By Robert Wellen
After Queen Victoria, William Ewart Gladstone was probably the most famous person in late Victorian England.
In a career lasting more than 60 years, the British statesman and Liberal politician served 12 years as Prime Minister spread over four terms beginning in 1868 and ending in 1894.
In 1889, Gladstone made a 12 day West Country Whitsun tour including a visit to Gillingham on Monday, June 17 1889.
A collection of ‘ephemera concerning WE Gladstone’s visit to Gillingham’ is held in the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre.
Gillingham had been ‘rendered gay with bunting, arches and expressions of welcome’ and Gladstone was met with the ‘liveliest satisfaction’.
Gladstone said: “I am very glad to think that I am in a district where wholesale and useful domestic manufacture does something towards assisting the maintenance agricultural families. (Hear, hear)
“Unhappily, there is a tendency in the rate of wages in agricultural districts to fall below the level which is customary established in the more populous districts, although such wages have been applied and economised by the rural population with wonderful thrift and a great deal of skill.
“As to his being subjected, I will not say to the cruel and horrible processes which some thirty or forty years ago were applied in Ireland to force the population to leave their native country. (Cheers)
“The agricultural labourer, he commonly called, has a strong desire to attach himself more closely to the land, and to facilitate his attaching himself more closely to the land is a great object of public policy, a great and worthy object of the cares and thoughts of statesmen and of Parliaments. (Hear, hear)
“I am not particularly sanguine about the present Parliament. (Hear, hear, and laughter). I look to the early creation of one that will be great deal better and one that will do more justice both to you and your fellow-subjects in Ireland, for whose interests I rejoice to observe everywhere the most lively and spontaneous feeling, which indicates on the part the people of this country a strong and deep conviction that the cause of the Irish people, and the cause of the English, Scotch, and Welsh people, is really one cause.
“Freedom, justice, truth, equity, reasonable regard to all relative rights. They are that one and sufficient foundation upon which the welfare of the entire community from one end of these islands to the other will, by the blessing of God, be perfectly and happily preserved.” (Cheers)