From typhus to trains: the tragic deaths of 19th century MPs

The biographical format we follow when writing about the 2,591 MPs covered by our 1832-68 project means that we usually have one obvious finishing point: the MP’s death. As we have noted before in our blog on political longevity, many of our MPs lived to a ripe old age. The most striking example of this was undoubtedly Charles Pelham Villiers (1802-1898), who was still sitting as MP for Wolverhampton when he died in 1898, shortly after his 96th birthday. The ‘Father of the House’, he was the last remaining MP to have served in the Commons during the reign of William IV. His record-breaking 62 years of continuous parliamentary service remains unsurpassed.

James Platt (1823-57), MP for Oldham

In contrast with Villiers, however, a considerable number of our biographies end with tragic and untimely deaths. We have already blogged about the case of James Platt (1823-1857), accidentally shot dead in August 1857 by his close friend and relative, Josiah Radcliffe, the mayor of Oldham, who only five months earlier had presided over Platt’s election as the borough’s MP. Platt was mourned as ‘a rising star’ who had been expected to ‘distinguish himself greatly’ at Westminster. Among the more unusual accidental deaths of MPs was that of Henry Handcock (1834-1858), briefly MP for his native borough of Athlone, 1856-7, who died in India in 1858 aged just 24 after being attacked by a tiger, which he had been foolhardy enough to shoot.

Another MP whose death was, like Platt’s, reported as ‘a public calamity’ because of his perceived political promise was Viscount Milton (1812-1835), the heir to Earl Fitzwilliam, who died at the family’s Yorkshire seat at Wentworth Woodhouse, on 8 November 1835, aged only 23. Milton (then known as the Hon. Charles William Wentworth Fitzwilliam) had been the youngest member of the Commons when he was first elected in 1832 as MP for the family’s pocket borough of Malton, despite having not yet reached the age of 21. He had, however, passed that milestone – on 18 January 1833 – before the new Parliament assembled. He did not represent Malton for long, replacing his father – who succeeded to the peerage as Earl Fitzwilliam in February 1833 – as MP for Northamptonshire North. He was re-elected there at the 1835 general election.

Milton rarely spoke in the Commons chamber and his public oratory outside Parliament was usually noted for its brevity. He was, however, more active in presenting petitions and in the committee rooms at Westminster, and there were growing indications that this youthful MP was finding his feet in public life. His campaigning in support of Lord Morpeth at the 1835 by-election in the West Riding of Yorkshire won him considerable plaudits. The Sheffield Independent reported that his hustings speech proposing Morpeth displayed ‘perfect self-possession’ and was delivered in a ‘very strong and agreeable’ voice. It suggested him as a possible future candidate for the constituency, since voters had been made aware of ‘the manly excellencies of his character, his abilities, and his strong attachment to liberal politics. He has gained golden opinions from all sorts of men’.

Sadly Milton, who was ‘naturally of a delicate constitution’, had his political career cut short by his death from typhus in November 1835. The disease also left three of his siblings dangerously ill, but they all recovered. He was buried in the new family vault at Wentworth church, alongside his only son, who had died shortly after birth in November 1834. Poignantly his widow Selina was pregnant with their second child at the time of Milton’s death. When a daughter was born in January 1836, Milton’s younger brother William Thomas Spencer Wentworth Fitzwilliam (1815-1902) assumed the title of Viscount Milton, and succeeded to the earldom in 1857.

Statue of Henry, 7th Baron Farnham, in Cavan
[By Deadstar – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2129770%5D

The unfortunate death of William Huskisson (1770-1830), MP for Liverpool, after he was struck by the train being pulled by Rocket at the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester railway on 15 September 1830, was the first recorded passenger fatality on Britain’s railways. Huskisson was not, however, the only MP to be the victim of a railway accident. On 20 August 1868, in the worst railway disaster in Britain at that date, 33 people died near Abergele in north Wales when the Irish Mail train, en route to Holyhead, crashed into some runaway goods wagons, whose load included 50 barrels of paraffin oil. Those killed included the former MP for County Cavan, 1824-38, Henry Maxwell (1799-1868), who had become 7th Baron Farnham in 1838. His wife Anna and four of their servants also died, and the couple had to be identified by their belongings, which included ‘a watch with Lord Farnham’s crest and coronet’. As they had no children, Farnham’s title was inherited by his younger brother, the Hon. Somerset Richard Maxwell (1803-1884), also a former Cavan MP.

In contrast, two other parliamentarians had a lucky escape from the disaster: Viscount Castlerosse (1825-1905), MP for County Kerry, and the Marquess of Hamilton (1838-1913), MP for County Donegal. The latter’s eyewitness account of ‘the suddenness of the conflagration’ which engulfed three of the passenger carriages makes for grim reading, but he also paid tribute to the kindness of the local people who assisted the survivors. They were not the only MPs affected by the tragedy. Among those who attended the inquest was Henry Edwards, MP for Beverley, whose brother and nephew died, which meant that Edwards inherited his brother’s property near Halifax.

Memorial to victims of the 1868 Abergele rail disaster
[By Stephen Elwyn RODDICK, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11634543%5D

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