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William Muir and the World's first Railway death

Nestling at an angle in Brockley cemetery lies the peeling headstone of the Scottish born engineer and inventor William Muir (1806-1888) who achieved an enviable reputation as a leading manufacturer of machine tools and lathes, helping to erect the Britannia works in Manchester as William Muir & Co. This at a time of massive Victorian industrial expansion that merited the city the appellation the 'workshop of the world'.  He was noted as being an enlightened and solicitous employer, who supplied machinery to the royal gun factory at Woolwich and also to Enfield, for the manufacture of sights for rifles, took out numerous patents and exhibited at the 1851 Great Exhibition.

Muir was a strong temperance advocate, which was manifested in a curious way in a patent he took out in 1865, which consisted in constructing 'the fronts of public-houses and other houses of entertainment, where men and women mix indiscriminately, of plate-glass, to enable persons outside to see those within,' while 'to impede as far as possible the entrance of females wearing steel crinolines', ,the entrances were made very narrow!

He married in 1832 Eliza Wellbank Dickinson of Drypool, Hull, by whom he had five sons, most of whom became engineers. She died 5 Jan. 1882. Muir died aged 82 years on the 15 June 1888 whilst living at Brockley road, and as noted he was buried in Brockley cemetery.

nEngineer and inventor William Muir (1806-1888)
Muir family grave in Brockley cemetery

One of his sons , remembered on the headstone, was John Wellbank Muir who met his unfortunate demise (scalded to death) in Paraguay in 1863 whilst working on behalf of his father's business for the Paraguyan dictator Francisco Lopez .

Another son Andrew Muir , helped to develop the Velocipede ( boneshaker ) bicycle in the 1860's.

But the one outstanding historic event which caught my attention when researching his life was that William Muir was present at the opening of the world's first inter-city railway between Manchester and Liverpool in September 1830 (The Liverpool and Manchester Railway). An event marred by the tragic death of the first passenger to die in a railway accident. The event is briefly described below:

On September 15th, 1830 the MP for Liverpool and former Cabinet minister, William Huskisson (who had been present at the Storming of the Bastille in Paris in 1789), alighted from his carriage on the steam locomotive Northumbrian and became the first person ever to die in a railway accident. Huskisson was attending the opening of the Manchester and Liverpool railway, along with a number of other dignitaries, and while his train was stopped for water, Huskisson decided to go to greet the Duke of Wellington, who was riding in another part of the train. As he clambered up into the duke’s carriage Huskisson lost his balance and fell into the path of Stephenson’s Rocket, which was proceeding down the adjacent track. It ran over Huskisson’s leg causing severe bleeding and he was placed back on the Northumbrian and driven by George Stephenson himself, to hospital in Eccles, where he died later that day.

Death of English MP William Huskisson, run down by George Stephenson's locomotive "Rocket" on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, 1830. The day the first railway to carry goods and passengers was inaugurated was memorable as also the day Huskisson became the first to die in a rail accident. Original artwork from Look and Learn no. 678 (11 January 1975).

For a fuller account of this historic day Simon Garfield's very readable 2003 book' The Last Journey of William Huskisson' is recommended.

There is a very moving and fulsome obituary of William Muir composed by Robert Wilson Smiles , brother of Samuel , author of the best selling book, Self-Help published in 1859 which more than a century later, Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher wanted to give as a gift to every schoolchild in Britain!  (Robert Wilson Smiles d.1890 is also buried in Brockley cemetery-Samuel d.1904 is buried in Brompton cemetery )

Brief Memoir of the late William Muir by Robert Smiles - Graces Guide