Thursday 12 September 2019

William Huskisson and the Vicaress of Eccles

By Sally-Anne Shearn. With thanks to the National Railway Museum; Hoole History Society; Chetham's Library, Manchester; and the staff of Chester Cathedral.

The death of Liverpool MP William Huskisson at the opening of the Liverpool to Manchester Railway in September 1830 has become a notorious event in early railway history.  Less well known however is the part played in the events of that day by Emma Anne Blackburne, the Vicaress of Eccles, who features heavily in the correspondence of Annabel Crewe, part of the Milnes Coates Archive at the Borthwick Institute.

Some of Annabel Crewe's Correspondence in the Milnes Coates Archive

On the morning of 15 September 1830 eight trains hauled by ‘Stephenson locomotives’ and carrying a total of thirty two carriages waited at Liverpool, led by railway pioneer George Stephenson himself driving the train in which rode the Prime Minister the Duke of Wellington.  

The scene was set for a grand spectacle but just seventeen miles into the journey, during a stop at Parkside, William Huskisson crossed the track to speak with the Duke and was struck by the approaching locomotive engine 'Rocket' driven by Joseph Locke, crushing his leg.  The stricken Huskisson was carried to a train carriage and, accompanied by his wife, was taken to Eccles Vicarage, near Manchester, where he was attended by doctors.  His wounds were so severe that they could only make him comfortable and he died just after 9pm that evening.

The Opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway
Science Museum Group Collection
copyright: The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

Huskisson’s death made front page news, earning him the dubious honour of becoming the world's first widely reported railway passenger casualty.  His conveyance ‘to the house of the Rev. Mr Blackburne’ at Eccles was also widely reported.  But it was not the Reverend himself who received the Huskissons and their friends that day, but his wife Emma who was alone in the house with her children, and it was Emma who distinguished herself to such an extent that her conduct on that day would be remembered at her own death more than fifty years later.

A replica of a first class train carriage on the Liverpool & Manchester Railway.
National Railway Museum (author's own photo)

Emma Anne Hesketh was born in 1795, the daughter of Henry Hesketh of Newton Hall, a wealthy wine merchant.  An 1884 book of ‘Railway Adventures and Anecdotes’ would call her ‘rather strong-minded than otherwise’ and this is certainly borne out by what we know of her life.  At a time when there was little financial protection for women, the young Emma was responsible for establishing the Flookersbrook, Newton & Hoole Female Friendly Society which provided insurance for its members in the event of illness and disability.  In the case of female friendly societies, this included pregnancy and other specifically female ailments.  A report in the Chester Courant of 3 June 1816 recorded the anniversary procession of the Society, led by ‘Miss E. Hesketh’ (who also made a ‘neat and appropriate’ speech), and noted the society’s emblem of a beehive and a pair of joined hands, designed by Emma, with the mottoes ‘Piety and Virtue’ and  ‘Friendship and Industry.’

Following her marriage to the Reverend Thomas Blackburne in 1819 Emma would play an equally prominent role in her new parish of Eccles, where as the vicar’s wife she ‘showed remarkable powers of organisation and work’ among a population of some 25,000 people.  A visitor to the area, Catherine Stanley, who met Emma in 1832 wrote admiringly of her hard work: ‘there is one person who interests me very much, Mrs Tom Blackburne, the Vicaress of Eccles… She made one ashamed of the ease and idleness of one’s own life, compared with hers.’ She quickly recognised that Emma was ‘the ruling spirit’ there, and that ‘under her guidance, and the help of a sound head and heart, her husband has become the very man for the place.

Eccles Parish Church in 1800, just 18 years before Thomas Blackburne became its vicar.
Image reproduced with permission of Chetham’s Library, Manchester.

The important role Emma played in the management of the parish was recognised equally by her husband’s parishioners.  When, in 1837, they presented Reverend Blackburne with a ‘costly testimonial’ on the occasion of his moving to Prestwich, Emma was specifically included in their tribute, their representative praising her for having ‘the heart to feel and the energy to act’, and adding that without her efforts ‘so much could not have been accomplished for the schools - so much could not have been done for the afflicted poor’. 

With this in mind it is perhaps not surprising that the role played by Emma on the 15 September 1830 was so characteristically active.  For the occasion of the grand opening of the railway Emma and her husband had been invited to a celebration at Hale Hall, near Liverpool, then the home of Reverend Blackburne’s brother, the MP John Blackburne.  In the words of the Cornhill Magazine, reporting on the events at Eccles in an 1884 article, there then occurred ‘one of those strange circumstances utterly condemned by critics of fiction as ‘unreal’, ‘unnatural’ or ‘impossible.’  After arriving at Hale, Emma, who was then six months pregnant, became ‘possessed by an unmistakable presentiment’ that her presence was required at home and insisted on returning to Eccles at once, to the surprise and consternation of her friends and family.  

At such a time this journey was easier said than done, but Emma persisted and took a carriage to Warrington where she travelled the rest of the way to Eccles by canal boat, arriving at the vicarage on the 14th to find, to her surprise, that all was well.  Whether Emma truly had a ‘presentiment’, or the Cornhill Magazine was employing some artistic license, Emma was certainly there, with only her children and servants, on the morning of the 15th when a Mr Barton of Swinton arrived at the vicarage with the alarming news that a mob was expected to come from Oldham that day to attack the train as it passed through three miles of unguarded railway line near Eccles.  Their object was the carriage of the Duke of Wellington, a popular Peninsular war hero but by then an unpopular Tory Prime Minister.  Expecting to find Mr Blackburne, Barton found Emma instead who took charge in place of her husband, rousing fifty special constables and the churchwardens to form a ‘guard for the Duke’ on Eccles bridge.  According to the Cornhill Magazine Emma then set up a small tent for herself and her children on a nearby hill with a good view of the railway line and settled down to enjoy the grand opening, along with gathering crowds of villagers.

Parkside, where the fatal accident took place.
Science Museum Group Collection
copyright: The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

It was while waiting there that she was said to have heard the first commotion and confused shouts of an accident at the vicarage.  Hurrying back she found a growing crowd around the vicarage and a ‘sad procession’ bearing Huskisson upon a door.  Her husband was then at Manchester and still had no knowledge of events, but he wrote to his mother in law the following day to take up the tale, ‘[Emma] made her way through the immense crowd.’ At her direction ‘they placed him on the sopha in the drawing room and dared not move him till he died’, adding with some pride that ‘as to dearest Emma, they all value her as they ought.’  

Indeed, Emma was universally praised for her conduct throughout.  The Cornhill Magazine asserting that ‘the accident of a day had brought into prominence the devoted work of years’.  In a biographical memoir of Huskisson published the year after his death, the author claimed that ‘kindness would, indeed, have been shewn by any under such circumstances; but few could have been so capable as Mrs Blackburne to arrange with ready and affectionate attention, and to perform so quickly and with such perfect judgement, every thing which it could be hoped might in any way minister to his assistance.’  

Emma’s tasks were manifold.  As well as the need for her own nursing skills, she had to manage a sudden influx of guests into her small home: Lords Wilton, Granville and Colvile, Huskisson’s secretary Mr Wainwright, Mr Ransome, Mr Whatton, the doctors from Manchester, and the following day Lords Gore, Warncliffe, Walhouse and Littleton, and an additional two deputations from Liverpool.  Her husband, who had finally received word of the disaster while eating his luncheon in Manchester, returned at once to support his wife and to give Huskisson the Sacrament, writing in something of an understatement that he found the house in a ‘tolerable bustle’.  

But perhaps Emma’s most important role was as a support to the traumatised and grieving Emily Huskisson who had witnessed her husband’s accident and accompanied him in the carriage to Eccles.  The Cornhill Magazine writes that Emily was separated from her husband by the immense crowds there and, having been mistakenly told he had been taken to a nearby farmhouse, made her way there first before being redirected to the vicarage, where she arrived nearly an hour later to find her husband ‘suffering agonies’.  Emma told Catherine Stanley that Emily was ‘alternately in paroxysms of grief and a still more dreadful calmness’.  She remained with Huskisson in the drawing room, Thomas Blackburne writing ‘never shall I forget that scene, his poor wife holding his head, and the great men weeping.’  

William Huskisson's Memorial Tablet.
Science Museum Group Collection
copyright: The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum
After Huskisson’s death that evening Emily remained at the vicarage a further three days. ‘Poor woman’, wrote Thomas Blackburne, ‘how she lamented his loss; yet her struggles to bear with fortitude are wonderful.’  Emma’s own account, as given to Catherine Stanley, is less stoic.  Emma told her that the most painful thing she had to do was to wake Emily from a deep sleep the morning after his death, ‘She went three times into the room before she had resolution to wake her outright’ and when she finally did so Emily became so hysterical that Emma had to be assisted by Lord Granville to calm her, ‘in which task only he and Mrs Blackburne were in any degree successful’.  On the day she was to leave the house to accompany her husband’s body back to Liverpool, Emily again gave way to violent grief, locking herself in her room to pray ‘during which Mrs Blackburne tried in vain to get to her assistance’.  

Despite the terrible circumstances of their meeting, Emily would remember Emma and her kindness with great affection.  She had spoken to Emma at the time of her worry that the pregnant Lady Elizabeth Belgrave (who had been present during the accident) would suffer from the effects of the shock.  Emma was quick to reassure her, and revealed nothing of her own advanced pregnancy, but later wrote to her when her baby, whom she named Emily Anne, was born ‘and Mrs Huskisson answered her that it was the first ray of sunshine that had come to her, for she had afterwards found it out and it had weighed heavily upon her.’   Some months after the accident Emily sent the Blackburnes a bible with gold clasps, bearing the inscription ‘I was a stranger, and ye took me in’ and from then until the Blackburnes’ removal to Prestwich in 1837 she also sent £20 at Christmas to be distributed amongst the poor of Eccles.  In her will in 1856 she left Emma £100.

Reverend Thomas Blackburne died unexpectedly in 1847, leaving Emma a widow with eight children.  She settled at Boughton and that we know anything detailed about her life subsequently is due to her appearance in the set of letters at the Borthwick Institute belonging to Emma’s distant cousin Annabel Crewe, the daughter of the 2nd Baron Crewe of Crewe Hall in Cheshire.  It is once again at a time of crisis that Emma comes to the fore, in this case the illness and death in February 1850 of Annabel’s beloved aunt, Elizabeth Emma Cunliffe Offley, with whom Annabel had lived since the age of 15.  It was ‘dear kind Mrs Blackburne’ who supported Annabel through the first difficult days, making the necessary arrangements and becoming her ‘staff and stay’ in the months that followed.  Emma would often refer to Annabel by the nickname ‘IX’, an honorary ninth daughter.

A letter from Emma Blackburne to 'My very dear IX' [Annabel]
discussing Warmingham church affairs and the progress of Crewe Hall.
Milnes Coates Archive, Borthwick Institute

A total of seventeen letters by Emma herself survive amongst Annabel’s correspondence, filled with family news and gossipy anecdotes that give a vivid insight into her personality.  The ‘Dear and Faithful’ as she came to be dubbed by Annabel and her sister Henrietta remained an important figure in the lives of the Crewe siblings, who were in age between 13 and 19 years her junior.  She attended Annabel’s wedding to Richard Monckton Milnes, later Lord Houghton, in 1851 and acted as an unofficial housekeeper and hostess for Annabel’s brother, the shy and eccentric Hungerford, 3rd Baron Crewe, when he entertained at Crewe Hall.  In Emma’s longest surviving letter to Annabel she writes of a grand three day entertainment given by Hungerford at Crewe in 1859 for all his tenantry - but evidently organised by Emma.  She even dug out an old local song for the occasion, ‘The band sang well after each Toast, I had taught them the old Crewe song - which was encored each day, Your brother was quite delighted with it...I never saw a man so happy as he was, it was quite wonderful how he remembered to say the right thing to the right person.’  It was also Emma who made arrangements for the grand re-opening of Crewe Hall after the devastating fire of 1866, following the rebuilding work with interest and updating Annabel and Henrietta on the latest developments.  

Emma Anne Blackburne's stained glass window at Chester Cathedral (author's own image)

Emma would outlive both Annabel and Henrietta, dying in 1886 in her 91st year, one of the oldest inhabitants of Spring Hill in Boughton.  She was survived by two daughters and five sons and her funeral in Chester was attended by Hungerford and by Annabel’s husband Lord Houghton. At her death her link to Huskisson was once again recalled, with many newspapers describing her as ‘the lady who nursed Mr Huskisson’ and noting that with the death of the ‘good and kindly’ Mrs Blackburne, had been severed ‘probably the last surviving link in the chain of connexion with the dark cloud which marred an otherwise auspicious event’ so many years before.

She is commemorated by a stained glass window in Chester Cathedral with a dedication that reads,

In loving remembrance of Emma Anne Blackburne, here married A.D. M DCCCXIX., and of Katherine Margaret, her daughter, here baptised A.D. M D CCCXXIV., this window is dedicated in the name of God, M DCCCCII.

Emma Blackburne's grave at Overleigh Cemetery, Chester (author's own image)


Christian Wolmar, ‘Fire and Steam: How the Railways Transformed Britain’, London 2007.

Richard Pike, ‘Railway Adventures and Anecdotes: Extending Over More Than Fifty Years’, 1884.

Flookersbrook, Newton & Hoole Female Friendly Society’

‘Death of Mrs Blackburne of Boughton’, Chester Observer, 17 April 1886.

‘Memoirs of Edward and Catherine Stanley’, edited by Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, 1880.

‘Eccles: Splendid Testimonial to the Rev. Thomas Blackburne A.M.’, Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 4 March 1837.

‘At Eccles’, The Cornhill Magazine, 1884.

‘The speeches of the Right Honorable William Huskisson, with a biographical memoir, supplied to the editor from authentic sources’, London 1831.

‘Funeral of Mrs Blackburne’, Liverpool Mercury, 19 April 1886.

‘Death of the Lady who Nursed Mr Huskisson’, The Manchester Evening News, 14 April 1886.

‘Notes and Comments’, Newcastle Evening Chronicle 15 April 1886.

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