Kevin Brown Historian

History of health, medicine and naval history

Sleeping with Books: With a Gladstone’s Library Scholarship at St Deinol’s.

The nearest thing Britain has to a presidential library is actually a residential library, a unique place where you can ‘sleep with the books’ in a very special library established from his personal collections by the Grand Old Man of Liberalism, William Ewart Gladstone, four times prime minister. One of the great things about staying at Gladstone’s Library is the atmosphere of a library dedicated to the meeting of ideas and thoughts, where it is possible to engage kbwegwith social and moral questions and to meet interesting people. I was lucky to spend two weeks there as a Gladstone Library Scholar in September 2016 in what was a spa of scholarship for the mind.

The library is built around the personal collections of Gladstone, a bibliophile as much as a statesman, begun when he was a pupil at Eton and then as a student at Oxford but continued throughout his years at the fore of British political life in his age. Originally it was housed in his own library at nearby Hawarden Castle in a study he dubbed his ‘Temple of Peace’. Plagued with the problem of finding somewhere to store his book collections, he was also keen to make his library available to others and ‘bring together readers who had no books and books who had no readers’. In 1889, when over 80 years old, Gladstone erected an iron library, referred to as the ‘Iron Tabernacle’ with two large rooms and smaller studies close to St Deinol’s Church and helped to transfer in wheel barrows 32,000 of his books from Hawarden Castle, a quarter of a mile away, assisted by one of his daughters and his valet. His comment at the time was ‘what man who really loves his books delegates to any other human being the office of introducing them into their homes’. The library, heavy on divinity and the humanities, was catalogued according to his own system and most of his books were annotated by him as he read them.

This library was endowed with £40,000 by Gladstone to establish ‘a country home for the purposes of study and research, for the pursuit of divine learning, a centre of religious life’. After his death in 1898 an appeal was launched to build a permanent library as a national memorial to him, which raised £9,000. The building, designed by John Douglas, was officially opened by Earl Spencer on 14 October 1902. A residential wing enabling scholars to actually stay at the library, now named St Deinol’s after the nearby parish church, at minimum cost to themselves was built at the expense of the Gladstone family and opened by on 29 June 1906 and officially dedicated by A.G. Edwards Bishop of St Asaph’s on 3 January 1907.

img_0995Over the next century, the library continued to be a centre of High Anglican study with a vaguely clerical feel to it. New books were acquired on theology, history, philosophy, the classics, art and literature, all subjects of great interest to Gladstone himself. However, it has extended its scope with such initiatives as writers in residence, literary festivals and the House of Wisdom, a reading room devoted to Islamic culture to foster understanding between Muslim and Christians. Yet, it also continues to carry out its mission as a place of  scholarship and contemplation. It is a silent library. Not an oppressive silence, but the silence that allows for thought and peace.

I established myself at a desk in the gallery of the reading room that contains the Gladstone Foundation collection, surrounded by Gladstone’s own books, many of them containing his pencilled annotations. The collection at first sight is not big on medicine or the history of medicine, my own subject, yet there were enough works to keep me occupied as I studied Victorian medicine as seen through Gladstone’s collections and his annotations. As author of a book on the history of syphilis, I felt that I was revisiting old ground in reading through the many tracts and books relating to the Contagious Diseases Acts but some of the works on brothels and the condition of fallen women gave an insight into Gladstone’s intense personal  interest in the redemption of the magdalene sinner. 11263020_903698276320061_6697739832787746148_o

Of course many of the books I looked at would have interested Gladstone for the debate in them on liberalism, personal rights and responsibilities, freedom of conscience and action, rather than the strictly medical and health issues that they covered. There are many pamphlets on the issue of compulsory vaccination, mostly opposed to vaccination and often hysterical in tone. As with opposition to the Contagious Diseases Acts which seemed to condone prostitution by the licensing of brothels in ports and garrison towns to prevent the spread of sexually transmissible infections that could debilitate the armed forces, opposition to vaccination was to it being an infringement of individual liberty and ignored the issues of vaccination being a means of improving public health and being for the common good oimg_0995f society. Animal experimentation for medical research also features. Battles long since won and lost, but the moral and ethical issues raised are ones still being argued and pondered on.

Some of the books on medical subjects belonged not to the GOM himself, but to his wife. Catherine Gladstone is overshadowed by her husband’s reputation but was a formidable figure in her own right interested in social questions and the foundress of orphanages and convalescent homes. Henry Acland’s  views on the reform of medical education at the University of Oxford may have been sent to her husband, but it was Catherine who received a copy of his report on the 1854 cholera epidemic in Oxford. During the 1866 cholera epidemic in the East End, she worked on the wards of the London Hospital in Whitechapel and established a home for orphans at Hawarden. In St Deinol’s church, close to the marble effigies of the Gladstones (who were buried in Westminster Abbey) is a memorial plaque to Sarah Jones ”for 16 years Matron and Mother of the Orphans in Mrs Gladstone’s Home’, who died in 1885, placed there ‘in grateful appreciation of her work by the Prime minister and Mrs Gladstone’.

In exploring in particular a more surprising and less familiar aspect of Gladstone’s collections and looking at what he found of interest or worthy of comment in them, I gained a different insight into Victorian medicine, health issues and social ideas. It was a different way of  looking at a familiar topic, and that is part of the purpose of a library like Gladstone’s, to examine ideas and subjects from different angles,  challenge ideas and aim at fresh thinking.

The other people staying there were an interesting mixture and changed regularly during my time there. Where else could you discuss over dinner such varied subjects as funeral rites, making exciting and unconventional presentations,  and the trials and tribulations of publication with such diverse  groups as women clergy, would be poets and screen writers, theologians, people on a spiritual retreat and academics? Bluestocking, tourist seeking an unusual holiday experience,  clergy, writer, academic,  parish group on retreat and young businessmen, there was something for everyone there, at least those who sought  it out.

after Archibald McLeod, albumen carte-de-visite, 1882

A stay at Gladstone’s Library is more than studying the written word and engaging in debate and discussion, it is also an opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the setting. Gladstone was a muscular Christian who sought relaxation in physical activity, in his case chopping down trees. One of his axes is preserved in the Library. James Cape Story, an early researcher at the Library, described it in 1905 as ‘a temple of learning…a place for restful meditation, for research, for mental and spiritual refreshment and stimulus – and this amid charming natural surroundings, at the feet of the Welsh mountains’. There are some wonderful nearby walks to be enjoyed.

I came away from my residential Scholarship relaxed and contemplative, having had the opportunity to read, think and reflect away from other distractions and worries. Sleeping with books is a good way to spend a few happy, productive and enjoyable weeks.


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