Gladstone’s Library – a knowledge oasis born in the tin tabernacle

Written by Amy Sumner

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NESTLED in a small village in North Wales is Britain’s finest residential library.

Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden is Britain’s only Prime Ministerial library and the national memorial to the great Victorian statesman and four times Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone. It is home to a unique collection of more than 150,000 printed items and offers a comfortable, sociable and stimulating environment together with resources for creative study including renowned collections of theological, historical, cultural and political materials.

The library started life in the ‘tin tabernacle’, a small structure of corrugated iron situated behind where the current library building stands. Gladstone bought the land for this original building in 1889 and it was opened in 1894. It moved into its current home between 1902 and 1906.

In founding his library, Gladstone was eager to share his personal collection with others and especially with those wanting to learn but facing financial constraint. His desire, his daughter Mary Drew said, was to ‘bring together books who had no readers with readers who had no books’. Armed with only his valet and one of his daughters, Gladstone was well into his eighties when he wheeled 32,000 books three quarters of a mile between his home at Hawarden Castle and the Library. He unpacked them and put them onto the shelves using his own catalogue system.

Following his death in 1898, a public appeal was launched for funds to provide a permanent building to house the collection and to replace the temporary structure. The £9,000 raised provided an imposing library wing, designed by John Douglas, which was officially opened by Earl Spencer on 14th October 1902 as the National Memorial to W. E. Gladstone. The Gladstone family were themselves to fulfill the founder’s vision by funding the residential wing, which welcomed its first resident on 29th June 1906.

Today the Library is a hub of activity and welcomes visitors from across the globe. Its priority is to build and nurture a wide network of writers and thinkers in order to maintain Gladstone’s legacy of engagement with social, moral and spiritual questions, helping people reflect more deeply on issues and ideas that concern them.

The collection has grown to an outstanding resource of approximately 150,000 printed items on a wide range of subjects but specialising in the core subject areas of History and Politics, Religion and Theology, and Literature and Literary Culture. These three key areas dominated Gladstone’s life, thinking and values and now form the core of all the Library does.

As part of its Literary Culture strand, the Library holds its own Writer in Residence programme which has previously hosted many writers. These writers, in turn, reside at Gladstone’s Library for one month, during which time they publish blogs, run a day masterclass and give an evening talk about their writing life.

Gladstone’s Library is also home to its own literary festivals, Gladfest and Hearth, which bring together inspiring contemporary thinkers and speakers.

In addition, the Library curates an exciting annual programme of events and residential courses exploring a wide variety of theological, historical and political issues and themes.

Open for 50 weeks of the year, Gladstone’s Library now has 26 boutique-style bedrooms, its own coffee shop/restaurant, Food for Thought, and is home to a variety of courses from weekly language courses to evening literary events.

Access to the Reading Rooms is for Readers only but sign-up is free. The public are encouraged to join a free Glimpse of the Reading Rooms which takes place three times a day (12noon, 2pm and 4pm) seven days a week for a potted history of the Library and its founder, and a look inside the beautiful library itself, still a silent working environment.

You can watch a video about Gladstone’s Library, made by Buzzfeed and Bring Me, here.

To find out more about Gladstone’s Library or any of its events, please visit,

Be happy with what you have and are, be generous with both, and you won’t have to hunt for happiness.

– William Ewart Gladstone.

Photo credit Gladstone’s Library


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