Skip to content

By Shirin Hirsch on

1830: a rebellious year

We asked historian Shirin Hirsch from our neighbours, People’s History Museum, to explain the politics of the time around 1830 and why the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway turned out to be such a rebellious and highly charged day.

On 15 September 1830 the Liverpool and Manchester Railway was opened. The engineering of this railway was a great achievement, but the opening day was far from being without incident—there was a death and a near riot!

The Liverpool and Manchester Railway was reported on across the world as the dawn of a new era, a powerful advancement for industrial Britain. The new train line would transport raw materials, goods and passengers between the port of Liverpool and the mills in Manchester and its surrounding towns. All eyes were on its launch and yet despite this attention, the first public trip between Liverpool and Manchester was by no means a smooth journey.

Print of engraving, captioned The opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. 15 September 1830

At the People’s History Museum archive, we hold historic newspapers where you can read about this momentous day. On the morning of the opening, hundreds of gentlemen including the Prime Minister at the time the Duke of Wellington, the directors of the railway and many noblemen left ‘in style, state and splendour’ on the new railroad.

Tens of thousands of ordinary people were reported to have come out to cheer on this opening in Liverpool where the train set off, and continued until a stop at Newton when the engine was supplied with water.

Here, the MP for Liverpool and former secretary of state William Huskisson left his carriage and was late on returning back to the train. Climbing the ladder up to the carriage, his hand threw open the door, which swung back just at the moment when another engine, George Stephenson’s Rocket, advanced on the adjacent line. Huskisson fell to the ground and the passing engine drove over him. The ‘lamentable mutilation’ had been done and some hours later Huskisson died from his injuries. All reports of the railway opening were overshadowed by this dramatic death.

This was not the only drama that marked the journey. After witnessing the horrific accident, the Duke of Wellington complained that he did not want to continue on the train journey to Manchester. He was convinced, however, by local figures from Manchester and Salford that they must all continue on the train ride and if they did not proceed ‘the peace of their towns would be broken’.

The rebellious crowds demanded the train entry into Manchester. So the journey continued with all its passengers (except Huskisson who was slowly dying in Eccles). On their way into Manchester it was reported that there was ‘frequent hooting from the workmen who are opposed to this great national improvement’ while stones were hurled on the carriages passing along.

Sir Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, by Thomas Lawrence. He was Prime Minister at the time and rode on the opening journey.

When the dignitaries finally arrived in Manchester, there were masses of people eagerly waiting at the station. It was suggested that the presence of the hated Wellington, with his strong opposition to parliamentary reform, meant that ‘considerable anxiety for the public peace was felt by many persons.’

One journalist observed that the crowds were not guided ‘by the most peaceful and orderly spirit’ and the army was brought out while the cavalry was placed at various points to protect the railway. The same journalist stated that without this display of military force ‘there would certainly have been a breach of the peace, the populace having taken determined possession of many parts of the railway and in some evinced a bold and daring anxiety to tear it up’.

It was further reported that some thousands of the ‘labouring classes’ displayed the tricoloured cockade in their coats or hats’. This was the symbol of the French Revolution and in the year of the second revolution in France, the rebellious nature of the Manchester crowds provoked a deep seated fear within the rulers emerging from their first train journey.

One witness stated that they ‘never saw the population of this district in such an excited state’ and later that evening there were disturbances in Newtown in Manchester, a place ‘chiefly inhabited by the lower classes of Irish’; an area described coldly as ‘ever and anon the scene of riot, arising from the hot blood and religious animosities of the Irish’.

This was a time when ordinary people were in revolt. Manchester was dominated by the cotton industry and the population was rapidly expanding. Transported down the Bridgewater Canal, cotton had poured into Manchester from the colonies, and in the new factories and mills of Manchester, workers were drawn in to produce the cloth made from the cotton.

Industrialisation was pushing increasing technological advancement within Manchester, the ‘workshop of the world’, showcased through the launch of the new railway line. Yet despite this industrial strength, Manchester held no parliamentary representation. Moreover, those who worked in the mills and factories often faced dangerous and oppressive conditions and their lives were blighted by poverty. Such workers in the Manchester region were known as some of the most radical in the country and it was in this area that the gulf between the great manufacturers and the workers was deepest.

Manchester Heroes cartoon depicting the Peterloo Massacre.

In 1830, the new Manchester railway station (now part of the Science and Industry Museum) was placed, perhaps provocatively, only moments away from the site of the Peterloo Massacre.  On 16 August 1819 around 60,000 ordinary people had protested at St Peter’s Field in Manchester with demands for the vote; they had been cut down, with an estimated 18 killed and over 670 injured, and their leadership imprisoned.

The movement for democracy was repressed and yet in 1830 there were clear signs that the same radical movement was re-emerging with strength and the recent Catholic Emancipation Act had inspired ordinary people to feel that the parliamentary system could be changed.

To add fuel to the unrest, there had been a bad harvest in 1829, and food supplies began to dry up in industrial centres like Manchester. Then in July 1830, the regime of King Charles X in France was overthrown. These events led to a militant atmosphere returning to Manchester in 1830.

The industrial advancements were not being felt by everyone equally and across the country a series of riots were taking place with workers sabotaging new machinery. The railway was just one symbol of this change, with new technology viewed by many as a threat with ordinary people not reaping the benefits. In the galleries at the People’s History Museum we show how the people who suffered most from economic distress linked these experiences to the fact that they had no control of their government. The people believed they were victims of a corrupt electoral system that sent people to parliament with the single intention of preserving the wealth and power of an irresponsible hierarchy.

It was in this context of industrial advancement as well as radical resistance of the people, that the Liverpool and Manchester Railway was opened in 1830. It wasn’t until 1969’s Representation of the People Act that the voting laws we have today came into force, by which time Britain’s manufacturing industries were on the wane and trains were a part of daily life. 1830 was a rebellious year for the people of the North West and for transport engineering. That era has left a legacy that we all still live with today.


The original Rocket locomotive engine arrives back in Manchester for the first time in 180 years from Tuesday 25 September, and will be on display at the Science and Industry Museum until Sunday 28 April 2019. Find out more at scienceandindustrymuseum.org.uk/stephensons-rocket.

People’s History Museum (PHM) is the national museum of democracy, telling the story of its development in Britain: past, present and future. 2019 marks 200 years since the Peterloo Massacre. To commemorate this monumental anniversary, PHM will explore the changing face of protest with a year long programme of events and exhibitions. Find out more on their website: phm.org.uk

People’s History Museum is open seven days a week from 10.00 to 17.00pm, and is free to enter with a suggested donation of £5.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *