Popular Wigan councillor reflects on 35 years in politics after stepping down
John Hilton spoke about his extraordinary journey from being a foundling discovered at a railway station in Oldham to becoming Wigan’s first citizen and shared some of the ups and downs of his long stint in the chamber
When the borough’s councillors reconvene in the chamber after next month’s elections one of the most recognisable and long-serving faces in local politics will be absent.
That’s because veteran Labour representative John Hilton has called time on his extraordinary 35-year stint as a councillor.
He enjoyed a mayoral year and chaired the borough’s planning committee as well as holding numerous other roles, including serving in the cabinet for a while.
His three and a half decades in local politics officially came to an end last week when he sat in his final full council meeting, which due to Covid-19 involved him joining in with proceedings from home.
He admitted that while it was a shame to be bringing this chapter of his life to a close he is far from finished with public life and serving the community.
He said: “It is a little bit sad because this has been a big part of my life for the last 35 years, but I’m still heavily involved with the Royal British Legion and I can now give that more time.
“I’m still doing a bit of leafletting for Labour candidates when I can too.
“Life goes on and there are still things I want to do.”
Mr Hilton is well known for his unusual start to life. He was a foundling discovered in a box on a platform at a railway station in Oldham and spent his first three years in a hospital before he was adopted.
The railways would remain a huge part of his life as he became a train driver and juggled that with being a councillor for 18 years.
His introduction to politics came through work as he was a health and safety officer for the train drivers’ union Aslef in Wigan and was invited to a Labour meeting.
Soon afterwards he found himself at a shortlisting and selection meeting and his name was proposed and seconded as a candidate for the local elections.
Asked to name the highlight of his time in politics he immediately identified his year as Mayor of Wigan in the early 2000s.
It was an eventful 12 months as he rubbed shoulders with some well-known names and also enjoyed some notable personal milestones.
He said: “We got McFly down to do a lights switch-on. My granddaughter Rachel Brandon loved them so I could take her with me.
“I was also interviewed about being a foundling by John Peel on Radio Manchester.
“I then got a phone call in the Mayor’s Parlour and was told that Kate Adie, the BBC journalist, wanted to talk to me for a book she was writing.
“Being interviewed by her was a bit daunting but we spent a good afternoon talking about my life story. The book was called Nobody’s Child and I’m in it for about five or six pages.
“I went to London for the launch of the book and it was surprising how many celebrities were orphans.
“During my time as mayor I also got a phone call from Oldham. A lady was going round the old people’s homes getting life stories and she met an elderly lady who had been a nurse in Oldham Royal and had looked after me.
“I met her and she was as bright as a button and could remember everything about me.”
Political colleagues also remembered his mayoral year, with Coun George Davies recalling fund-raising activities which brought in more than £90,000 for the hospital’s neonatal unit.
Mr Hilton said other highlights include being invited to Buckingham Palace twice for the royal garden parties.
In local politics Mr Hilton said his proudest achievement was introducing the yellow school buses to Wigan, something he managed to arrange as he was involved in transport policy at the time.
It was an issue for him as Aspull children required transport to get to classes every day in Standish.
However, education was also responsible for some of his toughest times in the chamber, especially in the run-up to the closure of Aspull High School in 1990.
He bitterly opposed the shutting of the school and crossed swords with a number of fellow Labour Party members over the issue.
He said: “That was the worst time of my career. I upset a few people with what I said. I fought tooth and nail but unfortunately it did close.
“It was only built for 480 children so when they started shutting schools with falling rolls it fell into that category.”
Education has also been the subject of one of his most recent campaigns, speaking out about a potential walking route along the canal to Dean Trust Rose Bridge from Aspull.
Mr Hilton fears this will become a reality for high school pupils from the area if Standish Community High School (CHS) becomes full due to the housebuilding there.
During his time in the chamber he has also taken a keen interest in preventing building on the common land of Aspull which was given its status by Lord Crawford at the end of the 19th century.
Over three and a half decades he has noticed politics become more combative, something not necessarily to his taste.
He said: “You get people shouting and bawling in council meetings. I don’t like that. It’s not just Wigan, just look at that Handforth Parish Council meeting.
“My adopted father had been a sergeant major in World War One and you did what you were told and got on with it. I do think discipline is important, even in politics.”
Mr Hilton said his father had also given him his guiding philosophy in public service.
He said: “He always said that if you can’t do anybody a good turn then don’t do them a bad one. That has been my motto.
“Irrespective of who you vote for, if I can help you I’ve tried to help you.”
Mr Hilton is a keen traveller and recalled a journey across Canada and the USA after his mayoral year which culminated in him exchanging gifts with a mayor in Florida and appearing on local TV
He is still hoping to return to seeing other countries when the pandemic allows, although his work as the chair of the Aspull branch of the Royal British Legion will keep him busy.
He said: “I will miss politics but I’ve got plenty to do. There’s always another corner to turn.”
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