TODAY, Friday, November 16, is the 150th anniversary of William Gladstone’s visit to our town, writes Stephen Wainwright.

And what a rock star reception the great man received!

Thousands of excited townsfolk mobbed the Liberal party leader from the moment he set foot on St Helens’ soil, as the local press described: “The principal streets were literally alive with human beings as if all the houses had disgorged their residents, and poured them out upon the thoroughfares.

“Around the railway station the crowding was tremendous, and the most eager anticipation was depleted in every face.

“When the expected train arrived, the cheers that went up from thousands of throats were deafening and incessant.”

This was not first time that Gladstone had visited St Helens but it was the height of the 1868 general election campaign and interest was now intense.

The man – who many believe was the greatest statesman of the 19th century – had returned to the town to deliver an important speech in the Volunteer Hall.

However his first task was to safely navigate through the crowds to the Mill Street venue. Not everyone was glad to see Gladstone and in Church Street a stone was thrown and crackers were set off as his 20-strong convoy of horse-drawn carriages passed Hardshaw Street. The procession wended its way through Baldwin Street and near the Sefton Arms.

The St Helens Newspaper described how: “Impulsive multitudes pressed forward, in the vain hope that the ‘People’s Premier’ could grasp all the honest hands stretched out to him. Many did succeed in their wishes, and they fell back gratified.”

Long before Gladstone was due to arrive at the Volunteer Hall crowds had besieged the building waiting patiently for admission.

Once the doors were opened what was described as a “tremendous rush” occurred and rapidly every part of the hall was filled.

The walls inside were covered in slogans such as “Gladstone, The People’s Premier”, “God Speed The Right”, “Peace and Prosperity”, “Free Trade and Cheap Food”, “Justice To Ireland” and the slightly odd “Keep Moving”.

Gladstone’s speech mainly focused on Ireland but he did mention how Prescot’s watchmakers were suffering through a depression in the United States caused by their civil war. The general election was held eight days later but only 2,210 men in the district of St Helens (including Widnes) were allowed to vote. Nationally voting was spread over three weeks with different constituencies allocated different days. St Helens was in the division of South West Lancashire and there was then no secret ballot.

The resulting openness often led to corrupt practices, such as voters being bribed with alcohol. Five years earlier the St Helens Newspaper had also claimed that: “personation and false representation are practised to a degree unknown in any other town.”

Five polling booths were erected on waste ground in Ormskirk Street with more than 40 policemen in attendance armed with cutlasses. The Liberal party committee was based in a nearby house and 200 young females stood outside. However their gathering did not impress the St Helens Newspaper: “These amazons, most of whom were of the type denonnuation ‘unwashed’, and we may add, unkempt, gave evidence that they were not only endowed with strong political, and in some cases, polemical prejudices, but also with rare strength and elasticity of windpipe, to enable them to make the public acquainted with the fact.”

Despite Gladstone’s tremendous popularity in St Helens, the small electorate preferred the Conservative candidates – although only by 94 votes – and the Tories also took the constituency. After the St Helens’ results were declared, the victorious Conservatives celebrated at the Raven Inn and cannons were fired.

Although Gladstone had lost the election he was undaunted as he had a backstop position – as we might call it today. Candidates were then allowed to stand in two constituencies and the great man became the elected member for Greenwich. Three weeks after giving his speech in St Helens, William Ewart Gladstone began the first of his four terms as prime minister as part of a remarkable political career that lasted for more than sixty years.

By Stephen Wainwright