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William Huskisson

by Lorna Still

Written by Lorna Still, volunteer at the Novium Museum

In the Cathedral stands a statue of William Huskisson (1770-1830), rather incongruously wearing a Roman toga to indicate that he was a significant politician. The statue is there because Huskisson was MP for Chichester from 1812 until 1823, but there was a lot more to him than that.

He was born in Worcestershire, the son of a country gentleman. After his mother's death, his father remarried and 13-year-old William was sent to Paris to live with his great-uncle Dr Gem, who was physician to the British embassy there. He witnessed the start of the French Revolution which promoted his interest in politics. He made useful contacts in Paris and also on his return to England in 1790, including the Home Secretary, Henry Dundas and the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger.

Huskisson became financially secure when he inherited estates in Worcestershire and Sussex, so he could afford to marry, which he did in 1799. In 1800 he bought Eartham House in West Sussex from his friend, the poet William Hayley. He was also able to pursue a career in politics.

He was an MP for all except three years between 1796 and 1830. When he first stood as the Tory candidate for Chichester, he hoped to be supported by the Duke of Richmond, with whom he was on good terms, but the Duke was already pledged to support his son, Lord March. Huskisson stood successfully instead as the independent candidate, with the backing of the Earl of Egremont at Petworth House. His nomination took place at The Fleece Inn, then at 58 East Street. He left Chichester to become MP for Liverpool in 1823.

Huskisson was an expert on financial issues and rarely made speeches on any other subject. His 1810 pamphlet 'Depreciation of the Currency' established him as one of Britain's leading economists. He held many important political positions, including Secretary to the Treasury, President of the Board of Trade and Leader of the House of Commons. He supported the building of railways and was generally in favour of free trade, although he felt the Corn Laws, which regulated the importation of corn, were needed to protect Britain's farmers. In fact, an amendment made by the Duke of Wellington to a proposed revision of the Corn Laws led to a disagreement between the two men, as did the redistribution of two parliamentary seats which Huskisson thought should go to large manufacturing towns. His resignation as Leader of the House of Commons was accepted (a little too enthusiastically, in his opinion) in 1828.

Huskisson had his critics. With great fairness Charles Greville wrote in his 'Diaries', 'As a speaker in the House of Commons he was luminous upon his own subject, but he had no pretensions to eloquence; his voice was feeble, and his manner ungraceful...but when he became president of the board of trade he devoted himself with indefatigable application to...those commercial improvements with which his name is associated, and to which he owes all his glory and most of his unpopularity.'

For all his talents, Huskisson is mainly remembered for the manner of his death, as he was the first person to die in a railway accident. On 15th September 1830 he attended the opening of the Liverpool to Manchester railway, travelling in the Northumbrian, driven by George Stephenson. He should not have been there at all, as he was recovering from surgery. When the train stopped at Parkside station to take on water, Huskisson got out of his carriage to speak to the Duke of Wellington, who was in another carriage, and repair their relationship. They shook hands, but then heard warning shouts as the Rocket, driven by Joseph Locke, was approaching in the opposite direction. Other people quickly got back on the train, but accident-prone Huskisson, who already had a bad arm and a limp because of previous mishaps, was not so nimble and, in spite of Locke's efforts to stop the Rocket, Huskisson's leg was badly mangled. Stephenson used the Northumbrian to take him for treatment about fifteen miles away, but he died with dignity later that day at the vicarage in Eccles, Manchester. People later marvelled that the Northumbrian had travelled on that macabre journey at a rate of 36 miles an hour.

The statue in the Cathedral was commissioned by the 3rd Earl of Egremont and public subscription and was installed in 1832. The sculptor was John Edward Carew. There are other statues of Huskisson in London and Liverpool, this time by John Gibson, but also wearing a toga.