THE PEOPLE of St Helens came out in force to celebrate the life of Johnny Welly today, with crowds of people gathering outside Lowe House Church for his funeral.

The procession for Johnny - whose real name is John Smith - began at Neil Middlehurst Family Funeral Directors at around 10.40am.

The hearse that carried Johnny's coffin then travelled to Sherdley Court in Rainhill, where Johnny was cared for in the later years of his life, before arriving at Lowe House Church for the funeral service.

Crowds of people gathered outside the town centre church to pay their respects or the man who was well known and well loved around St Helens.

This included family members, friends, acquaintances and those who knew him from seeing him out and about around the town.

Local boxing hero Martin Murray was among those who lifted Johnny's coffin into the church, while the mayor of St Helens Sue Murphy, local MPs and councillors were also in attendance for the funeral.

Some of Johnny's lifelong friends spoke to the Star outside the church to give their thoughts on the charismatic character.

Janice Devine knew Johnny for most of his life and described him as a "legend" - noting that everyone would say that about him.

She said: "He was just brilliant, and he wouldn't take anything off anyone.

"We only seen him about a week before he died and he was as happy and healthy as ever. I keep looking out for him thinking I'm going to bump into him.

"He will be missed by everyone."

St Helens Star: Some of the crowds gathered outside before the funeral serviceSome of the crowds gathered outside before the funeral service

Likewise, Eileen Huddleston said that Johnny was a "great character [and] there was nobody like him".

Working at Greenfields care home in Dentons Green, Eileen, 70, explained how Johnny would come for long chats with the staff and residents, and always make them laugh.

He was also said to be "amazing" with Eileen's grandson who has special needs, who he would bring out of his shell with his jokes and conversations.

Eileen's son Gareth McKenna agreed with this sentiment, adding that he would see him all over St Helens, and would always stop him for a chat about his life.

He added that he was "very much loved and always laughing".

Steven Shuker, 63, from Clock Face, stated that he knew Johnny from his time living on the streets.

Building a relationship which lasted more than 40 years, Steven explained that Johnny "took [him] under his wing" when he was a homeless teenager and unsure of where he was going in life.

Always looking out for him, Steven said Johnny was a a "good man and a loveable rogue who loved a dance".

St Helens Star: Johnny WellyJohnny Welly

George Edwards, an old school friend, was also outside the church to pay his respects.

From his time St Joseph's Primary and St Cuthberts High, George said Johnny was a quiet, troublesome, but respected character.

He joked how the pair lasted just 6 months at their first job at a carpet factory in St Helens, and despite losing touch with him would always chat to him when he was about in the town.

As these anecdotes and descriptions highlight - in addition to the crowds gathered at the church - John Smith was an immeasurably popular character in St Helens.

With the outpouring of sadness since his death, it is clear that Johnny will be missed by all, yet he will last long in the memory of those who loved him.

St Helens Star: A portrait of Johnny Welly as the hearse took his coffin to the crematoriumA portrait of Johnny Welly as the hearse took his coffin to the crematorium