William Huskisson, free trader and railway’s first victim

William Huskisson, who died on September 15th, 1830, was one of the team of young free-traders who revolutionized Britain in the 1820s by continuing the work of William Pitt, ending huge swathes of regulations and tariffs, and paving the way for the free trading nation that became the dominant economy of the 19th Century.

He represented a variety of parliamentary seats, including Liverpool, where there is a statue of him in St James Cemetery. Another one stands in Pimlico Gardens in London. His political career owed much to the support of two important patrons, Home Secretary Henry Dundas and Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. He served initially as Secretary to the Treasury, and later as President of the Board of Trade. His 1810 pamphlet on the currency system established his reputation as an expert in finance, but his reputation rests on his unwavering support for free trade.

As a member of the 1821 committee investigating the causes of agricultural distress, he was responsible for a clause in its findings that recommended relaxation of the Corn Laws, laws that kept up the price of cereal crops via tariffs, and guaranteed the incomes of the landed gentry at the expense of the poor.

While in the Department of Trade, he reformed the protectionist Navigation Acts, giving other nations access to the transport of British goods, thereby increasing competition and lowering prices. He repealed restrictive labour laws and cut duties on manufactures and foreign imports, as well as repealing quarantine duties. In all of this he was very much a disciple of Adam Smith, as Pitt had been.

To deal with low incomes, he was asked, as President of the Board of Trade, to enact a legally binding minimum wage. He ejected the request out of hand, saying that to introduce such a measure would be "a vain and hazardous attempt to impose the authority of the law between the labourer and his employer in regulating the demand for labour and the price to be paid for it".

He managed in 1828 the difficult task of having the cabinet agree to a compromise on the Corn Laws, difficult because the landed aristocrats strongly resisted measures that might compromise the incomes derived from having their estates farmed. It was not until Huskisson's friend and colleague, Sir Robert Peel, finally repealed the Corn Laws in 1845 that the issue was resolved in favour of cheap food for the newly industrialized workers, and it was not until efficient transatlantic freight came about that it achieved its practical effects. After this Huskisson resigned.

He attended the 1830 opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, despite recent surgery that left him less than fully mobile. When George Stephenson's "Rocket" locomotive approached dangerously, he attempted to climb to safety aboard the Duke of Wellington's carriage, but the door swung open and he was struck by the locomotive and died from his injuries later that day. He is thus remembered as a great free trader who liberated much of Britain's economy, and as the first fatality of a railway accident. On the anniversary of his death we remember his achievements that preaged Britain's greatness, as well as the misfortune that killed him at the age of 60.