William Ewert Gladstone (1809 – 1898) was nothing if not industrious. Born in Liverpool, he enjoyed a long and distinguished political career in Britain’s Liberal Party, serving as prime minister on four separate occasions. He was immensely popular: the “people’s William,” the “Grand Old Man,” and the liberal rival of the establishment’s darling, Benjamin Disraeli. Gladstone may have lacked the easy charm and charisma of Disraeli, his Tory prime ministerial counterpart, but what he missed in stagecraft he made up for by being studious and hardworking: qualities which would culminate in the construction of Gladstone’s library.
The rationale behind Gladstone’s library, still the only residential library in the UK, was the convergence of two of the great man’s main passions. The first related to his libertarian values, the core creed of which preached open opportunity, free trade, and constitutional reform aimed towards creating social equality. The second was his lifelong love for reading. Gladstone read widely and voraciously, nourishing his intellect and deepening his education from the cradle to the grave. As his daughter would one day remark, when asked about the reason behind her late father’s public library, Gladstone had wanted “to bring together books who had no readers with readers who had no books”.
Gladstone’s formative and political years
To best understand the story behind Gladstone library, we must look back to Gladstone’s early life. After graduating from Eton College, he was awarded a place at the University of Oxford where he studied Classics and Mathematics. Surprisingly, during these years Gladstone was a proud and practicing Tory. The later Liberal prime minister wouldn’t convert to liberalism until later in life. However his time spent politicking and debating did wonders for his studies, and Gladstone came out with a double first, demonstrating his intellectual versatility and academic excellence.
In 1832, he entered the House of Commons as a Tory MP. Here in Parliament, Gladstone gained a reputation for loquaciousness. His speeches, which were seldom short, were colored with so much classical and biblical allusion that his peers must have sometimes felt they were attending a poetry recital rather than a parliamentary session. Gladstone still in fact holds the record for the longest budget speech ever delivered in the UK Parliament — four hours and 45 minutes; a marathon of a monologue throughout the whole of which the Liberal prime minister kept himself hydrated by liberally swigging from a curious concoction of sherry and egg.
Aside from the drinking, Gladstone’s public and political life were characterized by the most upright conduct. Certain aspects of his private life, however, paint a rather different picture of the People’s William. In the 1840s, Gladstone started upon his self-styled “rescue work”, a social mission aimed at rehabilitating London’s prostitutes and removing them from the streets of the capital by means of gainful employment. His motives may seem innocuous enough, but Gladstone was no stranger to sex.
He had a penchant for pornography—a lucrative business even in the Victorian Age—and admitted the excitement he derived from meeting ladies of the night out on the cold streets of Britain’s capital. By 1849, he had begun to scourge himself as an act of penance for the occasions on which he “courted evil”. Clearly there existed a considerable tension between his deeply held Anglo-Catholic convictions and suppressed sexuality. But alongside this ran charitable motives: motives that would come to the fore at the construction of Gladstone’s library.