I have been spending a fair amount of the past few weeks at Gladstone’s Library (formerly known as St. Deiniol’s), Hawarden, Flintshire, just across the north Wales border. It’s a real discovery. I think I first heard of it several years ago via the British Association of Victorian Studies, but it is only now I’ve actually got here.
Four-times Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone was an avid collector of books. His country residence was the splendid (new) Hawarden Castle, which still has grounds partially open to the public today, five minutes away from the Library’s site. Gladstone wished to make his books available to others and had established a ‘Tin Tabernacle’ edifice to house some of his books late in his life. After his death in 1898 he left a legacy specifically to establish a more permanent residential library. This opened in 1902.
As Gladstone’s Library says on its website homepage, it is “a residential library and meeting place dedicated to dialogue, debate and learning for open-minded individuals and groups who are looking to explore pressing questions and to pursue study and research in an age of distraction and easy solutions”.
The library itself is small (in one sense) but perfectly formed, and specialises in theology and Victorian studies. It is actually the most important research library in Wales outside of the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, with over 250,000 volumes. As well as books the library involves a lot of wood (see photo), and narrow circling staircases that creak as you walk up them.
In many ways part of the Library’s charm is that it still manages to be relatively free of the increasingly technology-rich paraphernalia that pervades modern libraries. There is of course a computerised catalogue of the stock (with Gladstone’s own personal library mixed in on the shelves) but books are ‘taken out’ by filling in a slip with the book’s details on and inserting one copy into the space on the shelf where your book was. Nice. If you are resident at the Library you can colonise an upstairs gallery desk of your own. Whilst this is obviously not the British Library the holdings in its specialist areas strike me as pretty good — the Victorian literature sections are serving me quite well, and one of the attractions for Victorian Studies scholars is that there are actually nineteenth-century books in the mix as well. I stumbled across a first edition of Augusta Webster’s volume of poems Portraits (1870) which I had never seen before, and I’ve also been able to browse Alfred Miles’s multi-volume The Poets and Poetry of the Century (1891-97), which I am forever reading about in articles on Victorian poetry but had also never actually seen. In short, if you have a writing project to progress or finish, or want some quiet space for reflection, then St. Deiniol’s is a great place to come. Part Two of my reflections on being here to follow…