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Robert Owen and New Lanark

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Childcare, education, working conditions, healthcare, crime: these issues are hotly debated in today's society. They are also issues that Robert Owen, seen by some as a visionary and by others as a knave and a charlatan, sought to address in the early 1800s. This free course, Robert Owen and New Lanark, uses a series of essays written by Owen to explore the ideas of this important and controversial figure.

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • understand the Enlightenment ideas that underpinned Robert Owen's social reform agenda
  • understand how Owen's background and experience at New Lanark fed through into his thinking in the essays in A New View of Society
  • understand the main proposals in the essays
  • understand New Lanark's role as a model for social reform during this period.

By: The Open University

  • Duration 12 hours
  • Updated Thursday 14th April 2016
  • Intermediate level
  • Posted under History of Art
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2.2 David Dale and New Lanark 1785–1800

Although New Lanark was not the first, it became one of the largest and most important cotton mills of its period. It was planned and developed near the Falls of Clyde in 1785 by David Dale (1739–1806) (see Figure 2), a prominent Glasgow merchant banker, and by Richard Arkwright (1732–92), who in the 1780s was actively promoting his patented water-frame both in Scotland and on the Continent. Arkwright soon abandoned his interest, leaving Dale and his managers to build New Lanark on a site feued (leased) from Lord Braxfield (1722–99), who had an estate nearby. (Incidentally, Braxfield, as Lord Justice Clerk, presided in 1793 at the trials of the leading Scottish Friends of the People, a group that advocated moderate parliamentary reform as a means of preserving the British constitution, including the Radical lawyer and great Scottish patriot Thomas Muir (1765–99).) The large mills, four in all, were constructed by the river's edge, and water to drive a series of massive wheels was diverted from the Clyde by tunnel and aqueduct. Beyond the mill complex Dale created a model industrial community with a planned village providing housing, school, kirk (or church) and other social facilities for its workers. What all this cost is unknown, but when Owen and his partners bought the place in 1799 they paid £60 000, said to be cheap at the price. So Dale's investment was substantial, making New Lanark one of the largest plants of its kind.

David Dale, 1791, by James Tassie, National Portrait Gallery, Scotland.
David Dale, 1791 by James Tassie, National Portrait Gallery, Scotland. This image may not be subjected to any form of reproduction including transmission, performance, display, rental, or storage in any retrieval system without the written consent of National Galleries of Scotland. Downloading of this image is strictly for private study only. ©
David Dale, 1791 by James Tassie, National Portrait Gallery, Scotland. This image may not be subjected to any form of reproduction including transmission, performance, display, rental, or storage in any retrieval system without the written consent of National Galleries of Scotland. Downloading of this image is strictly for private study only.
Figure 2: James Tassie, David Dale, 1791, medallion, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. David Dale, merchant-philanthropist, was the founder of New Lanark and Owen's future father-in-law
Robert Scott, New Lanark, c.1799, engraving, National Monuments Record of Scotland. This is the earliest representation of New Lanark. It shows, from the west bank of the Clyde, the mills and village as they would have appeared towards the end of the Dale regime
Photo: Crown copyright: RCAHMS ©
Photo: Crown copyright: RCAHMS
Figure 3: Robert Scott, New Lanark, c.1799, engraving, National Monuments Record of Scotland. This is the earliest representation of New Lanark. It shows, from the west bank of the Clyde, the mills and village as they would have appeared towards the end of the Dale regime.

Exercise 1

Examine Figure 3 above, the earliest representation of New Lanark, then view the introductory section of the video given below. Describe the location and layout of the mills and community.

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Transcript: Introduction - Part 1

Ian Donnochie
New Lanark. At its height this village was home to 2000 mill workers. At the beginning of the 19th century it was one of the biggest and most successful cotton mills in the country . It was also the site of an extraordinary social experiment. An experiment carried out by the industrialist and reformer Robert Owen.
By 1817, this lowland Scottish village had a world wide reputation, thousands of visitors would visit every year to see the experiment at work. Its owner Robert Owen was world renowned – he seemed to have done the impossible. He had created a community which cared for its workers, provided housing and conditions unlike most of his contemporaries but at the same time he created huge profits. We’re going to look at what Robert Owen achieved at New Lanark, what was revolutionary about his experiment and what motivated him.
Owen himself came from relatively humble beginnings. He was the son of a Welsh shopkeeper. The beginnings of factory employment in Britain offered Owen opportunities. He worked in small factories in Manchester and then in 1791 he went to manage the large Drinkwater Mill.
Greg Claeys (Royal Holloway College, University of London)
One must recall, that when he assumes the management of the Drinkwater mill in Manchester he’s only 20 years old and he’s supervising 500 people, an astonishing thing in all this is one of the largst mills in the country, Drinkwater is told by all his friends, its quite impossible to imagine that a young man of this inexperience is going to succeed at this task. But Owen already at this point at the age of 20 has in mind that its possible for him to do something other than merely manage a mill in the traditional sense.
Ian Donnochie
His ascent into Manchester society and business connections in Glasgow, brought him into contact with his future wife, Caroline Dale. Caroline’s father was David Dale who had founded the mills at New Lanark in 1785. The village itself is situated about a mile down river from the famous Falls of Clyde. It was there that Dale conceived the idea that the river would be a perfect source of power for a spinning mill.
Lorna Davidson (Deputy Director, New Lanark Conservation Trust)
He established the foundations here of the community that his future son in law Robert Owen was to bring to world attention but we shouldn’t forget that new Lanark was very well known even in David Dale’s time and his treatment, particularly of the parish apprentices of which he had a small army working in the mills was regarded as exemplary. Horrifying though it may seem to us to bring children to work in the mills for long hours in return not for wages but for board and lodging and a basic education. In fact he was highly praised for that and by the standards of this time. Those children were certainly far better off here in New Lnark than they would have been in the Work Houses of the City slums.
Ian Donnochie
During the years which Dale built up the village Robert Owen was building his own intellectual ideas, particularly about public health and education. His experience of the appalling conditions endured by factory workers also led him to consider how environment impacts on behaviour.
Greg Claeys
He gives a number of papers. One of which in 1797 crucially focuses upon the moral virtue of the population. He wants to know what has particular impact upon peoples self conception of their moral identity. We know that he’s interested in, association of psychology that his basic sense of what the individual is, is a series of impressions formed by experience basically upon an empty of blank beginning. There is no fundamental predisposition towards good or evil, this is the crucial Owenite point. The notion that man does not form his own character, but it is formed by his environment.
Ian Donnochie
When he arrived at New Lanark in 1800 Owen found the perfect place to test his theories. An isolated community far away from the temptations of the city. The mill employed the entire village. Owen realised that this was an ideal opportunity. He would have enough control to experiment with a different system.
Greg Claeys
The characteristic problems we know that the essays address, drunkenness, dishonesty, illegitimacy profligacy, inability to save and so on all of these are evident in the moral outlook, behaviour of the population in New Lanark at the time that Owen arrives. It is not from an employers point of view a paradise by any means. The amount of pilferage is astonishing, its noted that it seems that the workforces treats Dale’s property as if it were public property. There is not probably more drunkenness, not probably more illegitimacy than anywhere else, but it remain s by Owen’s standards very clearly a problem.
Ian Donnochie
The task which Owen set himself at New Lanark would have appealed even to the more conservative reformers of the time. Was it possible to improve the moral behaviour of the working classes, particularly those in factories. What was more radical was the solution. This was founded on the belief that moral reform could only come through reform of the environment. Give the workforce better conditions and they will behave better. In the first decade of his time at New Lanark Owen instituted many radical reforms.
Jim Arnold (Director, New Lanark Conservation Trust)
I think probably the most immediate thing that would strike you if you were living here was the high quality of the housing accommodation that you got. You know your boss Robert Owen was living right here among you, he living in a little house next door to you and so he shared the circumstances of the community with you. You know everyone had a fireplace an open fire, slate roofs, some glass in the windows, not as much as you have now. But certainly what people thought as being high quality housing accommodation.
Ian Donnochie
The quality of the housing was accompanied by rules and regulations about how the community should be managed. He brought a strong sense that a community should take responsibility for itself. But Owen set down strong guide lines on cleanliness and hygiene. Streets had to be kept free of animals. Waste had to be properly disposed of and windows and doors had to be kept spotless, and there were regular inspections.
Jim Arnold
The famous bug hunters who used to go and visit and used to recce you know if you’re a housewife n the village and you had your house inspected to see how clean it was being kept, which you needed to do in a collective community like this. The idea was that you had a potted plant from Mrs Owen if you were doing well.
Ian Donnochie
Despite the rules Owen also believed that the community should take responsibility for its own moral behaviour.
Lorna Davidson
I think its often forgotten now that he did try very hard to involve the community in their own, taking responsibility for their own lives and how the community was organised through his system of neighbour divisions, where each person, each of the twelve neighbour division into which the village was divided elected and held a ballot to elect a spokesperson and these twelve people became a kind of community council if you like who met with Owen to discuss village affairs and also to adjudicate in cases of dispute between neighbours.
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Transcript: Introduction - Part 2

Lorna Davidson
And then there are the other ones, which are designed to have a harmonious community you have the injunction to parents to take responsibility for the behaviour of their children and householders for the responsibility, to be responsible for the behaviour of their lodgers and you can see how all this is working together to try and make people take responsibility for the way their community actually works
Ian Donnochie
This improvement in living conditions was accompanied by an improvement in working conditions. Owen banned the employment of children under 10 who had been such a large part of David Dale’s workforce. He reduced the adult working hours from 12 to 10. Initially however, not all of Owen’s reforms were met with approval from the workforce.
Lorna Davidson
They were used to the idea that children earned money, that as soon as they could earn a few pennies for the family they would be working.
So when Robert Owen said “your’re not going to do this” they were thinking, “well this is effectively a cut in wages, we don’t like this"
What he does is he institutes a system whereby the children will be taken into what we would call a workplace nursery and from the age they could walk alone as he says they were taken effectively into what we would call a creche, the important thing about that ws that of course freed up the mothers the women to take their place back in the factory very soon after giving birth and keeping up the family income without having to send the children to work.
Ian Donnochie
The turning point for the workforce in New Lanark came in 1808. An American embargo on the export of raw cotton hit the mills and the workforce faced great hardship. Owen however continued to pay his workers despite the fact that they couldn’t work. His philanthropy finally won the village over. Through the first decade of the 19th century Owen steadily continued his reforms the factory and the community.
Jim Arnold
The other things that would impact on you were things like health care, you know if you became ill, you know the doctor would look after you, there was a kind of pension scheme so that if you go, if you became sick you got sickness pension or if you became elderly you were looked after within the community and things like the village store, where it meant you brought good quality goods at reasonable prices.
Ian Donnochie
The village store became an important feature of New Lanark. Goods were bought in bulk which meant they could be sold cheaply. It made life easier as the villagers didn’t have the uphill journey into Lanark for food. It also kept them away from the temptations of the town.
Workers were paid with tickets for wages which could be exchanged for goods in the shop. This again encouraged thrift and abstinence.
The store was successful and profits helped to fund what was for Owen the most important reform – education. At the core of his ideology was the belief that man could be improved through his environment and he believed that the main agent of change was education. Dale had begun a system of education in the village but this was greatly expanded under Owen. Owen also pioneered and for the first time introduced an organised system of infant education.
David McLaren (University of Strathclyde)
Owen is building on the foundations of the school which Dale established but is introducing something entirely different, which is his philosophy if you can call it that of rationality, happiness, enlightenment ideas, none of which really had much to do with David Dale. And so that they system was entirely different and for the first time in Britain you have an emphasis on infant education, play and so on which were certainly not evident in Dales system.
Ian Donnochie
This school room could take over 100 children up to the age of 10. The methods of teaching in the school included for the time very innovative teaching techniques. Visual aids were used extensively – many of which were very expensive. This drawing was one of a batch which, at the time, cost almost 500 pounds. The curriculum was remarkably modern.
The children were taught natural history, geography, as well as the three Rs. But there was also an emphasis on physical activity. Singing and dancing were on the curriculum as well as music.
David McLaren
Whichever Owenite community you look at whether its here or in the states, dancing features prominently. Now there’s a whole number of reasons for that, often Owen talks about the moral benefits of dancing but clearly there are other benefits as well, there are physical benefits in that its exercise. Equally important for Owen was this sense of building a community through things like dance and social activities.
Ian Donnochie
Education, to Owen’s mind was about more than just learning to reading and write. It was the foundation for a new society. It was the means by which he could create the citizens of tomorrow.
David McLaren
Citizenship became I suppose, was always a huge issue for Owen. The whole purpose of education were the keys of the kingdom for the new moral world. And therefore, to be a to be a citizen in the new moral world was, the ultimate aim. Here it was to be a citizen of a new community with neighbouring communities perhaps not so far away. Living together, working together and so on, it meant living without sin, vice and so on. It meant living in a rational manner, it meant being happy, the happiness of the community. Citizenship was paramount for Owen and indeed, I think was the ultimate aim for most of his educational system.
Ian Donnochie
Education wasn’t just confined to the children. At the centre of the village he built what he called the Institute for the Formation of Character. Here he provided education and recreation for the adults. There would be music, singing and dancing as well as lectures on offer. His aim was to structure society so as to create a rounded environment for adults as well as children.
Lorna Davidson
He has the very practical experience of managing both the living and working conditions of the people in the village and I think he becomes completely convinced by that experience that you do need to apply a rational planning. You need to give people a proper structure to their lives, you need to provide them with the basic elements that will give them good housing. The opportunity to work in fair decent conditions. You need to provide education opportunities for recreation and an good environment. By that I mean a good physical environment and he did here at New Lanark plant lots and lots of trees and lay out footpaths and he felt that pleasant environment and surroundings were essential for healthy happy communities.
Ian Donnochie
Owen’s ideas were certainly innovative but what brought him so much attention was the fact that the mill made high profits. Robert Owen became one of the wealthiest mill owners of his day and by 1816 had amassed a huge personal fortune. To achieve profitability at the same time as improving conditions he had to impose a strict discipline on the workforce.
Greg Claeys
He is concerned with drunkenss, very clearly with lack of thrift, with dishonesty in the workforce and he sets forth a programme which will effectively try to curtail each of these vices in such a way that at the end of the day both by hook and crook – there is a punitive edge without doubt and we know that wen Owen began to implement this programme there was, what we might call today call a quasi authoritairal procedure followed in some respects and patrols went through the village at nght. You got three warnings if you were caught being drunk and then you were out. This is a factory village where Owen is King effectively
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The mills are by the edge of the Clyde at a point where the head of water was at its optimum for driving the machinery. The mill races from four of the wheels can be seen in the engraving. Because of the constricted nature of the site the housing is ranged behind, some stretching uphill to the left and some (the earliest, we think) beyond the mills to the right.

Apart from the costly technical and engineering difficulties involved in such a massive project, assembling a large and suitable labour force (initially perhaps comprising 1000 people) was a difficulty that Dale (and later Owen) shared with many other mill owners. Locals, perhaps understandably, seemed reluctant to seek employment for long hours in a place whose barrack-like appearance resembled a workhouse, and more widely people were said to be ‘averse to indoor labour’, meaning they did not seem to like the idea of working in ‘manufactories’, as they were called. Accordingly large families were recruited from other parts of Scotland and, as was the norm, both women and children were employed. In truth a large proportion of the labour force (maybe as much as half) were children, some being orphans apprenticed from the institutions or parishes of Glasgow and Edinburgh. The men worked as tradesmen or overseers, or, if they lacked skills, as labourers. There was also a distinctive and substantial cohort of Gaelic-speaking migrants from the Scottish Highlands, some of whom Dale had rescued from a storm-bound emigrant ship bound for North America, and others he had enticed to New Lanark from localities as far apart as Argyll or Caithness by offers of employment and housing.

By the early 1790s New Lanark, deep in its valley by the Clyde, had a densely packed population of about 2000, half of whom were either children or teenagers, the majority employed in the mills. Apart from assembling and training the labour force, the maintenance of time-discipline in the works and of order in the community must have presented major problems. Although an astute businessman, Dale was also a pious individual, head of a Dissenting Presbyterian sect, and his regime was reported as paternalist. By the standards of the time he and his resident managers provided decent working conditions and seem to have been particularly attentive to the accommodation, clothing, health and diet of the child apprentices (Donnachie and Hewitt, 1999, pp. 40–9).

Whoever inherited the community Dale had established would have a sound foundation on which to build, quite apart from the success of the business, by modern values probably a multimillion pound enterprise even before Owen and his Manchester partners assumed management. We shall learn more about the early history of New Lanark and view other features on the video later in the course. But for the moment this brief description of New Lanark highlights some of the major difficulties of industrialisation and the social problems the economic transformation engendered.

Exercise 2

Review the preceding section and identify some of the key problems that industrialisation seemed to generate.


There were major architectural and engineering problems in building the new factories, but these were soluble with large amounts of capital investment (on which, with good management and luck, substantial returns were possible). Perhaps more acute were the difficulties of assembling, retaining and controlling a large labour force. This often involved in-migration to new localities, over quite long distances and from different linguistic, cultural and religious backgrounds (likely to generate tension in the new communities). Housing had to be constructed very quickly. High densities, rudimentary water supply and poor sanitation threatened health and promoted disease. Factory masters were also concerned about preventing immorality, drunkenness and crime among workers.

I would not have expected you to get all of this, or necessarily to put it all in the same order, but you can see that the growth of New Lanark and other factory communities brought many of the social changes – and problems – that accompanied industrialisation generally. There were already major concerns about a whole host of issues, including population growth, urbanisation, health and disease, crime and policing, children's employment, adult unemployment, poverty and popular education.

Anyone with the answers to these problems was certain to command attention from governments wrestling with the costs of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. These conflicts hit the pockets of the landowners and industrialists through taxation, even though some were profiting handsomely from improved agriculture and the new manufacturing. There were also worries, widespread among the middle and upper classes, about increasing poverty and social unrest. And, as with slavery, many if not all of these issues challenged the enlightened and humane, who believed in social progress.

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