Thursday 2 July 2020

Gladstone's Library: A Great Good Thing

The US has an abundance of presidential libraries – well, 14 of them at the last count. We in Britain, by contrast, have only one prime ministerial library – but what a library it is. Gladstone's Library, at Hawarden (pronounced Harden) in north Wales, is a unique institution in more ways than one.
  William Ewart Gladstone, a giant of Victorian politics – four times prime minister – was also a considerable scholar* with a very extensive library, which he was determined to leave to the nation and make accessible to all. He began the work in his old age, overseeing the creation of a temporary library building, and trundling some 30,000 volumes from his home (the 18th-century Hawarden Castle) by wheelbarrow, helped only by a valet and one of his daughters. He unpacked the books himself, and classified and shelved them in accordance with his own cataloguing system. His aim in creating this library was 'to bring together books which had no readers with readers who had no books' – and he showed his serious intent by endowing it with £40,000 (in 1895 money). After Gladstone's death, a public appeal raised a further £9,000, which was spent on a dedicated library building, designed in an imposing Gothic style by John Douglas. Most unusually for a library, it included a residential wing, funded by the Gladstone family and opened in 1906.
  The library – which has grown to include more than 250,000 printed items – continues to function as a residential centre, with 26 bedrooms now, a restaurant, a chapel and conference facilities. Visitors can choose for themselves whether to spend their time in study and reflection or to mingle socially. As well as welcoming visitors, the library hosts a year-round programme of events and courses reflecting Gladstone's interests and beliefs, as well as 19th-century literary and political culture in general. A wholly independent charity, Gladstone's Library endeavours to fulfil its founder's ideals by keeping costs to visitors as low as possible, and by offering scholarships and bursaries.
  This institution is, as all would surely agree, a great good thing – and yet, inevitably, its founder's (or rather his father's) association with the triangular slave trade has put it in the firing line of the current culture wars. William Ewart Gladstone is most definitely in the crosshairs of at least some activists, and any memorial to him is potentially vulnerable. In response to recent developments, the library has issued a statement that is commendably measured and well reasoned. Here's the link. You might not agree with every word, but it is good to see an institution rightly and reasonably defending itself rather than rolling over at the first hint of BLM disapproval.

* His three-volume Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age (1858) contains some very interesting speculation on how colour was perceived by the Ancient Greeks, but the work as a whole was widely condemned, with Tennyson calling it 'hobby-horsical' and Jowett dismissing it as 'mere nonsense'. Gladstone's view of Homer as 'the greatest chronicler that ever lived' and one of history's three or four greatest poets was not widely shared at the time, though today it would hardly seem eccentric.


  1. Gladstone embarrassed his government by a speech of October 7, 1862 including the passage "Jefferson Davis and other leaders of the South have made an army; they are making, it appears, a navy, and they have made what is more difficult than either, they have made a nation." Lord Russell had to offer reassurances to the American minister. (Who was already unhappy because the South was making, it appeared, its navy largely in Liverpool.) Later in life, Gladstone was not happy about the speech.

    I would say that Gladstone lived a very long time and revised his opinions on many things. He was the reverse of the cliche that has young radicals turn into old reactionaries, for he began as "the rising hope of those stern and unbending Tories".

    It seems unlikely that I will make it to Hawarden, but it sounds like a fascinating library.

    The notion about the Greeks and color perception has a remarkable staying power, much beyond its merits. Gladstone apparently preceded Simone Weil in supposing that an enthusiasm for both Homer and the Gospels implied an underlying similarity. But Weil didn't have that Victorian industry, and confined her observations to forty or fifty pages: I've read Weil, but life is too short for three volumes of Gladstone.

  2. Thanks for that, George – interesting. Life is indeed too short for Gladstone's Homer...