An updated version of an article that first appeared in the Blackcountryman, 56.4, Winter 2023
Andrew Carnegie was a Scottish-American businessman and philanthropist, born in Dunfermline, Scotland in 1835. In 1848, he emigrated to the United States with his parents and, by 1860, had invested in industry and railways, including Pullman cars. In 1892, he founded the Carnegie Steel Company, which made almost half the steel produced in the USA. After he sold this company in 1901 for $303.5m (the equivalent of $9.8 billion today), he became the richest American, even surpassing J D Rockefeller. However, at that time he said, “No millionaire will go wrong….who chooses to establish a free library in any community that is willing to maintain and develop it”. He then devoted the rest of his life to large-scale philanthropy, particularly building local libraries, before dying in 1919.
Between 1883-1929, over 2,500 Carnegie libraries were built in the USA and United Kingdom, and as far afield as Australia, South Africa, the Caribbean and Fiji. At first, the libraries were built in places where he had a personal connection, such as Scotland, Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania. The first Carnegie library was built in Dunfermline, Scotland in 1883, funded with a £8,000 grant. Over the years, he donated over $350m to various causes, which at the time was the largest amount of philanthropy in the world.
Nearly all of his libraries were built according to the “Carnegie formula”, which required financial commitments for maintenance and operation from the town that received the donation. Towns were required to demonstrate the need for the library, provide the building site, draw from public funds to pay staff and run and maintain the library, provide 10% of the cost of the construction to support its operation, and provide free service to all. Charitable trusts have continued his philanthropy, particularly for libraries. Over the years, he donated some £56.2m for the construction of libraries, including 660 Carnegie libraries in the United Kingdom.
In the Black Country, 13 Carnegie libraries were built, the largest and most impressive buildings being in the main towns.
Walsall Central Library was built in 1906, with a grant of £8,000, and designed by James Gibson & William Wallace in Edwardian Baroque style with carvings by H C Fehr. It was opened by Alderman W Hughes, chairman of the Free Library & Art Committee, in July 1906. It was awarded Grade II listing in 2015 and remains a library.
West Bromwich Central Library was built in 1907 to designs by Stephen Holliday, with a fine staircase and tiled walls by Maws of Ironbridge. It was refurbished for its centenary and re-opened by Betty Boothroyd, the town’s former MP, who died recently.
Wolverhampton Central Library
Wolverhampton’s Central Library was built in 1900-02, designed by Henry Hare in the Free-Renaissance style. It was awarded Grade II* listing in 1992 and remains a library. Incidentally, Thomas Graham, who founded the Express & Star, was also from Dunfermline and became friends with Carnegie, even persuading him to buy the newspaper in 1882!
Dudley’s Central Library was built in 1909 with a grant of £7,500 to designs by George Wenyon in English Baroque style. It was opened by the Hon John Hubert Ward and is now listed Grade II. Its first librarian was Miss E J Southall, who employed her sister, Miss E L Southall, as her assistant, and is still operating today.
Stourbridge built its Library and Technical College in 1903-04, extended in 1908-09, to designs by Council Surveyor, Frederick Woodward, in Nederlandish-Renaissance style. Carnegie originally contributed £3,000 to the project and a further £800 in 1908 to the newsroom extension. Issac Nash laid the foundation stone in February 1904. It later became Stourbridge College of Art and was Grade II listed in 1989, largely for its art nouveau stained glass. It has now been converted into apartments, but retains its fine external elevation, bespoke plasterwork, ornate spiral staircase and original stained glass windows featuring William Shakespeare and renowned physicist Lord Kelvin.
Brierley Hill’s Free Library & Technical Institute was built in 1904 to designs by Borough Surveyor, J Lewis Harper, in Jacobean style and built by C A Horton. It later became the International Glass Centre.
Wednesbury’s library was built in 1908 by Mr T Elvins of Hockley, with a grant of £5,000, and designed by Crouch, Butler & Savage, after winning a competition overseen by the Royal Institute of British Architects. It was unusual, since most Carnegie libraries were funded in places where there wasn’t a library; this library replaced an earlier existing building. According to a plaque, this was because Andrew Carnegie first saw the iron-works process in Wednesbury, which he later took to America to make his fortune. Although funding was offered in 1904, it was not until December 1906 that the Mayor & Mayoress, Mr & Mrs Handley, generously donated a suitable plot of land on the corner of Walsall Street so that construction could proceed. It was opened in October 1908 by the Mayor, Alderman John Handley.
Cradley Heath Library
Some of the smaller Black Country towns also had their own Carnegie libraries. Rowley Regis UDC built three Carnegie libraries, opened in 1909. They included Tividale library, designed by Herbert Wills and John Anderson, but closed in 1966 and later demolished. They also designed Cradley Heath library in Edwardian Baroque style, with its foundation stone inscribed “This library was the gift of Andrew Carnegie Esq”. It was opened in November 1909 by Mr Thomas Crew, was listed Grade II in 1987 and still operates as a library. Blackheath library was built on the corner of Ross and Carnegie Road by William Cooper in 1909 to Edwardian-Baroque style designs by Herbert Wills & John Anderson with a Carnegie grant of £1,696. Although small and compact, it included an octagonal reading room with domed lantern, and its interior was remodelled in 1949. It was awarded Grade II listing in 2012, but is no longer a library.
Tipton had two Carnegie libraries, the first in Tipton itself, designed by George Wenyon, with its foundation stone inscribed “Erected by the Munificence of Andrew Carnegie Esq”. It was opened in May 1905 by Councillor W Doughty, who also had a pub named after him (Doughty Arms, now the Pie Factory). The library was closed in 2000, but reopened as the Carnegie Centre in 2006, and was later used as offices for the Sandwell Leisure Trust. George Wenyon also designed the Toll End library, opened in August 1907 by Councillor Joseph Powell, but closed in 1983 and demolished in 1997.
Oldbury UDC made an application in 1903 to Carnegie for money to build Langley library. However, he would not consider the request until a site was found that met his approval. Eventually, a plot of land on the corner of Barrs Street and Cross Street was donated free of charge by brewers, Mitchells & Butlers, and a stone plaque commemorating this gift was placed at the side of the main entrance. Carnegie awarded the sum of £1,500 (equivalent to over £130,000 today) and local builder, William Jackson, built the library to designs by local architect, Abel Round. The foundation stone was laid in July 1908 by chairman of the Oldbury Public Libraries Committee, Joseph Gill. The opening ceremony in February 1909 was marred by two events, firstly, the original opener, Sir Alexander Chance, was confined to bed by his doctor, and when William Albright deputised, the opening was abandoned by a snowstorm and the guests heard the speeches inside in the newsroom.
Andrew Carnegie certainly left an unequalled legacy of libraries in the Black Country. Long may they continue to provide a much-needed service in the area.
With acknowledgement to The Carnegie Legacy in England & Wales, Andy Foster, Nickolaus Pevsner & Alexandra Wedgewood, and Wikipedia