The library featured this month is Gladstone Library at St Deniol’s College in North Wales. Thanks to Annette Lewis, Development Officer at Gladstone’s, for the contribution.
Gladstone’s Library was founded in 1894 by William Ewart Gladstone (1809–98) in the North Wales village of Hawarden, just six miles west of Chester. Four times Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer for thirteen years and in Parliament for over sixty years, Gladstone is often regarded as the greatest statesman that Britain has ever produced. Today, Gladstone’s Library is regarded as one of the world’s greatest theological libraries. It is Britain’s finest residential library and its only Prime Ministerial library with a collection of 250,000 printed items housed in a Grade 1 listed building.
An avid reader from an early age, Gladstone built up a personal library of more than 32,000 books during his lifetime. We know he read about 22,000 of them as he listed his daily reading in his diary. What’s even more impressive is that he didn’t just skim through them. He read them carefully, making copious notes in the margins and on the end papers.
Throughout his political career, Gladstone was involved in establishing public libraries. He firmly believed that knowledge acquired from books was the surest way to advancement and a better option than ‘the pub’ for the working class. Books and the libraries that housed them provided “a vital spark, to inspire with ideas altogether new.”
When Gladstone attended the funeral of Edward Pusey in 1882, the idea of a library based around Pusey’s books was suggested and, indeed, was later realised. After the funeral, Gladstone returned to Hawarden convinced that his books could also form the basis of a library. He had more books than Pusey and certainly a wider range of books than the Anglican theologian.
From that moment on, he played with the idea of a library based on his private collection and 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) while others suggested donating them to the London Library of which he was a leading and active trustee but Gladstone was adamant that his collection should go to a location that was not already awash with books. Eventually, he chose Hawarden, his home since his marriage to Catherine Glynne in 1839, because it was within easy reach by rail of Manchester and Liverpool, the rapidly growing new cities of the approaching twentieth century, and because it was situated in North Wales, an area renowned for its castles and mountains rather than as a centre of learning.
Gladstone purchased a plot of land next to Hawarden Parish Church and a corrugated iron building, known affectionately as the Tin Tabernacle or Iron Library, was erected. Gladstone, now in his eighties, began the process of moving over 30,000 books from his own library at Hawarden Castle to their new home. He packed up the books at the Castle and wheeled them three-quarters of a mile to the Tin Tabernacle where he unpacked them and put them on shelves using his own cataloguing system (a system which is still in use today). In this task he was helped by one of his daughters and an estate worker. At the same time, he rented the former village school as a hostel to provide accommodation for readers. Gladstone was ahead of his time in recognising the benefits of residential learning.
Following his death in 1898, the Tin Tabernacle was demolished and the present Library was built as the National Memorial to Gladstone. Officially opened in 1902, it is an elegant Victorian building with two wings – one for the Library and one for the residence. The architect was John Douglas of Chester; it is considered his masterpiece. The original building has been extended over the years: an annexe for book storage, a chapel, conference rooms and ground floor bedrooms have all been added to the rear of the main building. Much internal refurbishment has also taken place so that the Library now offers boutique-style en-suite bedrooms, free wifi and a Coffee Shop. The catalogue is searchable on-line. You can follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
In terms of the collection, our main strengths are contemporary and nineteenth-century theology, history, politics, culture, art and literature. Gladstone’s books remain the core of the collection. They are unique and an important part of Britain’s cultural heritage. In 2013, we plan to bring them together in our smaller Reading Room and re-assemble them as the Gladstone Foundation Collection.