Education: Comment - Gladstone alone among British prime ministers has his own memorial library

Click to follow
NOT LONG AGO I indulged in a piece of pure deferred gratification. For years I have been meaning to visit Hawarden, the village, near Chester but a few yards inside Wales, which (unless you are obsessed by young Michael Owen of Liverpool FC and England, who grew up there), is overwhelmingly and inseparably associated with the memory of WE Gladstone.

It is the site of his great source of refuge and strength, Hawarden Castle, and of St Deiniol's Library, his permanent memorial. The library was constructed a century ago, literally around the Grand Old Man's collection of 29,000 books. Though deep into his eighties, he wheeled several thousand of these in a barrow from his personal library in the castle (which he called his Temple of Peace) to St Deiniol's, then a thing of corrugated iron, and rebuilt in 1902 as a fine construction of Cheshire sandstone.

To be precise, my trip to Hawarden was deferred gratification by invitation, as the trustees of St Deiniol's had asked me to lecture in honour of Mr Gladstone on their Founder's Day. I took as my subject the late-20th-century condition of his great 19th-century invention: a politically neutral career Civil Service that recruited newcomers on the basis of competitive merit rather than personal patronage (often a deeply disturbing concept to the less high-minded or more intellectually stretched among our contemporary political class).

A number of things struck me while in Hawarden. First was the way Gladstone alone among British prime ministers ranks with every modern US president in having his own memorial library. Most ex-premiers settle for a suitable college in which to house their papers (Lady Thatcher's, for example, are to go to the admirable and efficient archive at Churchill College, Cambridge), although some, like Attlee (after his death) and Thatcher (already) have had their own charitable foundations. Churchill, meanwhile, is memorialised by the eponymous college.

Secondly, I was very taken - almost overwhelmingly so - by Gladstone's Temple of Peace when his great grandson, Sir William Gladstone, took me round it. For once an intensely personal place associated with the once mighty and still famous really did feel unchanged, even though the original books have gone to St Deiniol's down the road.

Roy Jenkins was spot on in his biography of Gladstone when he wrote of the Temple: "It is one of the most vividly evocative political shrines in the world, comparable perhaps only with Churchill's Chartwell and Franklin Roosevelt's Hyde Park."

My third impression was of the grandeur and width of Gladstone's notion of his personal memorial - nothing less than a place to promote "divine learning", by which he meant essentially theology, history and philosophy, his three great intellectual passions.

While standing at the lectern and speaking in his memory, I could see before me the human representation of all three disciplines. (I don't think I've ever lectured to three bishops before.) It was perhaps a little strange that the inventor of our modern system of public finance should not have added the subject of political economy to his posthumous intellectual mission.

The Rev Peter Francis, 12th in a line of wardens and chief librarians since Gladstone himself appointed Gilbert Joyce to the post in 1896, says that, a century on, St Deiniol's is "trying to go back to his original intention of a fellowship of scholars gathered together for solid and serious work in inexpensive lodgings and enjoying congenial society".

Mr Gladstone, the Rev Francis explains, "had this belief that if you brought together people from different disciplines you would find truth, and that where there is truth there is God".

St Deiniol's has scholarships for the purpose, he says, and tries to ensure that lack of means does not prevent any scholars from coming: "quite a change today, when there is not much free education around".

Gladstone began to accumulate his library as a boy at Eton. By the time he died in 1898, he had delivered 14 budgets as Chancellor of the Exchequer, served as Prime Minister four times and read 21,000 books, all of which he carefully listed. What a phenomenon - and one still to be sensed quite directly at Hawarden.

The writer is professor of contemporary history at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London. His Gladstone lecture is published in the current edition of `The Stakeholder'