…I wasn’t very clever at school but I always read – always. Without reading I don’t know how I would have occupied myself. … When I’ve been fed up, a book has always succeeded in making things seem better. (Pat, born in Tinsley in 1926)
People think of Walkley as Sheffield’s only Carnegie library, but for 75 years there was another. Tinsley’s Carnegie library opened in June 1905, a few months before Walkley’s, and seven years before Tinsley became part of Sheffield. It served as the branch library until 1985 when the service moved to a new building.
This is the story of how a village decided to open a public library. And how an English aristocrat, an American millionaire and two unlikely-sounding architects helped make it possible.
Here is Tinsley’s Carnegie Library in 1970, sixty-five years after it opened. This image, from Picture Sheffield, shows the library in very good condition, apparently after a recent renovation. It suits its setting, at the end of a terrace of old brick houses. The design is simple – double-fronted, four-square, like a child’s drawing. There are big windows all round, allowing in light for readers. The letters fixed to the wall on the right, spelling out ‘City Library’, are a late addition, found on several of Sheffield’s branch libraries. The building’s Victorian roots are evident, particularly the porch and the little steeple on the roof (called a ‘flèche’ by architects).
Here is the library building today, now over a hundred years old and looking desolate. Those big windows are all boarded up and the brickwork is shabby. Close-ups show the porch with water damage, more boarded up windows at the back and security railings around the little garden area. The flèche, however, is surprisingly sprightly.
How did Tinsley get its library?
The Act of Parliament allowing councils to open ‘free libraries’ was passed in 1850 and for the next half century, many towns and cities established and expanded their services. Sheffield was a pioneer, the first town in Yorkshire and the 11th in England to open a free library. By 1900, there was the central library in Surrey Street (where today’s library is) and several branches. The newest was Attercliffe:
Attercliffe Library opened in 1894 in answer to local public demand and closed in 1996. As well as lending books, it was one of the first places in Sheffield to display lists of job vacancies.
Tinsley was then an independent township, run by a parish council. Its residents could use Sheffield’s libraries through an informal arrangement, and this probably meant visiting Attercliffe, two miles away. Perhaps the splendid sight of it – ‘neo-Jacobean…in red brick with stone mullions and transoms and three big coped gables’, to quote the Pevsner guide – made the parish council think that their own free library would be an asset to Tinsley.
This is where we meet the American millionaire and the English aristocrat, in the beautiful inscription on the porch of the library:
The funds for this building were given by Andrew Carnegie Esquire and the site by the Earl Fitzwilliam.
The English aristocrat was William Wentworth-Fitzwilliam (1872 – 1943), who became the 7th Earl Fitzwilliam in 1902. (You can learn more about him, and the scandal about his birth, in Catherine Bailey’s 2007 book, Black Diamonds.) The Fitzwilliams, who lived at nearby Wentworth Woodhouse, owned much of Tinsley and, as the Sheffield Telegraph put it on 17 December 1903, the Earl
…intimated his willingness to give a site on the corner of Bawtry Lane. This is the site originally suggested for a parish hall. His lordship attaches the condition that the site is to be used for the purpose for which it is given only. In the event of it being used otherwise, it is to revert his lordship, or he is to be empowered to make other terms as regards its tenancy. The area of the site is 720 square yards, and its value is approximately £225.
The American millionaire was Andrew Carnegie (1835 – 1919), who was born in Dunfermline, emigrated to the USA at the age of 13 and made a fortune in steel. Carnegie’s ‘dictum’ was that a man should, firstly, get all the education he could, then make as much money as possible and finally donate his riches to worthy causes. He gave away about $350m, about 90 per cent of his fortune, including paying for 3,000 public libraries around the world. His secretary wrote to the Tinsley parish council on 18 November 1903, setting out his offer and (standard) conditions:
Responding to your communications on behalf of Tinsley. Mr Carnegie will be glad to give £1,500 sterling to erect a Free Public Library building for Tinsley, if the Free Public Libraries’ Act be adopted, and the maximum assessment under it levied, producing £100, as stated by you. A site must also be given for the building, the cost not being burden upon the penny rate. (quoted in the Sheffield Telegraph of 17 December 1903)
So far, so good. The money and the site had been secured. A parish meeting was now held at the National School, to discuss the proposal. It was here that a local resident, Mr J L Winkley, got to his feet and almost caused the plan for the library to be abandoned.
You can find out what happened at the parish meeting in Part Two of Tinsley’s Carnegie Library, to be posted soon. Part Three, to follow, will look at the building of the library, and introduce its architects.
Thanks to Picture Sheffield for permission to use the 1970 photograph of Tinsley Library.