1 March 2020 Susannah

William Gladstone – Book Lover

Gladstone's Library

Let me introduce you to a fascinating man. His name was William Gladstone and he was four times Prime Minister of Great Britain. However, it’s not his political career I wish to tell you about – go to Google if you want that. It’s his addiction to books and his schemes for housing them that fascinate me.

In 1890 Gladstone published a little book called On Books and the Housing of Them in which he expounds his ideas for shelving books. Like many of us, he had more books than he had room for, so shelving was an eternal problem, especially as he sometimes purchased more books by the cartload. So, he devised plans for a shelving system that might “prevent the population of Great Britain from being extruded some centuries hence into the surrounding waters by the exorbitant dimensions of their own libraries”. He did detailed mathematical calculations to work out what could be fitted into a library 20 by 40 ft, with projecting bookcases 3 ft long, 12 inches deep and 9 ft high, along with tram tracks so that bookcases could be moved across the room or pulled out from amongst other cases. This system of rolling shelves is today used in the Bodleian, amongst other places, so it did prove extremely practical.

When the stresses of political life got too much for him, Gladstone retreated to his books (well, he also liked chopping down trees, or roaming London’s street talking to prostitutes, but we won’t delve into that here!). His own library at Hawarden Castle in Wales was named his ‘Temple of Peace’ and there he sat happily reading or roamed around arranging his books. He never entrusted the task of sorting his books to anyone else: “What man who really loves his books,” he asked, “delegates to any other human being, as long as there is breath in his body, the office of inducting them into their homes?”

Before he died Gladstone endowed a library in the village of Hawarden, moved 20,000 of his own books there and placed every single one of them on the shelves himself, in the correct place. Parliament might have resisted his proposals, but his books were always obedient, and the sorting reduced the stress of his public career. He lived to be 88, in spite of many health problems – I suspect that the toil of working amongst his beloved books helped him reach that age in spite of his illnesses.

Did you know that you can actually go and sleep amongst Gladstone’s books? Gladstone’s Library is the UK’s only residential library and Britain’s only Prime Ministerial library – you can sleep there (it has 26 bedrooms), dine there (in its restaurant ‘Food for Thought’), hold a conference there, attend a service in its chapel, or just visit to look at the books. It holds more than 250,000 printed items and was established by Gladstone to “bring together books who had no readers with readers who had no books”. What a wonderful legacy!

I wish more political leaders would follow Gladstone’s excellent example. What do think? Do let me know in a comment.

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Header image credit- Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden, UK, https://www.facebook.com/gladlib/photos/a.359712684051959/956328044390417/
Body image credit- William Gladstone, 1861, photographed by John Mayall. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10242852

Comments (10)

  1. Heather Grant

    An extremely interesting article on William Ewart Gladstone as I was unaware he had such a wonderful library. I would love to stay at the Gladstone Library – it sounds absolutely delightful. An extremely interesting man.

    I do remember when attending High School, the Commercial Course (which I was in) and the Professional Course had the same History Teacher. For our History Exam we had to choose which Prime Minister, either Gladstone or Disraeli, we liked and give the reasons why. The Commercial Course all picked Gladstone and the Professional Course chose Disraeli. Our History Teacher was quite bemused!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      How fascinating that there was such a strong divide between the two classes. Thanks for sharing that anecdote. I’m not sure which one I would pick, as both of them loved books. I think we need a few more politicians around today who are ardent readers.

  2. Grier

    I stayed at the Gladstone Library last year and highly recommend it to book lovers. If you ask, the librarians will give you the key so you can browse the shelves after hours. It was a wonderful experience!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Oh I am green with envy. Thanks for the tip about the key – I’ll remember that for when I do get there.

  3. Alexnadra Young

    Susannah, Ive loved reading all that stuff about Gladstones library.
    What a fascinating place that must be.

  4. Judy Samuel

    A possible further insight into Mr Gladstone that may amuse, Jennie Jerome (Lady Randolph Churchill)allegedly told a reporter after dining with both Gladstone and Disraeli in the same week, “When I left the dining room after sitting next to Gladstone,I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But when I sat next to Disraeli, I left feeling that I was the cleverest woman”. (I suspect Disraeli perfected his charm technique on Queen Victoria)

    • Susannah Fullerton

      That’s a lovely anecdote – thanks for sharing it. Yes, Dizzy must have really perfected the flattery. I’ve always loved his ‘we authors, Ma’am’ moment with the Queen.

  5. Sharon Sherry

    I have added the Gladstone library to my next UK trip, Susannah.

    Thank you for shining a different light on Mr Gladstone.

    I love the love of books, his inducting the books into their “homes” himself and personally placing those first 20,000 books in the library!

    For a busy and passionate man to make room for his treasures and make sure that those who couldn’t afford them could at least read them was a thoughtful legacy!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Wouldn’t it be wonderful to stay a night at the Gladstone Library! I am glad you enjoyed my piece on Gladstone – he was an intriguing man, and I love to think of him carefully placing all those books in the new library.

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