The Man Who Opened Books In Lynn

On 18 May 1905 a billionaire philanthropist came to King’s Lynn and was given a key to open an impressive new building which he had partly financed. His wealth was immense. In comparative terms it has been estimated that with an equivalent amount today, he would have been six times richer that the famous American Investor, Warren Buffett, and three times richer than Bill Gates, the Microsoft Founder.

From Poverty To Wealth

Presentation Key to new 1905 King’s Lynn Library.

Andrew Carnegie was born into a poor family in Dunfermline in 1835.  The industrialisation of the town left home-based weavers obsolete, and when the Chartist movement failed to improve conditions for the workers in 1848, Carnegie’s father and mother took Andrew and his five year old brother, Tom, to America. They eventually settled in Allegheny in a two room apartment above a weaving shop, but they were always short of money.

Through hard work and skill, Andrew moved through a variety of increasingly important jobs (bobbin boy, messenger, telegraph operator) and by the age of twenty-four was superintendent with Pennsylvania Railroad.

And then two extremely important things happened, though no nobody at the time would appreciate their significance. First, an Allegheny Citizen, Colonel James Anderson, generously opened his library to local working boys.  Carnegie was a voracious reader and Anderson’s books provided most of his education.

Second, while at the Railroad, Carnegie’s boss, Thomas Scott, alerted the young man to an impending sale of shares in the Adams Express Company.  Carnegie persuaded his mother to mortgage their house and he obtained $500 to buy his first investment – ten shares.  By the age of 30 Carnegie had amassed business interests in iron works, Great Lakes steamers, railroads, oil wells, and steel production.  He subsequently built the Carnegie Steel Corporation that became the largest steel company in the world.

Investing in People

“To try to make the world in some way better than you found it is to have a noble motive in life.”

Andrew Carnegie

Although he had always supported a variety of causes, In around 1870 Carnegie began to seriously think about giving away his wealth.  In 1887 he married Louise Whitfield.  She supported his philanthropy and signed a prenuptial agreement acknowledging her husband’s intention of giving away virtually his entire fortune during his lifetime.

In 1901 Carnegie retired from business and continued to distribute his fortune in the United States and around the world.  He funded libraries, church organs, schools, colleges, and nonprofit organisations.  His fortune has since supported everything from the discovery of insulin to the dismantling of nuclear weapons.

The Power of Text

“No millionaire will go wrong… who chooses to establish a free library in any community that is willing to maintain and develop it”

Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie is often known as the “Patron Saint of Libraries”.  He supported the founding of 2,509.  He knew from personal experience that books had the power to change lives.  When later talking about Colonel Anderson, the man who had given Carnegie access to books, he wrote: ““This is but a slight tribute and gives only a faint idea of the depth of gratitude which I feel for what he did for me and my companions. It was from my own early experience that I decided there was no use to which money could be applied so productive of good to boys and girls who have good within them and ability and ambition to develop it, as the founding of a public library in a community.”

Other King’s Lynn Libraries

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, King’s Lynn had two libraries.  In 1617 one was established in the vestry of St Nicholas Chapel, and, not to be outdone by the chapel-of-ease, in 1631, a similar one was opened above the north porch of St Margaret’s Church.  However, these libraries would not have been too attractive to the working man or woman, even if they could have accessed them.  The books were donated by clergy and local civic officials and reflected their ecclesiastical settings.  They initially contained mainly theological works in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.  Later they did contain works on science, medicine, history, and literature.

From 1884 King’s Lynn had another library.  It was on housed in the Athenaeum and had over 8,000 volumes.  It was called the Stanley Library (after Lord Stanley, the benefactor) but people had to pay a subscription to use it.  Despite that it attracted over 600 subscribers.

The Carnegie Library, King’s Lynn

Carnegie Library, King’s Lynn
Photo © James Rye 2022

There was a clear need for a free library.  Town councils that could demonstrate there was a need for an accessible-to-all, public library, and that could provide a suitable site which would be maintained, furnished, and stocked, were invited to apply for a grant.

The modern day library on London Road, now known as the Carnegie Library, was opened by Andrew Carnegie in 1905.  It cost £5,000 to build and is one of 660 Carnegie Libraries in the UK and Ireland. It has a striking red brick and terracotta appearance, Gothic in style, with Arts and Craft influence.  Tablets on the building’s ramparts contain the names of famous authors.  It also has a three storey tower.

Following a Zeppelin raid over the town in 1915, the Berkshire Yeomanry (who were stationed in King’s Lynn at the time) received orders to use the library’s distinctive tower as an observation point to detect enemy aircraft activity.  Some of the soldiers left their names etched in the stones.

Carnegie’s influence has touched millions.

For the significance of the Dragon’s Heads and the Crucifixes on the Presentation Key, see The Sinner and The Dragon.

© James Rye 2022

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