BRODIE McGhie Willcox is unique in local politics. He is the only serving Member of Parliament for Southampton killed in office and almost certainly at 79, its oldest.

Willcox was the victim of a tragic accident at home.

He had been supervising several men lopping trees in his garden when a heavy branch suddenly snapped and crashed down on him from a height of some 40 feet.

The blow struck him on the side of the head, immediately rendering him unconscious. He was carried into his house to be attended by local doctors who diagnosed a fractured skull which proved fatal.

He died the following day, November 6, 1862.

Away from his political life, Willcox made a colossal contribution to Southampton's status which is still profound.

Born in 1785, he inherited his loving of the sea from his father Walton, a well known shipowner from Rotherhithe in London, and was founder of the Peninsular and Orient shipping line.

In 1837 he negotiated with the Admiralty the first steam mail packet contract with his ships sailing from London and calling at Falmouth to receive and deliver the post.

Willcox however recognised the emergence of Southampton as a natural port, now ideally supported by rail services from the capital, but his initial attempts to reject Falmouth in favour of the burgeoning town were met with stern opposition from the Cornish constituency.

It was not until 1840 when he obtained the contract to carry mail to India that he was finally able to achieve it, having signalled to the Treasury that unless the port was changed, then the contractors would be entitled to a further £2,000 a year, a significant sum in the mid-Victorian era.

The Commissioners at first were reluctant to take that step but Willcox and his backers, at their own exepnse, canvassed all the influential merchants in London who attended one of the largest meetings ever conducted at the London Tavern where they drew up a resolution which was forwarded to the Treasury that Southampton's facilities with its rail links were far better suited for East and West Indies as well as for the Mediterranean than any other Channel port.

Eventually Sir Robert Peel, only too conscious of the £2,000 a year saving, successfully recommended to Parliament the mail packet station should be removed from Falmouth in favour of Southampton.

Willcox first stood for the liberals in the 1852 general election when he inflicted a heavy defeat on his Conservative opponent. He was re-elected on three further occasions, twice unopposed.

In addition to his duties as an MP and as chairman of P&O, he also acted as a director of Southampton docks and the Universal Life Assurance company.

As a mark of respect for his passage, flags at all public buildings and at ships in the harbour flew at half mast.

The Hampshire Independent made its tribute in a leading article, declaring: "in all the relations of his life, Mr Willcox secured the esteem of the wise and good and to the town of Southampton in particular he was a true and zealous friend."