Sanatorium for the Mind – Gladstone’s Library, Wales

Inspiration, Ideas, Tolerance – Gladstone’s Library – Hawarden, North Wales

Gladstone's Library, Hawarden, North Wales


In Hawarden, North Wales just a few miles from where I live there’s an impressive sandstone building, built in the gothic style, it houses Gladstone’s Library. Gladstone was a famous liberal politician and British Prime Minister during the reign of Queen VictoriaWilliam Gladstone was a deeply religious person, a man of great faith. A serious and studious gentleman Mr Gladstone amassed a large private library during his life time. As an old man he decided to donate his library to the local people so that all could benefit from this wonderful repository of knowledge. There is a delightful tale that tells of an elderly Mr Gladstone and his faithful valet moving the books, by wheel barrow, from his family home at Hawarden Castle, down the hill to the village. Then in the early years of the 20th century there was a public appeal to raise the funds to build a suitable building to house the books. John Douglas, ‘the best Cheshire architect’ according to Nicholas Pevsner[3] was commissioned and the present building completed in 1906.


As soon as I arrived at the library I felt at home. The whole set up is like an old fashioned club or a small Oxford College, the daily papers are available in the large sitting room. In the library there is a full range of periodicals including the TLS and TES[4]. The dining room serves teas & coffees, lunch and afternoon tea. The ethos of the place is exceptional – Gladstone wanted his books to be accessible to all, so to this day anyone can come in and register to use the library and enjoy the facilities[5]. When I first came to the Library to become a ‘friend’ I wandered around the collection randomly picking books from the shelves, and of course replacing them carefully, as instructed on the small pieces of paper considerately positioned next to the shelves. The whole building gives off an air of serenity, peace, tranquility. The library is ‘silent’ so there are no distractions. You can sit and work surrounded by books. The library is strong on theology, history and law. It also has a great ‘geography section’ and some wonderful ‘British Empire’ style reading about the ‘colonies’. A small bound volume of maps of the Middle East, published in about 1880 caught my eye. Next I spotted a ‘leather bound’ book on ‘Education in Oxford’ (1861) by James Thorold Rogers (MA) on how to get your son into the University of Oxford. The collection is a wonderful introduction to the life and times of a Victorian statesman.

A selection of photos taken at Gladstone’s Library in September, 2021:


The Warden of Gladstone’s Library is Peter Francis, a clergyman himself with a belief in inter-faith dialogue which fits neatly into the ‘liberal ethos’ of the Library and its founder[6]. Peter was generous enough to chat to me in March of this year about the library and his role here.  As a clergyman Peter told me he’d been ‘dogged’ by inclusivity all his life. He confessed to a lifelong desire to embrace and include all groups – female clergy, Muslims, the gay community, minority groups.

He pioneered and developed an additional room in the library known as ‘The House of Wisdom’ to focus on books about Islam and the Muslim faith. When I first discovered this room I couldn’t believe my luck. I have a great personal interest in the Middle East and was fascinated to discover this exceptional collection. In fact if you’d said to me ‘There’s a fine collection of Middle Eastern literature, history and criticism on your doorstep, covering much of the Arab-speaking world’ I would have looked at you in complete disbelief.

The original House of Wisdom, Bayt al-Hikma in Arabic, was a centre of learning and a library, originally based in Damascus then moved to Baghdad in the 8th century. Under the stewardship of Caliph Al-Ma’mun it became the largest collection of manuscripts and books in the world. Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars worked and studied at the House of Wisdom. Manuscripts were translated from Persian, Greek, Chinese and Sanskrit into Arabic. Initially translation focused on mathematics, medicine and astronomy. Translations of philosophy and poetry came a little later. Scholars were invited to visit from India and Persia to exchange ideas on science, cartography, alchemy and to discuss mathematics and astronomical observations.  Great importance was placed on the value of knowledge. Intellectual development and the exchange of ideas was respected.  Ancient texts were often more desirable than gold and silver as spoils of war.

Abbasid Scholars, House of Wisdom - 12th century

The House of Wisdom thrived in the 9th and 10th centuries and was finally destroyed with the Siege of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258. At this time, it is said that the River Tigris ran black with ink…………The idea of scholars working together to develop and discuss ideas was not unique to Baghdad. By the early Middle Ages universities were developing in Bologna, Oxford and Paris[7]. In Salerno, Southern Italy there was a Medical School where Jewish, Christian and Islamic scholars worked together to advance ideas of medicine. Patients came from near and far to be treated.The doctors developed a terraced garden on the hillside filled with plants and herbs useful in the treatment of ailments[8].

The more I think about it the more I realise that the creation of the’ House of Wisdom’ at Gladstone’s Library was an act of genius. This is a real invitation to library users to inform themselves, to broaden our predominantly ‘western views’ and to appreciate events and actions in context. Peter Francis invited Zia Chaudry to join the Board of Trustees last year. Chaudry is a barrister and a Muslim, he has a fascinating perspective on faith in British society. Author of  ‘Just your Average Muslim’[9]. He regularly addresses groups on how we can work together more effectively. How Muslim and non-Muslim groups in Britain need to work together in a spirit of tolerance and consideration.


Gladstone’s Library is a dynamic and evolving environment. There is a ‘writer in residence’ programme and an annual literary festival. Conversation in the café or in the sitting room is inevitable. Last year I was fortunate to hear Adnan Mahmutovic, writer in residence, discussing boundaries. Adnan is a Bosnian War refugee now living and working in Stockholm. He examines issues of ‘identity’ and ‘home’. To start the discussion he selected the Robert Frost poem ‘Mending Wall’. It is worth reading and considering.


Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun; And makes gaps even two can pass abreast. The work of hunters is another thing: I have come after them and made repair, Where they have left not one stone on a stone, But they would have the rabbit out of hiding, To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean, No one has seen them made or heard them made, But at spring mending-time we find them there.

I let my neighbour know beyond the hill; And on a day we meet to walk the line And set the wall between us once again. We keep the wall between us as we go. To each the boulders that have fallen to each. And some are loaves and some so nearly balls

We have to use a spell to make them balance: “Stay where you are until our backs are turned!” We wear our fingers rough with handling them.

Oh, just another kind of out-door game, One on a side. It comes to little more: There where it is we do not need the wall: He is all pine and I am apple orchard. My apple trees will never get across And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder If I could put a notion in his head: “Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offence. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him, But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather He said it for himself. I see him there Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.

He moves in darkness as it seems to me, Not of woods only and the shade of trees. He will not go behind his father’s saying, And he likes having thought of it so well. He says again, “Good fences make good neighbours.”

The lines that stands out to me are:

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know, What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offence.

Once again I think of tolerance and compassion. The need for all of us to consider our actions carefully. The need to try to understand, appreciate and respect the views of others[11].

Gladstone’s Library provides a safe and secure thinking environment. It offers a space where you can escape the ‘every day world’. It creates a place where it is good to think. A place that encourages learning. In a world increasingly dominated by capitalism – this oasis of calm with its charitable foundation and ‘not-for-profit’ status is reassuring, and comforting. The sitting room with its leather chairs and roaring fire in the winter. This is a wonderful, safe, secure place to come and think, to write, to be. I urge everyone to find a place to think. A place to be the best you can possibly be. Gladstone’s Library is truly ‘A Sanatorium for the Mind’.

Arabic Text - School of Medicine, Salerno - 1268


  •  [1] ‘Sanatorium for the Mind’ This is a translation of the Greek lunette found above the entrance to the Library of St Gallen, Switzerland.
  • [2] Queen Victoria reigned from 1819-1901. William Gladstone was Prime Minster of Great Britain four times during the reign of Queen Victoria; 1868-74, 1880-85, 1886, 1892-1894.
  • [3] Pevsner, Nicholas (2002) [1969] The Buildings of England, New Haven & London: Yale University Press
  • [4] TLS – Times Literary Supplement. TES – Times Educational Supplement.
  • [5] If you become a Friend of the Library you can use the library every day. Becoming a ‘Friend’ requires a donation of your choice to the library by Standing Order once a month (minimum amount is £5).
  • [6] Gladstone was a liberal politician. He believed in free trade, low taxes and equal opportunities for all. He disliked and opposed the aristocracy (they distrusted him in return). He was a popular public speaker and appealed to the working people of Britain.
  • [7] Bologna University dates from 1088, Oxford from 1096 and Paris from 1170.
  • [8] Johannes & Mattheaus Plantearius (1161) produced  ‘Liber de Simplici Medicina’ in Salerno. Later to be published in Paris and Brussels (c.1500).
  • [9] Zia Chaudry (2013) Just Your Average Muslim. Grosvenor House Publishing.
  • [10] Robert Frost (1874-1963) Mending Wall
  • [11] I’m reminded too of one of my favourite authors WG Sebald writing about the displacement of Jewish German people after the Second World War. Their sense of ‘wandering’ is described poignantly in ‘The Emigrants’ 1992, Vertigo.
  • With thanks to Adnan Mahmutovic for his highly insightful observations.

16 thoughts on “Sanatorium for the Mind – Gladstone’s Library, Wales

  1. Janet, do you think you’ll spend the night there sometime soon? I remember when you wrote of this before you said they have rooms and serve afternoon tea! I would love to spend some time writing in this special place. An how perfect that the House of Wisdom should be there for you–definitely a sign for you to continue pursuit of your Middle East interests. xoxo

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I just love the idea of a “Sanatorium of the Mind” – to me libraries have always had that effect. The peace, the solitude, the aura of learning that pervades every inch. It is sad to think that there is a trend away from libraries with books to Information Centres filled with computer terminals and multi-media areas. There is a place for all of that, of course, times change and scientific journals fit modern media very comfortably.
    Our local library in Adelaide was great – it had a “loud” room designed for teenagers with DVDs, Internet, Music, an IT area with computers yet plenty of arm chairs in quiet areas for novels.
    However, my favourite places will always be “oases of calm” like the Gladstone Library.

    Liked by 1 person

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