Andrew Carnegie’s Philanthropic Gift to Plymouth

by Neill Mitchell
Published July 2018


Neill Mitchell
Independent Business, Heritage & Tourism Analyst

In New York City USA the name of the late Scottish American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) is, perhaps, most synonymous with Carnegie Hall (opened 1891), one of the finest concert halls in the world. Whilst in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania Carnegie is remembered for founding the Carnegie Steel Company (and Carnegie Mellon University), prospering within his own lifetime from poor Scottish immigrant to becoming the USA’s greatest steel magnate and one of the richest men in the world. Arguably the supreme exemplar of the “Great American Dream”.

On this side of the Atlantic, in Scotland, Carnegie’s life remains reflected today in his modest 2-roomed weaver’s cottage birthplace museum in Dunfermline (Fife). Also his later magnificent highland home (from 1898) – the 8000-acre “Skibo Castle” Estate at Dornoch (Sutherland), which was owned by his family until 1982 and is now an exclusive country club. 

But, in the USA, the UK and across Europe there is one common Carnegie legacy shared by all. Namely hundreds of branch libraries, established courtesy of his bequests – both personally in his lifetime and posthumously from the Carnegie Trusts. 

The extent of Carnegie’s international philanthropy is legendary, thought to have ultimately accounted for the gifting of 90% of his total fortune. 

But, in Plymouth there would seem to be no obvious association with Carnegie. No statue or commemorative plaque, no street, place or building naming, no civic or other institutional recognition. In short, Plymouth appears outwardly to have been untouched by Carnegie’s historic benevolence.  

Yet, what are we to make of the “Western Morning News” reports of 26th October 1910 upon the civic opening, by the then Town Mayor John Yeo, of the Plymouth Central Library, Museum and Art Gallery “New Buildings”? A full-page spread, which commenced with the newspaper’s seemingly unconstrained gratitude articulated as follows (quote):-“To put it plainly, Mr. Andrew Carnegie, the most “multi” of millionaires and sagest philanthropist, responded to the call from the West for the erection of a Free Library and laid the foundation of the scheme embodied in the noble pile of buildings in Tavistock Road.”

Well, courtesy of original correspondence held in the Scottish Record Office, it becomes clear that the enduring built cultural heritage of Plymouth is in no small measure a product of the direct personal (and remarkably unbureaucratic) consideration of Carnegie himself.  
The story begins early in the 20th century with prevailing civic aspirations amongst prominent Plymothians (“greats” such as Bellamy, Brook, Radford, Spender, Winnicott, Yeo and others) for the growing Borough of Plymouth to be served by a new Central Free Library and Museum. An amenity befitting in dignity, contents and public access to that of an important provincial town, whose population had grown from 63,000 in 1871 to 112,000 by 1903. 

These aspirations would be translated into a positive initiative when, on 15th May 1903, an unsolicited handwritten letter was addressed to Mr. Andrew Carnegie in New York, signed jointly by Plymouth Alderman William Shelley Henderson (Deputy Chairman of the Borough’s Library Committee) and Mr. W.H.K.Wright (longstanding Borough Librarian).

It is reasonable to suppose that Mr. Wright may possibly have taken advantage of some earlier networking, perhaps within the UK’s professional library circles. For the Plymouth letter was in fact forwarded to Carnegie from Scotland under the secondary cover of a letter of support from a Mr. Francis William Fox dated 23rd May 1903.  

Allowing for the Ocean Mail time lags a relatively swift, but seemingly unpromising, reply dated 26th June 1903 came back from Carnegie’s Secretary, Mr. J.Bertram:-“Mr.Carnegie places more importance upon Branch Libraries than he does on large monumental central buildings.”  

Undeterred, W.H.K.Wright changed tack. He argued both that branch libraries were not appropriate for Plymouth’s needs, but that the Tavistock road site was in any event on the outskirts of town, hence the new library was not being perceived as a “central” institution. Good try! Mr. Bertram 16th July 1903:-
“Mr. Carnegie requests a plan and picture of the present library building.”

Following a review of the papers duly provided, Bertram’s next reply of 16th September 1903 was forthright:-
“Mr. Carnegie does not see the necessity of a new Library building in Plymouth.”  

But Wright would not give up yet. He wrote again on 22nd September offering further arguments, this letter being once more forwarded under cover of another by Mr. Francis William Fox whom clearly seemed to have an inside track to Carnegie.

Following ensuing months of silence, a further weighty letter of support for Plymouth dated 25th May 1905 was written to Carnegie from Scotland by Mr. John MacLaughlan, then Secretary of the Albert Institute and Victoria Galleries (today “The McManus”) in Dundee. The text suggests some direct influence, ending as it did with the personal sentiments:-
“……..I hope that your family is well and able to enjoy your Highland Home at Skibo.”  

Despite no further requests from Carnegie’s office for additional information, project estimates, business cases or management details, Plymothian history was made a year later in a fresh and unequivocal response to W.H.K.Wright from Mr. Bertram, dated 22nd June 1906:-
“… consideration of Plymouth devoting the product of its Penny Rate, amounting to £2000 a year for support of the Library and providing a site which shall not be a burden upon the Penny Rate, Mr. Carnegie will be glad to give Fifteen Thousand Pounds Sterling [(circa £1.7m at 2015 values] for the erection of a Free Public Library Building for Plymouth. Mr. Carnegie’s belief is that it is both better to have a moderate-size Central Library, because a growing place like Plymouth will probably require a Branch Library or two before very long.”
Thus, Wright’s arguments had unexpectedly prevailed! Plymouth would thus be the exception to Carnegie’s customary Branch Library only funding criteria. The evident excitement at receiving this news prompted Plymouth Mayor John Yeo to despatch an immediate wire:-
“POST OFFICE TELEGRAPHS – 19.20hrs – June 26th (1906): To Carnegie, Skibo Castle – Clashmore Station Bonar Bridge, “Accept hearty thanks for generous offer etc., etc.” – John Yeo / Mayor of Plymouth”  

Striking whilst the iron was still red hot, Mayor Yeo penned a fuller letter of thanks on 28th June to Carnegie, at Skibo Castle, including an invitation for him to visit Plymouth and adding the courtesy:-
“……If privacy should be preferred please stay at my residence and grounds at Yelverton.” 
On 3rd July 1906 Carnegie replied to Yeo, for the first time in person, declining the invitation but observing:-
“To best of recollection I have never been to Plymouth. That is a pleasure deferred and I hope some day to get the time to visit the city and gratify my desire to see the starting point of the Mayflower.”
Plymouth’s Mayflower heritage, as so often, clearly being of transatlantic interest.

From the Plymouth end thence followed updates upon the plans and works etc., including a polite request for the monies to be remitted up front as the Library Committee did not have adequate borrowing powers. Once again, Carnegie generously did not quibble and on 16th April 1907 he instructed his cashier – Mr. R.A.Franks at the Carnegie Home Trust Co., Hoboken, New Jersey – to forward payments to Plymouth as the Library works progressed, to agreed extent of £15k.

On 1st July 1907, the new Borough Mayor of Plymouth – Alderman J.Frederick Winnicott – invited Carnegie to perform the Library’s foundation stone laying ceremony that autumn. Understandably, due to his awesome forward programme of commitments and the demanding logistics of transatlantic liner travel at that time, Carnegie expressed his regrets at being too busy. Nevertheless, Plymouth’s continuing appreciation was once again encapsulated in the brief text of a further Telegraph Message wired to Skibo Castle during October:- “Stone laid – Expressions of public gratitude – Mayor of Plymouth”.  

Three years later, on 5th September 1910, W.H.K. Wright wrote to Carnegie inviting him to preside at the Library’s opening ceremony then scheduled for Sunday October 4th 1910. Carnegie’s Secretary responded on 9th September 1910:-
“..Mr. Carnegie regrets that it will not be possible for him to attend the ceremony. But he wishes the largest measure of success to the Free Library and that it may prove to Plymouth an enduring foundation from which only blessed waters flow.”

A year later, itemised invoices for the construction of the new Library had been received from the Plymothian building contractors Pethick Brothers, including £12,308 for general construction and £1904 for fitting out), the grand total amounting to £15,634. Hence, on 28th October 1911, the additional £634 for completion was gingerly sought from Carnegie and immediately settled in good faith. 

Carnegie’s overall monetary gift hence equating (at 2017 values) to circa £1.8 to £2 million or, put another way, the entire lock, stock and barrel cost of providing the City of Plymouth with its handsome Central Library.  

So matters seemed to have been concluded. However, by wartime 1915 the £2000 a year product yield from the Town’s Penny Rate condition, cannily imposed by Carnegie for ongoing maintenance of the Library, was proving to be an issue. Variance was duly sought by the Town Council. But the Secretary of the by then “Carnegie United Kingdom Trust” (at Guildhall Chambers, Dunfermline) – Mr. A.L.Hetherington – refused the request and stressed the need for further investment.

Two World Wars later, and with the Library left as a mere blitzed shell, City Librarian W. Best Harris wrote a virtual “cri de coeur” to the Carnegie Trust on 14th October 1949. Harris explained that the Library and its records had been completely destroyed by bombing in 1941. He asked if the Carnegie Trust still retained copies of the Library’s original plans and also queried if the Trust might be in a position to assist with the rebuilding.

The reply from Mr. J.Wilkie, Secretary of the Carnegie Trust in Dunfermline, was that the files in New York seemed to offer little in the way of surviving archived drawings/plans and that, unfortunately, the Trust’s monetary library grants had by now been discontinued.

Eventually, Plymouth’s Central Library would be rebuilt within the historic shell of the original Carnegie building and duly opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, as extensively reported in the Plymouth “Evening Herald” of 20th May 1954.  

Memories of Carnegie’s philanthropy toward Plymouth seem thence to fade from general public awareness, albeit that in May 1958 the Joint Executive Committee of the Carnegie Trust and Museums Associations was reported (“Plymouth Herald” – 10th May 1958) as visiting Plymouth for the first time. The group was comprised of a heady list of distinguished people, including Mr. Ord Cunningham from the Carnegie Trust’s HQ in Dunfermline. 

In the wider context of Plymouth’s links with the USA, this visit in 1958 also coincided with a 2-day visit (flying via Roborough Airport) by the then U.S. Ambassador to the UK Mr. John Hay Whitney who, amongst other civic engagements, unveiled the U.S.Army Normandy Landings memorial at Saltash Passage.  
Up to 1897 only a dozen or so libraries had benefitted from Carnegie’s philanthropy, but just 4 years later in 1901 library commentators were observing:-
“It’s difficult to keep up with the Carnegie bequests!”  

Indeed, contemporary sponsors of other worthy causes apparently came (rather churlishly) to resent the disproportionate extent to which libraries were beneficiaries of Carnegie’s generosity. In the UK some 366 library buildings were ultimately to be funded in part or whole by Carnegie. 

The “Library World” magazine of April 1969 assessed of Carnegie:-
“No other man has given so widely, in the cause of library progress”

Whilst Carnegie himself is quoted as observing:-
“What is the best gift which can be given to a community? ..It is that a Free Library occupies the first place, provided that the community will accept and maintain it as a public institution.”

And of his own outlook upon life:-
“There is little success where there is little laughter”

Carnegie, the diminutive 5’ 3” Scottish American, died aged 83 years on 11th August 1919, in Lenox, Massachusetts USA, seemingly a contented family man. He is buried in Sleepy Hollow, New York, his net worth having been assessed by Forbes Magazine in 2007 (contemporary values) at US$ 309 billion – said in times past to have been the largest fortune that there will ever be in the USA.  

Back in Plymouth, with the Central Library building and adjoining Museum and Art Gallery on North Hill presently undergoing substantial reconstruction to form the City’s new History Centre/Museum, surely serious consideration should be given to the commemoration of Carnegie’s philanthropy?  

Rather as the Victoria & Albert Museum in London has its prominent “Henry Cole Wing” perhaps the former Carnegie Library section of the Plymouth building, with its distinctive portico entrance, should be named either “The Andrew Carnegie Wing”, or “The Andrew Carnegie Galleries”? (Inclusion of Carnegie’s first name “Andrew” being important, to avoid any confusion with existing Carnegie (wave energy) engagement at Plymouth University).  

The case for so doing would seem unassailable.

Neill Mitchell  
28th November 2016

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