Rev Malcolm MacColl and ‘the noblest man whom I ever knew’

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Banner image: Inscription carved into a wooden panel in the Theology Room at Gladstone’s Library


I give my books to St. Deiniol’s Library in memory of the happy days which I have spent at Hawarden & in token of my undying affection for WILLIAM EWART GLADSTONE the noblest man whom I ever knew.’

Extract from the WILL of the Rev Canon Malcolm MacColl

Died 5th April, 1907.

In accordance with this Bequest 948 Volumes were added to the Library A.D 1910.

We, the team at Gladstone’s Library, often come across little things in the library and archives that offer intrigue; especially since some of us are still new here! The library is over 100 years old so there are bound to be secrets to explore! One such occasion, for me, was the inscription in the Theology Room (one of our Reading Rooms), and the declaration of ‘undying affection’ for our founder, William Ewart Gladstone. As you can imagine, my curiosity was piqued. Who was this man, Rev. Canon Malcolm MacColl, who called Gladstone ‘the noblest man whom I ever knew’? And why was his donation to the library so important as to merit an inscription carved into the very wood of its walls?

Malcolm MacColl was born in March 1831 and died in April 1907. He was of Jacobite descent, and his father had lost all property and status for his loyalty to the young Pretender. MacColl was a British clergyman and publicist who enabled himself, through his intellect, to rise upwards. He was ordained a priest of the Episcopal Church in 1857 after winning a place at Trinity College, Glenalmond, Scotland.

Image: Portrait of Malcolm MacColl

In modern terms, Malcolm MacColl was a fan of Gladstone. He admired him as a politician and as a person. However, he didn’t remain a distant admirer - on 26th March 1858 he wrote to Gladstone…

A little context: A few months previously MacColl had been sacked for refusing to put his signature on a letter of thanks to a Bishop who had treated him with disdain. William Gladstone was known to be a supporter of the Episcopal Church in Scotland, and Malcolm counted on his generosity and benevolence as he wrote to him for help. This first letter to Gladstone reads as a plea, but also as a sort of job application – Malcolm lists his previous employers, explains why he wouldn’t be able to find work in a normal Scottish chaplaincy, and asks if Gladstone had any place to recommend him to. This letter was over three printed pages long. MacColl writes,

‘As your time has of late been so much occupied by literary pursuits, as well as parliamentary duties, you have probably not had time to read the Bishop of Brechin’s Charge…appealing to the private judgement of the laity on one of the most mysterious points of our religion.’ (Russell, 10)

He goes on to explain the charge in detail, why he considers it nonsense, and then apologises for his boldness when writing to one ‘so immeasurably superior in every way’. (Russell 12).

Gladstone sent a kind reply, sympathising with MacColl, though committing to nothing. This led to a few further exchanges in which MacColl described his increasingly desperate circumstances plainly. MacColl then drifted in and out of jobs, writing Gladstone sparingly. In his edition of MacColl’s Memoirs, Russell writes,

‘In private life he was the most peaceable and placeable of men. But when he took his pen in hand to defend some cause in which he believed, or to attack wrong-doing, or even to expose what he esteemed fallacious reasoning, he smote and spared not.’ (Russell, 21)

This particularly in reference to MaColl castigating two opposers of the removal of the Disabilities of the Scottish Episcopal Clergy as ‘arch-bigots’.

MacColl was a physical witness to the atrocities committed in Bulgaria, and in this matter, as in so many matters before, he wrote to Gladstone. England had so far only heard rumours of matters abroad, and Disraeli sneered at them, calling them ‘coffee-house babble’ (Russell, 45). But some were not so convinced. Dr Liddon, a preacher from at St. Paul’s, and MacColl investigated personally, and became witnesses to the persecution of Christians in Bulgaria.

The things MacColl saw must have been gruesome, and he wrote to the Sunday Times and the Spectator (he knew a few editors personally, as he had written for various newspapers over the years). 

Image: A letter from Canon MacColl to W.E. Gladstone (c. 1878) on the ‘Eastern Question’

By this time, it’s safe to say that Gladstone and he had become regular correspondents, keeping up with each other by letter, sending each other pamphlets they thought may be of interest; communicating a few times per year.  

After returning to power, Gladstone rewarded MacColl with the living of St. Georges, Botolph Lane (1871) and with a canonry of Ripon (1884). The latter posting aroused the active opposition of Queen Victoria who had not forgotten or forgiven MacColl's virulent campaign against the Ottoman Empire 1876-78 after the 'Bulgarian Agitation'. Gladstone himself, of course, had very little love left for Victoria, and treated her with the same respect he would any other person, rather than what she considered her dues as Queen of England.  

We currently have 34 works by Malcolm MacColl available in our library. Amongst other titles, MacColl wrote a biography of Tennyson. We also hold two copies of the memoir written by G.W.E. Russell at Malcolm’s request, titled Malcolm MacColl: Memoirs and Correspondence, including some correspondence with William Ewart Gladstone.

And, of course, we have the 948 volumes that the late Rev. Canon Malcolm MacColl left to the Library in his will. Here is an excerpt from our accession register from December 1910:

Image: List of Acquisitions by St. Deiniol’s Library in December 1910 via Donation by Malcolm MacColl page 2

I do not envy the librarian who had to record all 948 books in here!

In 1897, MacColl wrote to Gladstone on the topic of joining the Cowley Brotherhood, asking for his advice, explaining that 'You [Gladstone] have always been so good and kind to me that I don’t like to take any serious step in life without consulting you' (Russel, 238). Gladstone’s letter is lost to us, but from MacColl’s response, we can infer that Gladstone was against Malcolm joining the Brotherhood, recommending marriage instead.

In 1904, near the end of his life, Malcolm MacColl followed this advice and married, though by this point his health was failing. When he died in April 1907, Gladstone’s son Rev. Stephen Gladstone, officiated his burial. We don’t know for sure how often MacColl came to Hawarden but like to imagine that he spent much time here, especially after Gladstone’s death, in reminiscence of his friend.

When I asked around the Library team for opinions on the relationship between MacColl and Gladstone, I was told - in good humour - that MacColl’s letters must have been a bit of a nuisance to Gladstone. This doesn’t really make sense to me. I can’t imagine that Gladstone would have had to face any major trouble if he hadn’t helped MacColl out. It also makes MacColl either completely oblivious to Gladstone’s feelings / tone, or Gladstone a really good actor. After all, the inscription reads, ‘…in memory of the happy days spent in Hawarden…’, which doesn’t exactly speak to Gladstone being clear about an annoyance, which he wouldn’t have had any reason for hiding. What would you think of someone who asked for financial support, who was also one of your staunchest defenders?

When Gladstone took ill in 1896, he wrote one of his last letters to MacColl;

‘Forgive me for again saying my sigh makes MS. a great difficulty with me. You will be surprised when I say that it took me, I think, near half an hour to read your letter. Ever yours sincerely, W. E. Gladstone. Many letters sent me I never read at all.’ (Russell, 265)

This does not seem, to me, the letter of someone pandered. If he had not liked MacColl, he could simply have stopped reading or replying to the letters, citing his declining health.

We don’t know all of Rev. Canon Malcolm MacColl’s life, but we do know that we can never separate him from Gladstone’s Library and the man he communicated so often with. And nor would we want to.


Malcolm MacColl. Memoirs and Correspondence. Russell, G.W.E., ed. London, Smith, Elder & Co. 1914.

Chisholm, Hugh, ed. ‘MacColl, Malcolm’. Encyclopædia Britannica. 17 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 1911.

By Deborah Varenna, Graduate Work Experience

The inscription can be seen in the Theology Room at Gladstone's Library. This can be accessed by the general public via a free Glimpse at 12pm, 2pm or 4pm any day of the week.

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