In the first of a three-part feature, Stephen Wainwright describes how previous general elections in St Helens led to some unusual characters being chosen to represent the town at Westminster.

There used to be two election night traditions in St Helens. The first custom involved the results being declared from the steps of the Town Hall and the second was that residents set their chimneys on fire!

But the latter act was not like in the Vatican when cardinals choose a new pope. The smoke that poured out of St Helens' chimneystacks did not signify the election of a new MP or councillor – but that cheapskates wanted to save a few bob by not hiring a chimney sweep!

In 1900 one St Helens newspaper described elections in the town as "chimney-cleaning day" and in 1931 the phrase "election night, chimneys light" was used.

The tradition began when St Helens only had a small police force. Elections were a busy time for the bobbies and some residents thought with the police being preoccupied they could set fire to their chimneys with impunity.

 Thomas Glover became St Helens first Labour MP in 1906Thomas Glover became St Helens first Labour MP in 1906 (Image: Stephen Wainwright)

That would save them paying a sweep but the practice was illegal and potentially dangerous.

St Helens became a parliamentary constituency in 1884 and when Sir Henry Seton-Karr won the first election in the following year he pulled off a major shock.

It was widely assumed that David Gamble representing the Liberal party would be victorious. The popular chemical magnate had been the town's first Mayor and was standing against Seton-Karr who was the Conservative candidate.

The Manchester Evening News wrote on November 4 1885: "…there appears very little doubt that Colonel Gamble will be returned" and the Liverpool Mercury said it would be hard to imagine a barrister from Scotland who was a perfect stranger to the town being elected.

However, the Irish nationalist Charles Parnell instructed his countrymen to vote for Conservative candidates as he felt home rule would be more likely under the Tories. The large Irish contingent in St Helens obeyed and Seton-Karr scraped through by 57 votes.

He served the town as its MP until 1906 but it was the manner of Seton-Karr's demise eight years after leaving politics for which he is mainly remembered. The 61-year-old was one of 1,012 passengers on the Empress of Ireland who died after the liner sank off Canada. In its obituary of May 30 1914 the Daily Mirror focussed on Seton-Karr's shooting of wild animals rather than his parliamentary career: "He is famous all over the world as an explorer and sportsman. He has explored and shot game in four continents, and has taken part in nineteen expeditions to tropical Africa, more than twenty to India, and many to Arctic Europe."

Thomas Glover was elected St Helens' second member of parliament in 1906. Born in Prescot in 1852, Glover worked down the pit from the age of 9 or 10 and with the support of the men in the mining districts romped home with a majority of 1,411.

Mr Glover was described as a fluent speaker with a powerful voice. However, his time as MP was short lived after being controversially beaten by Conservative Rigby Swift in the general election of December 1910.

The town's first Labour MP believed that dirty tricks by the Tory-supporting St Helens Reporter were responsible for his defeat. The newspaper dubbed him the "biggest and most shameless political trickster who has ever opened his mouth in St. Helens".

On the day before the election a special edition of 15,000 copies of the paper were circulated in the mining heartlands of Parr and Sutton with further excoriating comments made about the Labour candidate.

After the election Thomas Glover took the Reporter to court alleging libel and he received an apology and an out of court financial settlement was agreed. But as far as Glover was concerned the damage to his reputation had cost him his seat and on January 9 1913 the 60-year-old died at his Prescot Road home still nursing a grievance.

Stephen Wainwright's new book The Hidden History Of St Helens Vol 4 is available from the St Helens Book Stop and online from eBay and Amazon with free delivery.

Price £12. Vols 1 to 3 are also still available