West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
Pontefract Local History


Pontefract Carnegie Free Library

Pontefract Carnegie Free Library - Postcard View

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 world.

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 Margaret.

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 community."

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 Ben Rhydding.

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 and flowers.

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 other way."

"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.

"In the past so little has been done in Pontefract in the way of making really popular any of the higher branches of study."

The report goes on to state: -

"The 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."

"The 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’ initial vision.

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.

Michael Norfolk

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.


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