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The library was founded by former UK Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone in 1894. He was eager to share his personal library with others, especially those who faced financial constraint. He would allow bright children and young adults of the village of Hawarden to use his collection. His desire, his daughter Mary Gladstone said, was to “bring together books who had no readers with readers who had no books”.

In 1895, at the age of 85, William Gladstone gave £40,000 and much of his own library. Armed with only his valet and one of his daughters, William Gladstone wheeled 32,000 books three quarters of a mile between his home at Hawarden Castle and the library. He unpacked them and put them onto shelves using his own catalogue system.

In a diary entry (dated 23 December 1895) he concisely described the library’s founding thus: “I have this day constituted my trust at St Deiniol’s. The cost of the work has been I think £41 to £42000, including some charges of maintenance to Dec. 31. 95. May God of His mercy prosper it.”

Following his death in 1898, a public appeal was launched for funds to provide a permanent building to house the collection and to replace the temporary structure. The £9,000 raised provided an imposing building, designed by John Douglas, which was officially opened by Earl Spencer on 14 October 1902 as the National Memorial to W.E. Gladstone. The Gladstone family were themselves to fulfill the founder’s vision by funding the residential wing, which welcomed its first resident on 29 June 1906.

Today the library has 26 bedrooms, a restaurant called Food For Thought, a chapel and conference facilities. It hosts a year long programme of events based around William Gladstone’s core interest areas of religion and theology, history and politics, and 19th-century literary culture.

The library’s reading rooms are open to visitors on short guided tours only at 12pm, 2pm and 4pm each weekday.

In March 2018, Gladstone’s Library and the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) announced a £4.5 million Living Heritage Project to build a new building and refurbish the existing grade I listed historical library. In June 2018 four architectural companies were shortlisted—AOC Architecture, Caruso St John ArchitectsHopkins Architects, and Simpson & Brown—each receiving £4,000 to develop a proposal.

In July 2018 the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) announced that Caruso St John had won the competition to design the new building for Gladstone’s Library.

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