Gladstone’s Library

Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden
Gladstone’s Library was founded in 1889 by William Ewart Gladstone (1809–98). Four times Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer for thirteen years and in Parliament for over sixty years, Gladstone is widely regarded as Britain’s greatest statesman. He was also a true Victorian polymath who, in the final years of his long life, put his still prodigious energy into establishing a library “for the pursuit of divine learning.” It is Britain’s only Prime Ministerial Library and its finest residential library.

Gladstone and Books
Gladstone’s personal library at Hawarden Castle comprised some 30,000 books. We know he read most of these as he listed his daily reading in his diary and made notes in the margins of nearly everything he read. Gladstone was always generous with his own books, encouraging village children to use them in his absence. He was involved in establishing public libraries throughout his life, firmly believing that knowledge acquired from books was the surest way to advancement and that books and the libraries that housed them provided “a vital spark, to inspire with ideas altogether new”.

The Idea of the Library
When Gladstone attended the funeral of theologian and Oxford don, Edward Pusey, in 1882, the idea of a library based around Pusey’s books was suggested and, indeed, later realised. After the funeral, Gladstone returned to Hawarden convinced that his books could also form the basis of a library. His daughter, Mary Drew, wrote of his desire “to bring together books who had no readers with readers who had no books.” He sought advice from friends and colleagues. Some suggested giving the books to the Bodleian Library (after all, he was a former student and had been Member of Parliament for Oxford University); others suggested donating them to the London Library of which he was a leading and active trustee but Gladstone decided that his collection should remain in Hawarden, somewhere that was not already awash with books and was within easy reach by rail of the rapidly growing cities of Manchester and Liverpool.

Naming the Library
Having chosen the location, Gladstone then chose a name – Monad – a Greek word and concept meaning the One, oneness or one truth. What the name underlines is Gladstone’s firm conviction that as much truth could be found in Dante, Homer, Augustine or Butler, in works of great literature, the beauty of mathematics or the codes of Roman law as in the four gospels. Anyone working “solidly and seriously for the benefit of mankind” would contribute to the one truth. After a few months, however, the name was changed and the Library became St Deiniol’s until 2009 when it was decided to change the name to Gladstone’s Library in honour of the bicentenary of Gladstone’s birth and in recognition of the Library’s Gladstonian heritage and mission.

From Tin Tabernacle to National Memorial
With a name and location decided upon, Gladstone, now in his eighties, began packing up his books ready for their move from Hawarden Castle to a corrugated iron building known as the Tin Tabernacle which he had had built on land next to Hawarden Parish Church. He helped transport them (reputedly by cart and wheelbarrow) three-quarters of a mile to the Tin Tabernacle where he unpacked them and put them on shelves using his own cataloguing system (which is still in use in the Library today). Gladstone was ahead of his time in recognising the benefits of residential learning and used the former Hawarden Grammar School (next to Hawarden Parish Church) as a hostel where readers could stay. Following his death in 1898, the present Library was built as the National Memorial to Gladstone and was officially opened on October 14th, 1902. The architect was John Douglas of Chester, one of the most renowned provincial architects of his day. Gladstone’s Library was the most important commission of his career. In 1906, a residential wing was added to replace the hostel. Gladstone’s daughter, Mary Drew, described the new building as “a country house for the purpose of study and research, for the pursuit of divine learning.” In 1925, a bronze figure of Gladstone was placed on the Library’s front lawn after it was refused by Dublin City Council. The four figures at the base of the statue represent Erin, Classical Learning, Finance and Eloquence. In 1994, the Library was awarded Grade 1 listing for the national importance of its historical associations with Gladstone.

Gladstone’s Library today
Gladstone’s original donation has grown into the present world-renowned collection of some 250,000 printed items with a special focus on theology, history, literature, culture and politics from the nineteenth century to the present day. Gladstone’s own books, complete with his pencilled annotations, can be seen by Library users (residential guests, Day Readers, Friends of the Library) or by joining one of our daily ‘glimpses’ of the Reading Rooms. For more information about our collections, courses, events, accommodation or coffee shop, please visit our website

Annette Lewis, Gladstone Library

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