It’s Carnegie Hall... in Wakefield

Andrew Carnegie opens the Drury Lane library in Wakefield
Andrew Carnegie opens the Drury Lane library in Wakefield
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On a flying visit from London on June 2 1906, multi-millionaire philanthropist Andrew Carnegie arrived at Wakefield Westgate railway station to officially open the Drury Lane library he had presented to the city.

About four years earlier a Wakefield alderman was bold enough to write asking Carnegie if he would help the city secure a free library, and almost by return the millionaire sent a promise of £8,000. He did so on the understanding that the Public Libraries Act was adopted and a rate of a penny in the pound laid. This was accepted by the council.

One of Yorkshire's other Carnegie-funded libraries, at Swinton.

One of Yorkshire's other Carnegie-funded libraries, at Swinton.

During 1902 designs were invited for the building. Some 81 drawings were submitted and the winning entry was by Trimmell, Cox & Co. of Woldingham, Surrey. Amid pomp and ceremony, and three-quarters of an hour after the Queen Victoria statue was unveiled in the Bull Ring, the library foundation stone was laid at 3.15pm on February 15 1905. The building work was carried out by Bagnall Brothers, of Wakefield.

Born in Dunfermline on November 15 1835, Andrew Carnegie and his family emigrated to Pittsburgh when he was 13. His early jobs included weaver’s assistant, telegraph messenger boy, private secretary and personal telegrapher. After investing shrewdly, his annual income was $50,000. From the early 1870s he concentrated on steel and established the J. Edgar Thomsom steelworks near Pittsburgh which eventually became the Carnegie Steel Company. After the sale of the company at the turn of the century for around $250,000,000, he devoted himself to a number of philanthropic activities.

Carnegie distributed around $350,000,000 of his wealth for the building of such places as libraries, theatres and child welfare centres.

Nearly all of Carnegie’s libraries were built according to formula, which required financial commitments from the town that received the donation.

My thanks will be everlasting if you prove that you receive this benefit in the spirit it is intended.

Andrew Carnegie

Carnegie required recipients to demonstrate the need for a public library; provide the building site; annually provide 10 per cent of the cost of the library’s construction to support its operation; and provide free service to all.

Books and libraries were important to him. During his teenage years in the US he listened to readings and discussions of books from the Tradesman’s Subscription Library, which his father helped to create.

Carnegie arrived in Wakefield on a damp Saturday afternoon at just after one o’clock. He did not attend the opening of every building he financed, so it was an honour for him to be present at the Wakefield ceremony. He was met by the Wakefield mayor, town clerk and a number of other dignitaries.

The party drove to the Drury Lane Library in a brougham, escorted by a detachment of the 1st V.B. King’s Own Yorkshire Light infantry.

There were many dignitaries on the temporary platform outside the library and Coun E. Wordsworth, chairman of the Library Committee proposed a vote of thanks to the donor, saying his generosity would prove a great and lasting benefit to the city.

Carnegie was told they all admired the ability and energy with which had accumulated a great fortune, but they honoured him most for his greatness of heart in giving generously towards schemes that were calculated to uplift his less fortunate fellow creatures.

It was said the mood of the weather changed miraculously as Carnegie stepped forward to acknowledge a vote of thanks for his generosity: “It’s just my luck,” he began. “I come in for sunshine always. All through my life I have been the darling of fortune.”

He was delighted to find so many working men present. This was their library. He hoped that the people of Wakefield would show a desire to benefit by the knowledge that could be obtained there, that they would teach their children to frequent the library.

“You thank me for what I have done”, Carnegie said. “No, I have lived long enough to know that it is far more blessed to give than to receive. My thanks to you will be grateful, profound and everlasting if you prove that you receive this benefit in the spirit in which it is intended.”

The architect of the new building (Alfred Cox) presented Carnegie with a silver-gilt key, the entrance door was opened and the company made an inspection of the premises. The ground floor included a reference library, lending library, news room, magazine room, a room for women and children while a first floor provided amenities for a caretaker.

An interesting part of the afternoon’s proceedings was when Charles Skidmore, the Bradford City Stipendary Magistrate, presented to the library a large number of books dealing with Wakefield and its historic past .

After the opening ceremony Carnegie was given the freedom of Wakefield.

The Wakefield district has five Carnegie libraries: Castleford, Drury Lane (Wakefield), Horbury, Normanton and Pontefract. Across Yorkshire, Carnegie libraries were erected in Swinton, Goole, Harrogate, Hull, Keighley, Rawmarsh, Shipley, and Sowerby Bridge.

The Drury Lane building ceased to be used as a library in 2012.