By Val Hewson
Busy with our Sundae Opening project (more about this shortly), we’ve not been able to post anything here for a while. Many thanks to MS who put me in the way of the Carnegie letters about Sheffield. A great way to stoke up the blog again.
Whatever agencies for good may rise or fall in the future, it seems certain that the Free Library is destined to stand and become a never-ceasing foundation of good to all the inhabitants.Andrew Carnegie, An American Four-in-Hand in Britain (1883).
In April 1904, Geo Hy Capper, of Fernleigh, Tinsley, wrote a letter to R A Franks of the Home Trust Company, Hoboken, New Jersey, USA, asking about ‘your method of procedure, so that I shall know exactly how to work’.
Here is a transcription of the letter.
Tinsley Parish Council
Clerk’s Office, Fernleigh
Tinsley, April 23rd, 1904
Geo Hy Capper, Clerk to the Council
Mr. R. A. Franks,
Home Trust Company, Hoboken, N.J. U.S.A.
On Feb’y 23rd last I received from Mr. J. Bertram a letter announcing Mr Carnegie’s approval of the plans for Library [sic], which he is giving to Tinsley, & asking me to communicate with you for payment as the work proceeds. The Contract was let last night & building operations will now be commenced at once, so I shall be glad if you will kindly let know your method of procedure, so that I shall know exactly how to work.
Waiting your esteemed reply,
Geo. Hy. Capper
George Henry Capper (1859-1924), who acted as clerk to Tinsley Parish Council, was the Sheffield-born manager of a steel rolling mill and a man of substance, as his confident letter shows. (That the letter is handwritten, by the signatory, is interesting. Typewriters were becoming common in offices at the turn of the century but the parish council evidently did not use one.) Robert Augustus Franks (1861?-1935), born in Liverpool, was an immigrant to the United States who had made a success of his new life. He was president of the Home Trust Company, a private bank set up by his friend, Scottish-American steel industrialist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), to manage Carnegie’s philanthropy, including the endowment of ‘free libraries’.
Carnegie’s contribution to libraries is well-known. At one point he was the richest man in the world, and he is said to have given away about 90% of his fortune, to support educational and cultural organisations. He believed that:
To try to make the world in some way better than you found it is to have a noble motive in life.Andrew Carnegie, The Empire of Business (1902).
Carnegie started poor, emigrating to the USA in search of a better life, and he had little formal education. He reasoned that libraries gave people like him the chance to learn, to catch up. All in all, he helped found perhaps 3,000 libraries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, spending about $55m in the process. Most were located in the USA, but towns and cities around the world, including in the UK, benefitted from Carnegie’s generosity.
Around 1903, Tinsley, now a suburb of Sheffield but then an independent township, was awarded £1,500 by Carnegie for its free library, to be built on the corner of Bawtry Road, on a site donated by Earl Fitzwilliam, the local aristocrat. Mr Carnegie’s secretary had written to the council on 18 November, setting out the terms of the offer:
Dear Sir – 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.Sheffield Telegraph, 17 December 1903.
The money might have been refused, as there was a feeling in Tinsley that Carnegie the employer oppressed the working man libraries were intended to help. There was also a suggestion that local business, rather than business based 3,000 miles away, should pay (which might have been connected to the curious fact that steel was the business of both Carnegie and Tinsley). In the end, the parish council voted almost unanimously to accept Carnegie’s offer. You can read the full story starting here.
Tinsley Carnegie Library opened to the public just over a year after Capper’s letter, on 7 June 1905, and the whole affair, from initial application to opening ceremony, took perhaps two years. The contract Capper refers to must have been the one with the local building firm, Gray and Sons, and the plans approved by Carnegie were the design by respected local architects, Holmes and Watson, which can be seen in Sheffield City Archives.
Tinsley spent Carnegie’s £1,500 well (and managed the budget well – there was an overspend of a mere 9s 10d). The Sheffield Telegraph reported from the opening ceremony:
The brick structure is effective in appearance, and, surrounded by grounds nicely laid out and planted with shrubs, the institution…besides being of educational value to Tinsley, is an adornment to the village.Sheffield Telegraph, 8 June 1905
And so it remained for 80 years, until in 1985 the library moved to a (less impressive) shop unit in a modern precinct just down the road. The building was then used as a family centre, but has stood empty and boarded up for some years now. It’s a tribute to the parish council, the architects and builders that the building remains, forlorn, water-damaged but still graceful after nearly 120 years.
Columbia University Libraries also hold correspondence about Sheffield’s Walkley Carnegie Library, about which we’ll be writing shortly.