William Ewart Gladstone was born four days after Christmas, at 62 Rodney Street, Liverpool, in 1809.
His father was one of the great merchant princes of England, who had made his fortune on a West Indian sugar plantation, and who now, having retired with wealth and honour, was giving his services to the town of his adoption. He had been elected a Member of Parliament; and his country recognized his services in later life by making him Sir John Gladstone.
"Diligent in business," was the motto of his life, and this he urged upon his children.
It has been said that nothing was ever taken for granted between Sir John Gladstone and his sons; they discussed topics great and small with rare eagerness and interest. Each boy was put on his mettle to defend his own case or to damage the case of another, all with the greatest good-humour and enjoyment. They would debate as to whether the trout should be boiled or broiled, whether a window should be open or shut, whether the chances were in favour of the weather being fine or wet.
One day one of the Gladstone boys knocked down a wasp with his handkerchief, and was about to crush it on the table, when his father started the question as to whether he had the right to kill the insect. The point was discussed as seriously as if a human life were at stake. When at last it was decided that the wasp deserved death, because it was a trespasser in the drawing-room, a common enemy, and a danger, it was found that the insect had crawled from under the handkerchief, and was buzzing away as if in mockery of its death-warrant.
It was acknowledged that in these arguments young William Gladstone was mostly victorious; his "tongue-fencing" was wonderful, and his father would cry delightedly, "Hear, hear! well said, well put, Willie," when the boy had scored a point.
So much for William Gladstone's father. His mother was a Scotch lady, from Stornoway.
When, in 1812, Canning fought a famous election in Liverpool, Sir John Gladstone threw himself heart and soul into the cause of the great Minister. It was from the balcony of 62 Rodney Street that Canning addressed the enthusiastic crowd that hailed him Member for Liverpool. The little William Ewart was only three years old at the time, but he remembered looking out with wondering eyes on the excited crowd below.
"I was bred under the shadow of the great name of Canning, and every influence connected with that great name governed the politics of my childhood and of my youth." he said in after years.
When he was four years old, he was taken by his mother to see Mrs. Hannah More, an old lady of no small celebrity. She took a great fancy to little "Billy Gladstone," as she called him, and presented him with one of her books, because, she said, he had just come into the world and she was just going out!—though, it may be added, she did not go out of the world for eighteen years after this, dying just a few months before her little "Billy Gladstone" first became a Member of Parliament.
After some teaching at the vicarage of Seaforth, where Arthur Stanley, afterwards Dean of Westminster, was among his fellow-pupils, William Gladstone left home for Eton, where his two elder brothers already were. He is said to have been the "prettiest little boy that ever went to Eton." Be this as it may, he certainly was one of the cleverest.
One of the few stories existing about his school life at Eton was told by himself, when he was over seventy, in one of his Scottish speeches. He was explaining the word intimidation.
"I will tell yon a story," he said to the listening crowds, "though it a little reflects upon myself. I remember when I was a boy at Eton—I am sorry to say that English boys, and perhaps Scotch boys too, are sometimes very wanton and inconsiderate in the tricks they play. I remember perfectly well that the lady in whose house we were boarded—we called her the dame—had one or two little children, and I am ashamed to say that we got possession of the housemaids brush with which they swept the floor we held that brush upside down, we clothed the shoulders of the brush with a very large cloak, and we mounted over the shoulders a most hideous mask; and having thereby constructed a very formidable figure, we paraded this figure in the face of the little children of the dame, and you may judge that they were horrified. This is intimidation, gentlemen!"
William Gladstone was twelve years old when he went to Eton. The other stories of his school days are a good deal more to his credit than this one.