A MOMENT TO REFLECT

27 July 2020

A Moment to Reflect -72

ST DEINIOL’S

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

Some years ago, I had the joy and, privilege of staying for a couple of nights in a library. No, I wasn’t accidentally locked in over a weekend. This was, in fact, a rather special—indeed unique—library in Flintshire, North Wales at a place called Hawarden. St Deiniol’s residential library! It is often referred to simply as “Gladstone’s Library.”

The former Prime Minister, William Gladstone, who was four times Prime Minister during a political career that spanned over 60 years, had been an avid reader. He had amassed a personal library of over 20,000 books, many of them theological. 

As it says in the website for St Deiniol’s, 

“Gladstone was eager to make his personal library accessible to others; the first step towards fulfilling this vision was taken in 1889 when two large iron rooms were erected with six or seven smaller rooms to act as studies. Gladstone, over eighty years old, was closely involved in the transfer of 20,000 of his books from Hawarden Castle to their new home a quarter of a mile away, undertaking much of the manual labour himself, helped only by his valet and one of his daughters.”

I don’t know what it is like now, but when I went there many years ago the bedrooms were small and fairly basic, almost like cells in a monastery. There was a communal lounge, and everyone ate together in the refectory. Around the table you met all sorts of fascinating people from all walks of life, whose reasons for being there were as varied as the people themselves. 

The library itself is spectacular, with wonderful old wooden bookcases—you felt like you were in “Hogwarts.”

I only stayed there two nights, but the joy of that experience has stayed with me ever since. 

Gladstone had wanted to share with others his passion for reading, and for knowledge, and he bequeathed not only his books but also a large sum of money to enable others of lesser means to do so.

Sadly, the library is currently closed because of the pandemic.

However, it has also been in the news more recently for another reason. Those involved in the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign have called for the statue of Gladstone seen in the picture to be removed because Gladstone had for a long time spoken out against the abolitionist movement. (His father owned plantations in the Caribbean that used slave labour which no doubt influenced his perspective.)

However, by the 1850’s his views had changed completely, and he acknowledged publicly that he had been entirely wrong. 

As a representative of Gladstone’s Library recently put it, Gladstone “cited the abolition of slavery as one of the great political issues in which the masses had been right and the classes had been wrong.”

Gladstone may have taken a long time to realise that he had got it completely wrong, but I think it was a mark of real statesmanship that he recognised, with honesty and humility, the errors he had made. (Not something you see so much of nowadays!) 

And it is appropriate, and good, that his great-great-grandson has said on behalf of the family that they do not oppose the removal of the statue.

Perhaps we should all take a moment to look back on any times in our own lives when we eventually realised that we were very wrong —as well as to reflect honestly on those issues about which we are at the moment so absolutely certain that we are right?