"GIVE me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe" is a famous quote attributed to US President Abraham Lincoln.

Like his American counterpart, four times Prime Minister William Gladstone was also a fan of swinging an axe or two and the true extent of his hobby and the impact it had on his political image has now been revealed in a new radio documentary.

Prime Ministers' Props, which is broadcast on BBC Radio 4, sees presenter Professor Sir David Cannadine exploring political fame and image by looking at how an object or prop, whether chosen deliberately or otherwise, can come to define a political leader.

Sir Winston Churchill’s cigar, Margaret Thatcher’s handbag and Harold Wilson's pipe all feature as Sir David looks at the significance of these props of power: what they mean and what they become, and what happens when, almost inevitably, Prime Ministers lose control of their image and their props take on a hostile meaning, very different from their original intentions.

By any stretch of the imagination, Gladstone was an extraordinary character who burnt off his physical energy in long walks, hill-climbing and tree-felling ("The forest laments, in order that Mr Gladstone may perspire," Lord Randolph Churchill famously joked in Parliament said). His intellectual energy meanwhile saw him own and read more than 20,000 books which today make up the collection at Gladstone's Library in Hawarden, Flintshire.

"My great-great grandfather was a man of massive physical as well as mental ability," says Charlie Gladstone, the current resident at Hawarden, who also contributes to the programme. "He lived much of his life in cities, but he was a countryman at heart and his absolute love was chopping down trees. It sounds a bit whacky nowadays but his hobby served two purposes. First, there were a lot of trees to be chopped on the family estate in Hawarden, and he was as good a person as any to perform this task. Second, as anyone who has ever tried it will have found out, chopping a tree down is really hard work and will keep you incredibly fit, as indeed he was until late in his life."

Many of Gladstone's axes remain at Hawarden Castle, where Charlie keeps them in his ancestor's old study, the so-called 'Temple of Peace'.

"William became famous for his pastime and he was given axes on hundreds of official visits," says Charlie. "We still have them at home. He was a huge celebrity and people in their hundreds and often thousands would come to the woods in Hawarden to collect chippings as souvenirs of the trees that he chopped down.

"There were so many souvenir hunters, in fact, that a system was developed whereby people could collect a chunk of wood only on receipt of a voucher from the PM's office."

Inbetween all this chopping, Gladstone found the time to lead four Liberal governments, the first of which in 1868-74, is ranked as one of the great reforming administrations, alongside the Liberal government before 1914 and the Labour government after 1945.

"Gladstone's axe was a Prime Minister's Prop which also became a powerful political metaphor," says Sir David. "Gladstone was often depicted by his supporters as swinging his axe to eliminate wrongdoing and error, literally root and branch. And the image of him retreating to Hawarden, working away with his axe, appealed to working people who, as one historian has commented, "found a great statesman and popular leader in the plain clothes of a labourer".

But Gladstone had his critics too and he was often criticised for being sanctimonious and overbearing. Even his wife, Catherine, called him "a terrible bore" and many mocked his habit of walking the streets in search of fallen women who he encouraged to mend their ways.

"To his critics, Gladstone's axe was an apt metaphor for his increasingly radical politics, which seemed to them to be violent and destructive," continues Sir David. "For Tory opponents, and for Queen Victoria, the contrast with Gladstone's great political rival Benjamin Disraeli was striking. For while Gladstone chopped down trees on his country estate at Hawarden, Disraeli planted them at Hughenden Manor, his rural retreat in Buckinghamshire."

Today, Charlie still treasures William's axe collection and continues to add to it as well as making axe craft and even axe throwing some of the many activities which are on offer at the annual Good Life Experience which Charlie hosts at the estate each September.

"Axes are the oldest tool known to mankind and there is something raw and powerful about holding one and more so about swinging it," he adds. "It's a simple, primeval thing and it's incredibly exciting to chop your own logs, even if it is, as in my case, a vaguely gratuitous exercise related to having a campfire."

William Gladstone's axe, the second episode in the BBC Radio 4 series Prime Ministers' Props, can be listened to on the BBC iplayer Radio.Tickets for the Good Life Experience are available from www.thegoodlifeexperience.co.uk