In 1911, an American philanthropist gifted a library to Melbourne. Northcote’s ‘Carnegie Library’ still stands on High Street, and is now used as council offices.
Andrew Carnegie was born in Dunfermline, Scotland, in November 1835.
His father was a weaver, producing fabric by hand using a loom. The family was poor; they lived in a single room of a modest cottage, that they shared with another family.
Carnegie’s maternal grandfather was George Lauder sr, a relatively affluent businessman who owned a mill and a store in Dunfermline. Despite his means, Lauder was a social activist and a member of the ‘Chartists’, a political group who campaigned for improved conditions for workers (you can read more about ‘Chartists’, here).
Lauder was an early mentor for Carnegie, who completed some basic schooling in the rear of his store.
In 1848, Carnegie’s father borrowed money from Lauder and relocated his family to the United States.
The Scottish economy was struggling, and like many impoverished immigrants, the Carnegie’s looked to America for improved opportunities. They settled in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, and Carnegie’s father found work in the local textile industry.
Carnegie was ambitious and energetic, and eager to join the workforce himself.
Leaving school at 13, he took a series of menial jobs, working first in a cotton factory, then as a telegraph runner. In 1853, aged 18, he landed a relatively plum position: as a secretary for the Pennsylvania Railroad Company.
His starting salary was $4 a week.
Carnegie was a hard worker, conscientious and dedicated, and impressed his superiors at the railroad.
He began a rapid rise through the ranks; he was made chief secretary of the Pennsylvania branch by the time he was 20, and superintendent of the entire Western Division by the time he was 24.
As his position improved, so did his income. And Carnegie began investing his money in various local businesses.
Around this time, he also came under the influence of Colonel James Anderson.
Anderson was a businessman and philanthropist, who met Carnegie through a mutual friend. He took a liking to the young man, and offered him personal and financial advice, serving as one of his mentors.
Anderson was also an avid reader, and maintained a substantial private library, which he placed at Carnegie’s disposal:
‘Books which it would have been impossible for me to obtain elsewhere were, by his wise generosity, placed within my reach; and to him I owe a taste for literature which I would not exchange for all the millions that were ever amassed by man.’
– Andrew Carnegie, from his autobiography
Anderson would later found a ‘Free Libraries’ program, which provided books and facilities to disadvantaged young people.
Thrifty with money, and now well connected to the Pennsylvania business establishment, Carnegie was on his way to creating one of America’s great fortunes.
In 1864, he invested $40 000 in Columbia Oil, which within 2 years yielded a return of $1 million. He then formed the Keystone Bridge Company, and used his old contacts in the railway industry to secure lucrative contracts, building bridges across the eastern rail network.
But Carnegie’s greatest success came when he moved into steel production.
Utilising a new method of steel refinement, known as the ‘Bessemer Process’, and modern factories and equipment, Carnegie quickly began to dominate the American market. There was an insatiable appetite for the material, as the American economy grew dramatically, and Carnegie quickly became its largest supplier.
As his success grew, he also leaned on practices well utilised by other industrialists of the era; swallowing up his smaller competitors, and suppressing union activity to keep labour costs low. Although Carnegie was less draconian than his fellow ‘robber barons’.
Carnegie eventually combined his different steel holdings into one giant umbrella company: United States Steel.
Union Steel was the first company in history to achieve a market capitalisation of more than $1 billion, and was itself responsible for 1.4% of the entire US Gross Domestic Product. It was a sprawling enterprise, covering all aspects of steel production, owning numerous factories, plants, and refineries. Union Steel workers often lived in factory towns, owned by the company.
When Carnegie sold his share of the business in 1901, aged 66, it netted him $225 million, making him the wealthiest person on earth.
Mixing his time between a mansion in New York City, and a medieval castle in Scotland, Carnegie now moved into retirement.
But the influences of his youth were still with him.
Inspired by both Lauder, and Colonel Anderson, among others, Carnegie now dedicated himself to philanthropy.
‘My aspirations take a higher flight. Mine be it to have contributed to the enlightenment and the joys of the mind, to the things of the spirit. I hold this the noblest possible use of wealth.’
– Carnegie, ‘The Gospel of Wealth’
Carnegie created a charitable foundation, and used it to fund an array of grants, scholarships, and public buildings.
Lamenting his own lack of formal education, schools and universities would receive much of the benefit. Carnegie was also an enthusiastic supporter of the arts; his most famous philanthropic gift is probably ‘Carnegie Hall‘, in New York (built a little earlier, in 1891).
Another project, a favourite, was a series of free public libraries.
The first ‘Carnegie Library’, as they were known, opened in his old home town of Dunfermline, in 1886.
The objective was simple: to provide a free source of learning and intellectual enlightenment to people without means, who would otherwise not have access. Carnegie had been an avid reader since his youth, and remembered fondly the pleasure he had found in the libraries of his mentors.
He was also inspired by the example of his contemporary Enoch Pratt, an American businessman who founded a free library in Baltimore. Carnegie followed this example on a larger scale, and began building free libraries in America, Great Britain, Canada and Australia.
While Carnegie’s foundation provided the funds for the library building, and a supply of books, a ‘Carnegie Library’ also came with conditions.
The town, or area, had to be without a public library already. And the local authorities also had to be willing to contribute, free of charge, the site for the library’s construction. There was an application process for funds, and discussion over the details of each library.
But libraries in the early 20th century were still viewed as a luxury by most municipalities, and there was no shortage of applicants who were willing to take the necessary steps.
In Northcote, in the inner north of Melbourne, the need for a new library was keenly felt.
The city’s State Library had been founded early, in 1854, but was far enough away that it was not practical for local residents. From 1883, a room in the Northcote Town Hall had been set aside as a local public library, but this had proved inadequate for the growing community.
In 1907, the Northcote Library Committee was formed, to oversee the construction of a new, dedicated library for the area. The committee approached Carnegie’s Foundation, and submitted a request for funds through its free library program.
As part of the application, the local council agreed to provide a site: 185 High Street, adjacent to the Town Hall. An annual budget of 200 pounds for running costs, was also agreed to.
With some back and forth over the particulars, the application was approved.
The committee received 3 000 pounds for its new library. Construction was completed in 1911, and the building was opened August 21, by the Governor of Victoria, Sir John Fuller.
The new building featured a classical facade, while the interior had designated rooms for newspapers, magazines, books, and private study.
It was immediately popular. The novelty of having a library built by a wealthy, foreign patron ensured plenty of publicity, and the facilities were well utilised.
Northcote’s Carnegie Library would continue to operate through most of the 20th century, before it again outgrew its premises. In 1985, it was relocated to a larger, and less stylish, location on Separation Street.
The old Carnegie Library was then converted into Darebin City Council offices, which are still used today.
While Northcote was successful in obtaining their Carnegie library, it was likely not the only district in Melbourne to try their luck.
Southeast of the city, in the council area of Glen Eira, is a whole suburb named after the American philanthropist: Carnegie. But it did not always go by this name; when it was founded in the 19th century, it was originally known as ‘Rosstown’.
This was named after William Murray Ross, an entrepreneur who began buying land in the area around 1875. Ross had an ambitious scheme: he would bring sugar beets from Gippsland to Rosstown via rail, and process them there into sugar, in his own factory.
Ross’ proposal was a kind of early attempt at vertical integration: not only would he own the sugar mill, and rail line, but he would also sell off the surrounding land for housing, to his own sugar workers. He was like Andrew Carnegie, in miniature.
Ultimately, none of it worked out; the sugar beet industry proved unprofitable, the rail line was closed, and Rosstown simply became another suburb. The people living there were not sugar beet factory workers, but young families.
In 1909, the area changed its name. From then on, it became known as ‘Carnegie’; local historians assume, as part of an effort to try and secure a grant from Carnegie’s foundation:
‘In May 1909, the railway station was renamed Carnegie, allegedly with the support of residents and progress associations, who thought it would be an inducement to obtain funds from the American Carnegie Foundation for a library.
Neither did the funds appear, nor is there contemporary documentary evidence of the idea, but no better explanation has been given.’
Why Northcote was successful, while ‘Carnegie’ failed, is not known.
Andrew Carnegie died in 1919, by which time he had given away approximately 90% of his fortune.
His charitable foundation built 3 000 public libraries, many of which are still operating.