Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell celebrate their father’s election to The London Library Presidency

0194Leslie Stephen - father of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell – was elected President of The London Library in 1892 following the death of Alfred Lord Tennyson.

The election saw Stephen standing against none other than William Gladstone who had just been made Prime Minister for the fourth time. Gladstone had a half century long association with the Library – having joined as one of its founder members in 1841 and masterminding the 1879 scheme to raise debentures to acquire the freehold of the Library’s current site in St James’s Square.

Gladstone’s reputation was not, however, enough to win him the election. Leslie Stephen triumphed and his victory was touchingly reported by his children – Vanessa aged 13 and Virginia aged 10 - in their remarkable childhood “newspaper”, The Hyde Park Gate News. Hand-written and illustrated by the children and named after the family's home at 22 Hyde Park Gate, the newspaper was produced between 1891-1892 and provided intimate recollections of the family's daily life.

In Vanessa’s hand, although with the ten year old Virginia heavily involved (she apparently wrote most of the articles), the article for 21st November 1892 reads:

Hyde Park Gate News

VOL II, no. 45 Monday 21st November 1892

“Mr Leslie Stephen whose immense litterary (sic) powers are well known is now the President of the London Library which as Lord Tennyson was before him and Carlysle (sic) was before Tennyson is justly esteemed a great honour.

Mrs Richie the daughter of Thackeray who came to luncheon the next day expressed her delight by jumping from her chair and clapping her hands in a childish manner but none the less sincerely.

The greater part of Mrs Stephen’s joy lies in the fact that Mr Gladstone is only vice-president. She is not at all of a “crowy” nature but we can forgive any woman for triumphing when her husband gets above Mr Gladstone.

We think that the London Library has made a very good choice in putting Mr Stephen before Mr Gladstone as although Mr Gladstone may be a first-rate politician he cannot beat Mr Stephen in writing. 

But as Mr Stephen with that delicacy and modesty which with many other good qualities is always eminent in the great man’s manner went out of the room when the final debate was taking place we cannot oblige our readers with more of the interesting details.”

Stephen’s Presidency coincided with a period of major expansion for the Library. Together, he and the newly appointed Librarian Charles Hagberg Wright, masterminded the complete rebuilding and redesign of the Library. The new building – complete with its famous iron grille bookstacks, Reading Room and Portland stone façade was opened in 1898.