it was the LMR which became the yardstick for future rail travel. Crucially it almost immediately made money and, just as importantly, the opening attracted international press coverage. With an emphasis on passenger travel, it also made travel more democratic – for the first time, poorer people could journey regularly for a reasonable price. For Manchester Confidential and our love of good food and drink, one of the principal investors and board members was Gilbert Winter, a prominent Manchester wine merchant.
The opening day itself had started in Liverpool in a spirit of celebration; it was different in Manchester, a much less establishment town. As the Duke of Wellington approached through Ordsall, there was an angry crowd protesting about the price of food and about the lack of Parliamentary representation in Manchester. It was eleven years after the Peterloo Massacre, but still nothing had been done in terms of many towns and cities such as Manchester gaining an MP. That was still two years away.
We travelled at 35 miles an hour (swifter than a bird flies). When I closed my eyes, this sensation of flying was quite delightful
The Duke’s mood wasn’t made better by the fact that the Railway Age had begun with blood. The esteemed MP for Liverpool, William Huskisson - an old gent who was a friend of the Duke’s - left one of the carriages while the engines were taking on water at Parkside, near Wigan. As another train came along he misjudged the speed of the train and was run down. He was rushed, by locomotive, to Eccles with his leg hanging off. Doctors were called but it was no use and, although he lingered on long enough to say a touching farewell to his wife, he died.
Other people were having other experiences on the railways. A young actress, Fanny Kemble, wrote: ‘We travelled at 35 miles an hour (swifter than a bird flies). When I closed my eyes, this sensation of flying was quite delightful. I was at the height of my ecstasy.’
As a result of 15 September, Manchester became the first railway city, the centre of a network before any other place on the planet. The railways had huge social effect. It made the separation of the classes more pronounced, for instance, as the purely commuter towns of south Manchester such as Wilmslow, Alderley Edge, Sale and Cheadle Hulme spread over farm fields. This led to a debate about those who owed their wealth to the city abandoning it. ‘If God made the country and Man made the town.. the Devil made the suburbs,’ thundered local progressive Charles Rowley in 1899.
Manchester man George Bradshaw (1801-1853) understood the effect of the railways more than most. As the impact of the railway system became more obvious and its organisation more complicated, Bradshaw came up with a national railway map and then the famous Bradshaw’s Railway Companion in 1839. This was the first national railway timetable, a revelation at the time: ‘seldom has the gigantic intellect of man been employed upon a work of greater utility,’ wrote one commentator.
Unsurprisingly, this and subsequent guides were deeply unpopular with the railway companies who found themselves tied to running services on time. Bradshaw has a part to play in the metronomic nature of modern life, the schedules and due dates.
George Stephenson was the principal engineer of the LMR and it’s his magnificent Grade 1 listed viaduct that has been revealed by the works associated with the Ordsall Chord – the multi-million pound scheme to speed up connections between Piccadilly and Victoria Stations. When the new public realm around the viaduct is fully open, surely Manchester should hold a great railway convention, an LMR weekend, around 15 September.
There should be lots of tourist stuff and steam train action, model trains too, but also a series of lectures about the future of railways, particularly British railways. Until this happens, we will have to be satisfied with a visit to the atmospheric, enchanted spaces of the original railway complex which still survives at the Museum of Science and Industry. There you will find the earliest station and warehouse of the Railway Age.
One final point, LMR originally looked for a partner operator for the trains while they ran the track and stations. In the end they decided against this and did it themselves. In other words, they thought the option presently used in the UK, with the relationship between Network Rail and train operators, unworkable. Many feel exactly the same today.