The Gladstone Pamphlets at the National Library of Wales

Collections / Research - Posted 18-06-2018

In January of this year Dr John Powell, Professor of History at Oklahoma State University, spent some time in the UK, both here at the National Library of Wales and in Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, undertaking research into the Gladstone’s Pamphlet Collection. We are very grateful that Dr Powell kindly agreed to write this blog about the part of the collection which is based at the Library.


William Gladstone was a towering political figure in nineteenth-century Britain, a four-time prime minister who transformed Victorian finance and uniquely framed the political landscape in moral terms. Along with his keen mind and unparalleled capacity for work, he brought to every problem a little library of knowledge amassed from his voracious habit of reading. His library of more than 20,000 books was famous in its day. His books, taken together with the record of daily reading found in his diaries and the many annotations left in the margins, have become integral to the study of Gladstone’s intellectual and policy development. Scholars have only begun to notice that the world of Victorian intellectual discourse depended on a heady mix of books, journals, newspapers and the more ephemeral medium of the tract and pamphlet. As Leah Price observed, if we count “what was produced” instead of what has survived, the Victorians might properly be considered “people of the tract.”


We now know that Gladstone himself was a lifelong reader and collector of tracts. He utilized the medium to correct and quickly publish accurate records of his speeches, and to engage in timely debate when the editorial strictures of journal and book publishing hindered immediate response. He campaigned with A Chapter of Autobiography in 1868, defended the Church with The Vatican Decrees and their Bearing on Civil Allegiance in 1874, and quickened the international conscience with The Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East in 1876. It is impossible to say how many pamphlets passed through his hands, but it is estimated that some 10,000 are today extant, with the major collections being held at Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, and at the National Library of Wales (NLW), where some 5,000 Gladstone tracts have proven to be an invaluable source for scholars of the Victorian era. Added to the inherent value of the tracts themselves, Gladstone’s own annotations in a significant percentage of them provide scholars with a kind of evidence not generally found in correspondence, memoranda, and public papers.


Even before Gladstone’s death in 1898, the British Museum had expressed interest in receiving the Gladstone Papers. But by 1921 when Hawarden Castle was inhabited by Gladstone’s third son, Henry Neville (b. 1852), the four-time prime minister seemed to be of another age. The trustees of the British Museum only wanted a selection of the pamphlets, and these merely to fill in their holdings. This provided an opportunity for NLW librarian John Ballinger to lobby the younger Gladstone, who served on the library’s Board of Governors.  As a result, Gladstone agreed to send pamphlets not wanted by the British Library to the National Library of Wales. The bulk of these were bound in 459 volumes and shelved as the “Gladstone Pamphlets.” Tracts from a later donation in 1932 remain unbound in 108 boxes, also labelled as “Gladstone Pamphlets.”


When Gladstone marked pamphlets in the first flush of new revelations or ideas, he often left a very personal glimpse of the feelings which later would be refined and incorporated into a speech, policy, publication, or attitude. Almost any volume of the “Gladstone Pamphlets” might provide a case in point. Pull volume 174 from the shelf, for instance, and you will find Gladstone’s personal copy of E. B. Pusey’s Entire Absolution of the Penitent, which he read on 8 March 1846. He had long admired Pusey’s spiritual temperament and commitment to Church reform, but by the mid-1840s had begun to doubt his elder colleague’s judgment. Upon reading Pusey’s phrase: “One word only of caution may be added to the young,” with its attending footnote:

“See Mr. Newman’s valuable Sermon, ‘Dangers to the Penitent’”

–Gladstone underlined “Newman’s valuable Sermon” and noted in the margin: “This is hardly decent, time considered”. Newman had converted to Rome less than four months earlier. Reading this comment in the original pamphlet preserved at the NLW is about as close to being with Gladstone in his study and in his head as we are likely to get.


John Powell

Professor of History

Oklahoma Baptist University


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A blog about the work and collections of the National Library of Wales.

Due to the more personal nature of blogs it is the Library's policy to publish postings in the original language only. An equal number of blog posts are published in both Welsh and English, but they are not the same postings. For a translation of the blog readers may wish to try facilities such as Google Translate.

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