There was a discussion on the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning about whether four-time Victorian prime minister William Gladstone spoke with a Scouse accent (listen here for a few more days; scroll through to 2:23:20). Gladstone was born in Liverpool in 1809, but he wasn’t exactly typical of those born in that city, having attended Eton College from the age of 11 or 12.
A very scratchy sound recording of Gladstone speaking was played on the programme. I thought I could sense a bit of a Welsh lilt. Gladstone certainly did not have what we now understand as a Scouse accent, because such a thing did not exist in his formative years when his accent was developing. Up until the middle of the 19th century people from Liverpool would have sounded like people from other parts of south Lancashire. The Scouse accent largely came about after mass immigration from Ireland in the 1840s due to famine, and also thanks to immigration from elsewhere. Liverpool was an extremely important and thriving port in the mid-19th century; in 1850 the city’s trade was double that of London, and Liverpool was one of the key ports of the British Empire, meaning that it attracted people looking for the plentiful work it could offer. The city became a big melting pot, and the accent changed as a result. It has continued to change since then right up to the present day. Unfortunately, there are hardly any recordings of a Liverpool accent before the 1950s, since the BBC and other broadcasting organisations looked down on it and didn’t pay it any attention in those days.
Gladstone was a fiery orator. Love him or loathe him, most people couldn’t fail to be impressed by his rousing speeches. People were said to have ‘become Gladstonized’ (or Gladstonised) when they heard him. In his Reminiscences, written in 1916-17 (pages 109ff), Lord Kilbracken mentions an article by a WL Watson that appeared in the magazine Outlook just before the election of 1880. Watson wrote: “Never shall I, an unenthusiastic non-party man, forget those tones ...[...]... it seemed to me as if someone had touched the stops of a mysterious organ, that searched us through and though. Two more sentences, and we were fairly launched upon a sea of passion ...[...]. As it went on, we became persuaded that the Government, whose resignation was impending, were the most incompetent set of reprobates that an angry heaven had ever sent to be the curse of a country ....[...]. When I stood in the free air outside once more, it seemed somewhat unreasoning, all this ecstasy; clearly I had been Gladstonized; and I voted for him at that election.” Gladstone went on to defeat Disraeli’s government in the election.
Wilson didn’t say much in his article about what Gladstone’s pronunciation was like. He merely noted that Gladstone said “’Mr Chairman and fellow-electors of Marrilbone’, for so he called our parish ...” (for Marylebone).