First high-profile railway accident compared to British tragedy

New Zealand’s first high-profile railway accident, on 22 January 1878, is sometimes compared to the tragic September 1830 accident that claimed the life of British MP and former Cabinet Minister, Sir William Huskisson.

As MP for Liverpool, Huskisson had been a distinguished guest at the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. He had been on the first train to travel on the line, along with Prime Minister, and hero of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington.

The two men had earlier fallen out over the issue of Parliamentary reform and seeking to effect a reconciliation, Huskisson determined to use the gala opening function as an opportunity for a chat with the Duke.

So pre-occupied was he that he didn’t see a locomotive approaching on the adjacent track. When he became aware of it, he panicked. His scramble to avoid the approaching train ended with him swinging on a door of the Duke’s carriage out into the train’s path.

In New Zealand in 1978, William Conyers was a Commissioner of Railways. He was one of two appointed the previous year to oversee the rapid railway development of the Vogel rail plan – Conyers in the South Island and a colleague in the north.

On 22 January, Conyers was travelling in the second locomotive on a special train running from Dunedin to Invercargill to mark the opening of the railway line between the two cities.

It was mid-afternoon on a hot summers’ day. The train was approaching Gore and expecting to be in Invercargill by late afternoon where a half-day holiday had guaranteed a large crowd to celebrate its arrival.

Conyers had been leaning out of the cab and looking ahead. As the train slowed approaching East Gore, Conyers turned his head to talk to the train driver. But when he turned back to look ahead, his head struck a water tank resting on sleepers beside the line.

Conyers fell from the cab onto the land beside the track. The train driver was unaware of what had happened until he was alerted by passengers.

The accident was covered in some detail by the Southland Times the next day. “Great was the sorrow and distress when it was ascertained who he was,” the paper recorded.

A professor Magregor and two doctors on the train treated Commissioner Conyers at the scene. The Southland Times reported that he was unconscious, had suffered a bad gash over the eye and was bleeding from an ear.

The badly injured man was lifted back onto the train and taken to Gore where he was taken to a hotel room and treated by doctors.

His wife and children were notified by telegraph and they immediately left from Christchurch for Gore on a special train. The Southland Times reported that Conyers’ condition had improved by late evening, although he remained unconscious.

Conyers never fully recovered but he appears to have kept his job until it was disestablished and replaced in1880 by a General Manager, responsible for the overall administration of railways.

In later years, he re-emerges as a critic of railways administration, arguing in letters to advocates for change that New Zealand Railways would benefit from lower prices for passengers and freight because they would stimulate greater patronage.

Sir William Huskisson is sometimes described as the first victim of a railway accident in Britain. More correctly he was the first high profile victim. Many men had died during the construction of the rail network and possibly from collisions with trains.

Sir William’s position guaranteed considerable media coverage. It was also seized upon by opponents of railways who feared that the “iron horse” would wreak death and destruction wherever it was introduced.

Sources: Southland Times, Papers Past; Trainland, How Railway Made New Zealand, Neill Atkinson 2007