Pontefract Carnegie Free Library -
In the context of the towns history a centenary celebration may well appear
of little significance but how many people passing along Salter Row or
parading round the Saturday market outside the towns museum know
anything about the history of what was once the town library?
The construction of the building, which since 1978 has housed the town
museum, brings together facts and stories that today seem incredible and
relate the story of a man with riches beyond comprehension, especially
so when those tales date back over one hundred years.
Construction of the old library building commenced in 1904 and it was officially
opened on the 21st September 1905 by J.G. Lyon J.P. Up to that time
Pontefract had never had a ’free’ library and prospective readers
had to hire books from booksellers or pay to join a subscription library
of which Pontefract had several including those of Holmes’ and Lemon’s.
Built at a cost of £2,588, the library was funded by Andrew Carnegie, a
Scottish steel industrialist who used vast sums of the fortune he made
in America to fund ‘free’ libraries throughout the English speaking
Andrew Carnegie was born in Dunfermline on the 25th November 1835 in a weavers
cottage situated on the corner of Moodie Street and Priory Lane. He was
the eldest child of William Carnegie, a handloom weaver, and his wife
The introduction of power looms to Dunfermline meant that the days of
handloom weavers were numbered and so in 1848 the Carnegie family
followed the example of some of their family and friends and emigrated
to America. Aboard the steamship ‘Wiscasset’ the family departed
from Glasgow on the 17th May and embarked on a journey which would
ultimately change the way literature and published works were made
freely available to all.
The Carnegie’s settled in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, and Andrew began work
as a bobbin boy in a cotton mill. In 1850 he became telegraphic
messenger for the O’Reilly Telegraphic Company where his enthusiasm
and drive greatly impressed his superiors. In 1865, the year which
brought about the conclusion of the American Civil War, after a
succession of jobs with Western Union and Pennsylvania Railroad, he
concentrated his energies on the iron industry and established his own
business enterprise, the ‘Carnegie Steel Company’ which ultimately
launched the steel industry in Pittsburg. By 1881 he had become the
foremost steelmaster in America. At the age of sixty-five, Andrew
Carnegie sold the company to J.P. Morgan for $480 million and devoted
the rest of his life to his philanthropic activities and writing,
including his autobiography.
While many people of great wealth have contributed to charitable causes,
Carnegie was perhaps the first to publicly state that the rich have a
moral obligation to give away their fortunes. In 1889 he wrote The
Gospel of Wealth, in which he asserted that "all personal
wealth beyond that required to supply the needs of ones family should be
regarded as a trust fund to be administered for the benefit of the
He set about disposing of his fortune through innumerable personal gifts
and through the establishment of various trust funds. One of his
life-long interests was the establishment of free public libraries to
make available to everyone a means of self-education. He began to
promote the idea in 1881 and the Corporation subsequently spent over $56
million providing 2,509 such libraries.
By the time of his death in Lenox, Massachusetts on the 11th August 1919,
it is estimated that Andrew Carnegie had given away over $350 million.
It was Pontefract businessman, Oswald Holmes, who first suggested that a
‘free’ library would prove beneficial to the town but despite his
assertions the idea did not at first meet with universal approval.
Undeterred, Holmes continued his efforts and eventually funding for a
‘free’ library was obtained through the ‘Carnegie Trust’ with
Andrew Carnegie meeting the full cost of construction.
A local firm of architects, Garside and Pennington, were commissioned to
design the building and George Pennington, a devout Methodist, tendered
his services free of charge.
George Pennington, the son of Castleford’s first resident Wesleyan minister,
was born in 1872 and articled to the Leeds architect, William Henry
Thorp who designed the Art Gallery in 1887 and the School of Medicine in
1894. Together with the Featherstone mining surveyor Samson Howard
Garside, he formed an architectural partnership based initially in
Castleford. In 1901 the business was transferred to Pontefract where it
was responsible for the Post Office, the Greyhound Public House and of
course the Free Library, as well as other buildings throughout the town.
Possibly the finest example of Pennington’s designs is the church in
Inspired by the Art Nouveau style which had become fashionable all over Europe,
Pennington set about designing a building of asymmetrical proportions
incorporating long flowing shapes and forms from nature such as leaves
The terracotta decoration on the outside of the museum building, the curved
tracings on the main door and in the window frames, the mosaic floor and
tiles in the entrance hall and staircase wall are all typical of Art
Nouveau design. The popularity of Art Nouveau climaxed in 1900, four
years before the construction of Pontefract Free Library.
In 1905, a local newspaper described the building as "imposing…. at
once suggestive of stability and grace."
When first opened, the library contained a stock of some 2,000 books, the
majority being works of fiction. The building consisted of a Lending
Library, Reading Rooms, Reference Room and a Ladies Room. From the 1905
library catalogue and associated rules of the library we find the
following rules and regulations.
"No person shall be admitted to the Library who appears to be intoxicated or
in a dirty condition. No audible conversation shall be permitted in any
of the Rooms, nor shall any person be allowed to smoke or spit, or to
partake of refreshments in them"
"Copying in pencil shall be permitted, but not the tracing of illustrations. The
use of ink for copying is prohibited. Persons must not soil or injure
any book by fingering or laying their hands or arms on them, or in any
"In wet weather all books should be carried to or from the Library under
cover, as in the event of any damage occurring to a book, the Borrower
will be held responsible."
The Librarians report for the year ending 31st March 1906 stated that since
its opening the library had issued 1,436 tickets to readers of which 32
had subsequently been handed in to be cancelled. In the 109 days that
the library had opened its doors to the public, there had been 25,097
issues which equates to the fact that the whole stock of 2,406 works had
been turned over a little more than ten times. Eighty-five percent of
those books issued were works of fiction which was put down to the fact
that Pontefract had up to that time never had a library offering
anything other than fiction to any large proportion. It was also pointed
out that Pontefract had no great centre of higher education and that 20%
of borrowers were juveniles who took very little else but fiction.
the past so little has been done in Pontefract in the way of making
really popular any of the higher branches of study."
report goes on to state: -
immediate and continued popularity of the Reading Room has been perhaps
the most notable feature of the wonderful success the Library has proved
to be. Every newspaper taken has scores of readers every day and all the
periodicals from the ‘Nineteenth Century’ to the ‘Labour News’
have their regular as well as their casual readers."
"The fears that followers of the gambling news would create a nuisance can
hardly be said to have been realised."
Ladies are now beginning to appreciate their Room, and in addition to a
satisfactory attendance through the day, the Ladies Room is usually
fairly well filled for an hour or two each evening."
Today the building retains many of its original features due, in no small
part, to the efforts of the museum curator Richard Van Riel. It is
clearly apparent when talking with Richard that he has a great affection
for the building and has bestowed much care and attention as well as
many hours of tedious work to restore it to something resembling its
original condition. When the town library transferred to its new purpose
built building in 1975 during part of the town redevelopment scheme,
Richard set to work uncovering the tiles in the entrance hall which had
been hidden by layers of paint. Sections of the interior structure of
the building had been altered over the years and Richard ensured that
several doors and doorways were reinstated in their correct and original
location. Some of the art-nouveau door handles, a prominent feature of
the interior decoration, were damaged or missing and their complex
design meant that to correctly face inwards towards the edge of the door
when the doors were closed each pair of handles had to be cast
separately. It was not possible to simply turn one around and Richard
had to source a company able to cast them. All this work was instigated
by Richard Van Riel in an effort to retain as much of the charm and
character of the original building as possible. The graceful curve of
the oak reception desk fascia has been replicated in an interior wall
used to partition a section of the museum display, again just another
small feature displaying the attention to detail demanded by Richard.
One of the plans first put forward by the architect George Pennington
depicted iron railings on the exterior, either side of the main entrance
door, which were never introduced. In true fashion, Richard Van Riel
arranged for these items to be constructed and added to the exterior of
the building so that it matches as closely as possible the architects’
Only through such efforts and dedication by the people of the town can our
heritage be preserved. It would be easy to sit back and do nothing while
our past is eradicated from our midst but such features of importance
are deserving of our efforts to preserve them and retain them for our
future generations. Next time you are in Pontefract take a closer look
at the Museum building and begin to appreciate all the work and efforts
which brought about its conception and continues to this day through a
devoted and passionate group of people.
The museum contains a large selection of exhibits relating the history of
the town from its origins to the present day. There is also a wonderful
selection of local glass products on display in the upstairs ‘glassroom’,
including an extensive selection of products by Bagley & Co. Ltd.,
Knottingley. The reference room contains an extensive collection of news
reports and essays about almost every section of the town, while the
museum photograph collection contains over 11,000 images, copies of
which can be printed for a small charge.
Pontefract Museum is located on Salter Row and is open from 10.30am to 4.30pm
Monday to Friday and from 10.30am to 4.00pm on Saturdays. Closed
Sundays. Admission to the museum is free.
I would like to thank the museum curator, Richard Van Riel, and all the
staff at Pontefract Museum for their help and assistance in compiling
this article and for assistance they have provided in the past.