Andrew Carnegie was one of the wealthiest businessmen of the 19th century, yet he had little formal education and did not come from a wealthy family. So how did he make his fortune and what are his ties to New Zealand?

Born in Fife, Scotland in 1835 to a handloom weaver, his family believed in the importance of learning and reading. They lived in a typical weaver's cottage with only one main room, occupying half the ground floor and sharing with the neighbouring weaver's family.

The family moved to Allegheny, Pennsylvania, when Andrew was 13. The industrial city produced many goods including wool and cotton cloth. He began working with his father in Anchor Cotton Mills as a bobbin boy, earning $1.20 a week.

Carnegie's education and passion for reading was given a boost by Colonel James Anderson, who opened his personal library of 400 volumes to working boys each Saturday night.


Carnegie was a consistent borrower. He was so grateful to Colonel Anderson for the use of his library that he resolved, "If ever wealth came to me, I will see to it that other poor boys might receive opportunities similar to those for which we were indebted to the noble man."

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He went on to become a telegraph messenger, which enabled him to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad. He worked as the assistant and telegrapher to Thomas Scott, one of the railroad's top officials, and was soon promoted to superintendent due to his diligence and work ethic.

His first investment was $500 in the Adams Express, which contracted with Pennsylvania to carry its messages.

He reinvested his returns in railroad-related industries (iron, bridges and rails) and oil, slowly accumulating the capital to build steel rolling mills; the basis of his later success.

Carnegie combined his assets and those of his associates in 1892 with the launching of the Carnegie Steel Company, which earned him his vast fortune.

In 1901, Carnegie was 66 years old and considering retirement. He sold his share to John Pierpont Morgan for $225.64 million (in 2019, $6.93 billion).

After his retirement he turned his mind to philanthropy, including the establishment of public libraries.

Marton Library
Marton Library

He and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which he endowed were responsible for the establishment of 2509 libraries in the United States, Britain and Ireland, Canada, Australia, the Caribbean, Fiji and New Zealand.

New Zealand fared well, with 18 libraries built in Balclutha, Gore, Dunedin, Alexandra, Fairlie, Timaru, Hokitika, Westport, Greymouth, Levin, Dannevirke, Marton, New Plymouth, Hastings, Cambridge, Thames, Hamilton and Onehunga. All told, Carnegie donated US$207,607 to New Zealand library buildings, equivalent to NZ$5 million today.

In New Zealand, each library was designed by a local architect, with most stand-alone libraries following a basic plan of a central hall flanked by reading, library and social rooms.

Some like Hokitika were magnificent, others more mundane. Only two of the New Zealand buildings remain in use as libraries, in Marton and Balclutha. Ten have been restored but are used for other purposes, while six have been demolished.

Museum Notebook
Museum Notebook

The library in Marton was built with a grant of £1250, which arrived in 1914 and was used to construct a single-storey brick building with a corrugated-iron roof.

The new facility was opened in 1916 and was the last library building to be funded by the Carnegie Corporation in New Zealand.

Carnegie believed in using his fortune for others and doing more than making money. He once wrote:

''I propose to take an income no greater than $50,000 per annum! Beyond this I need ever earn, make no effort to increase my fortune, but spend the surplus each year for benevolent purposes! Let us cast aside business forever, except for others.''

•Kathy Greensides is Collection Assistant at Whanganui Regional Museum.