Category Archives: Liverpool and Manchester Railway

Inspired by a Letter, or a Tale for Dickens

In an earlier post I mentioned an old letter I had found, which could form the basis of a sequel to Persuasion. Early nineteenth century letters are readily available, most seem to have come from lawyer’s offices (my brother would agree that they are the sort of people to have kept them) and tend only to be of interest to those who collect early postmarks. I, on the other hand, like those letters that suggest a story. This is one such;

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Liverpool Novr 18th 1830

My dear Sir,

I have this Evening received a letter from my Sister, Mrs Fenton, stating her husband’s utter inability to pay the amount of his debt at present but if time be allowed he hopes to have it in his power to meet the demand. She states that if proceedings continue, the person of Mr F. must be seized upon, and ruin to them must ensue.

I do not know whether I have the power to interfere, but I am much pained that such should be the state of their affairs. If it remain with me to extend the time of payment I request that Mr Fenton be accommodated or if not I shall be ready to agree to any arrangement that may meet with the approbation of the other legatees.

I remain Dear Sir

Your Obdt Servant

Thomas Ashby

This is just the sort of letter to have been written by a kindly saviour, either towards the end of a Dickens novel when everything is being sorted out, or at the beginning where Mr Ashby’s nephew is helped in a career by his kindly uncle and begins his adventures. All one can hope is that Mr Ashby’s kindness was successful and Mr Fenton escaped the Debtors Prison.

But there is something else that caught my eye, the date. Only two months earlier the only thing the people of Liverpool would have been talking about was the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester railway. Did Mr Ashby or Mrs Fenton go and see the excitement, I would love to think they did. Mr Ashby seems to have been a tolerably well off man, did he use the railway? Within six months the first commuters came into being, with a journey time between the two towns down to less than an hour, people could live in one town and work in the other.

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The Northumbrian locomotive on a test run just before the official opening of the Liverpool and Manchester railway. Perhaps Mr Ashby and the Fentons are amongst the onlookers. I like the fact that Robert Stephenson might have taken his jacket off, but not his top hat.


Filed under Historical Reconstructions, Liverpool and Manchester Railway

The Quest for Speed (in Regency Britain)

The driver pressed the regulator down, and held it. The locomotive hurled down the track, it swayed from side to side as it went faster that it was ever intended to. The driver was worried, everything had been going so well.

The line had been opened with flags and bands, the Prime Minister had been greeted by the directors and the local Member of Parliament, after the usual delays the engines had set off in procession, the crowds had cheered and all was well. Apart from the engineers who had built them no one had seen machines like the locomotives before and everyone was filled with wonder.

And then disaster, they had stopped to take on water, and whilst they waited the most famous of all the engines had run up and down for all to see. The passengers had been told to wait in the carriages, but hadn’t listened. Then the local MP stepped across to see the Prime Minister, straight in front of the locomotive. His leg had been crushed and now the fastest of the new engines was pulling a single coach, carrying the injured man, towards the nearest town and a doctor.

The driver thought back, how they had laughed when he had told them that his engine could travel at ten miles an hour. How, later when his engines were doing ten miles an hour, the directors had begged him not to suggest that he would be travelling at twenty, as they would loose government support. Then at the trials of the locomotives he had taken her up to twenty five, and now, what was she doing.

He looked down at his son who was stoking.

“What speed lad?” he asked.

Robert pulled a watch from his pocket and looked at the markers by the track, he knew them all. Then, as he carefully shovelled more fuel into the fire box, he did the calculations in his head, he was always better at arithmetic than his father. He looked up at the older man in wonder.

“Forty-two miles an hour, we are travelling faster than anybody has ever travelled before!”

His father only grunted as he reduced speed for the bend. ‘But will we ever travel faster?’ he thought. With the main supporter of the line dying behind him, what chance was there that the railway would continue? Who would want to travel on it again?

The dying man was carried gently to the nearest house where he was soon to die, and slowly now the driver returned to the carriages and the procession made its sombre way along the line. Perhaps, many thought, for the last time.

And then –

In the MPs pocket was found the speech that he was planning to give at the banquet after the line had been opened. It praised the line and looked forward to the prosperity it was to bring to the towns it linked. It was published in all the newspapers as his dying words, his dying wish. The line prospered, and the rest – as they say – is history.

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This story is true, the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway was marred by the accidental death of the local MP. William Huskisson. In taking him to a doctor George and Robert Stephenson took the Northumbrian, to speeds above forty miles an hour and so set the first land speed record.


Filed under Historical tales, Liverpool and Manchester Railway, Regency