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Robert Owen and New Lanark
Robert Owen and New Lanark

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6.4 Second Essay

As a preliminary to the Second Essay, Owen says that he will enhance further his discussion of his underlying principles and then begin to explain to his readers how they can be applied in practice. Notice too the prologue for the Second Essay (p. 113) , quoting Vansittart's view that ‘if we cannot reconcile, all opinions, let us endeavour to unite all hearts’, a ringing phrase often quoted by Owen in later publications and widely adopted as one of the most popular Owenite homilies.

The Second Essay is important because in it Owen expands further on the defects of society as he sees them, especially as regards the neglect of education in the making of individuals and society at large, the perverse or negative attitudes to charity, and crime and punishment. The central concern, however, is to provide the reader with a detailed description of New Lanark as he found it and the reforms his management has introduced.

Exercise 11

Read over the Second Essay, linked below, and think about the following questions:

  1. What is rational instruction designed to promote?

  2. Why, in Owen's opinion, has the present system failed society?

  3. What, according to Owen, promotes crime and how does he view the law and system of punishment?

Click document below to open the Second Essay

Robert Owen, A New View of Society [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]


  1. Children the world over are creatures of their environment and their circumstances, and attitudes of parents and teachers will shape their characters. From infancy, they have no control over their education and the resulting characters with which they are endowed. Society needs to take responsibility for rational instruction which with ‘perseverance under judicious management’ (p. 114) will inculcate sound sentiments and manners in infancy and later life.

  2. The system has failed partly due to the ignorance of previous generations (which Owen finds odd because the printing press has long provided the means of disseminating rational, enlightened ideas) and partly because existing moral and religious instruction cannot counteract such unfavourable circumstances.

  3. Poverty explains high levels of crime (which, as we have seen, was a growing concern of the time). According to Owen, the poor are trapped in a spiral of crime, much of the legislation is punitive, and (in another remarkably modern critique) the law is administered by those who have no real understanding of the environment and circumstances in which crimes are committed. Judges could well be in the dock, says Owen, if they had been raised among the poor!

Much of Owen's critique of the law, to which he returned at public meetings in 1817, seems to come from Bentham. As you can see, Owen also urges us to visit London's gaols, where we shall find plenty more evidence of the adverse circumstances which have shaped the characters of the luckless prisoners incarcerated there (p. 116).

Now we come to Owen's account of New Lanark under his management, which is really the core of the Second Essay.

Exercise 12

Read Owen's description of New Lanark in its entirety, and as you do so think about the following questions:

  1. What is Owen's aim in providing this account, and how do you think this affects his treatment?

  2. What were the conditions Owen found on assuming management at New Lanark?

  3. How did he set about improving matters, and what sorts of response did he meet from management, workers and villagers?


  1. This is an interesting question, as Owen must have realised that he had to provide evidence that his ideas, so far as he had been able to apply them up to that point, actually worked in practice. While his account can be taken at face value as an accurate picture of the works and community, I think it is highly likely that Owen deliberately downplayed his father-in-law's achievements and talked up his own.

  2. A great deal could be said here about the conditions at New Lanark before Owen took over, and summarising it all is far from easy. First, Owen gives a history of the community, which pretty much replicates the brief account above, but places a great deal more emphasis on the negative aspects of the story. The workforce included the orphans and the families, apparently assembled at random, and all accommodated in a makeshift way either in parts of the factory or in the village built nearby. Because Dale had many other interests he seldom visited the works, management being entrusted to ‘servants with more or less power’ (p. 117).

    In the next paragraph follows another famous passage which ultimately entered the annals of Owenism by stating that at New Lanark the ‘population lived in idleness, in poverty, in almost every kind of crime; consequently, in debt, out of health, and in misery’ (p. 117). To make matters worse there was also a strong sectarian influence, probably disputes between members of the Established Church of Scotland and Dissenting sects (Dale's included?), which had a highly negative effect on the community (this is Owen's earliest attack on religious sectarianism and an enlightened plea for toleration, as it happens).

    Second, and more positively, Dale is praised for his benevolence in providing for the pauper apprentices accommodation, food, clothing, medical care and education. However, in Owen's opinion, many were too young to work in the mills for long hours, and the regime largely negated the good it might have done. Further, when the apprenticeships had been completed those who could not be kept on sometimes took to the streets in either Edinburgh or Glasgow (like other cities, these were notorious for criminality). If this is the best that can be done, says Owen, what must the worse be like by comparison?

    At this point Owen, cloaked as the ‘stranger’ (p. 119), comes on the scene, deploying his Manchester experience to clean the place up. After appraising the situation he launches a major programme of reform in both the workplace and the community.

  3. In the mills Owen introduced inspections to cut down petty pilfering (which was widespread in factories), and improved work practices and workflows, poor time-keeping and absenteeism. These improvements generated mixed responses. Some of the managers resented Owen's style (and were either side-stepped or dismissed). But Owen eventually convinced the workers of his good intentions through philanthropy. During a lay-off caused by the US embargo on trade with Britain he continued paying wages to his workers, a generous gesture by the standard of most mill owners.

Although not described in the extract, the most interesting innovation (possibly adapted from Lancaster's badge system of credits and rewards in the classroom) was the ‘silent monitor’ or ‘telegraph’, a wooden block hung above each machine, which showed at a glance by colour-coding the previous day's performance and was also duly noted by overseers in ‘books of character’ (part of the supervisory system, as you will see in the video). The ‘silent monitor’ was coloured either white (denoting excellent), yellow (good), blue (indifferent), or black (bad). You may wonder how workers would have reacted to this device and the recording of their conduct, and also what Owen was trying to achieve by this.

These are interesting questions, as we have little direct testimony from workers themselves. Some would have resented it, much as they did Owen's other reforms, though they would not have had much option about accepting it. Given that it was probably tied to some sort of system of rewards, which we don't know much about in detail, the device may have been less punitive than it seems. But clearly Owen was trying to do more than record productivity, as the ‘silent monitor’ was essentially a means of measuring ‘character’ or ‘behaviour’. Of course, good behaviour could be equated with efficiency and hence enhanced profits. So Owen's motives are not entirely clear.

Meanwhile, to combat absenteeism Owen clamped down on alcohol and drunkenness – not by any means a solely Scottish trait but widespread in new industrial communities everywhere. Owen, while not personally averse to alcohol, seems to have had a lifelong dislike of drunkenness.

The most significant reform on the factory floor was abolishing the employment of pauper apprentices and later of all children under the age of ten (which pragmatically made a good deal of sense on the grounds of cost and efficiency, though in fairness Owen subsequently played a major role in the campaign to outlaw child labour in all mills and mines).

There were also some dramatic improvements in the community at large. The major items Owen identifies include more and better housing, making good-quality provisions, clothing and fuel available at competitive prices in a company store, and introducing rules and regulations about conduct generally. This included the vexed issue of sexual relations, New Lanark, like most factory villages of the time, being crammed with young people. Note that Owen links penalties for misbehaviour to the welfare fund (itself quite an innovation), but there is no allusion at this stage to birth control, later rumoured to be practised at New Lanark. Owen also draws attention to education, where Dale's provision has been continued and enhanced with all ‘the modern improvements’. (Although it's hard to determine exactly what Owen means here, his ideas are explained in greater detail in subsequent essays. It could be that he had already introduced some of Lancaster's methods.)

In sum, replace much of the existing behaviour with ‘rational habits in the rising generation’ and the result is order, regularity, temperance and industry (p.123). What more could an enlightened employer hope for, especially if such philanthropy could be seen to raise profits?

Exercise 13

Now reflect on what Owen is saying in the Second Essay. Summarise your findings and identify some of the key Enlightenment ideas that underpin his thinking.

Click document below to open the Second Essay

Robert Owen, A New View of Society


The Second Essay describes the progress Owen has made at New Lanark since assuming management. In order to boost his own contribution since that event, he may well be exaggerating the poor state of things before he arrived, even if he is telling the truth about the hours worked by the child apprentices. He provides a glowing picture of the numerous improvements, environmental, moral and social, which his paternalistic methods have effected – showing the ‘incalculable advantages’ brought to both workers and proprietors. Inevitably considerable attention is again devoted to the role of education and training, which has proved vital in removing ‘unfavourable circumstances’. New Lanark, by the ‘steady application of certain general principles’, has been made a test-bed for the ‘New System’, as he was soon to call it. Owen is also able to claim that because there is constant communication between Old Lanark on the hill and New Lanark in the valley below, his experiment has not occurred in isolation and that if expanded his ideas could have unlimited potential nationally and internationally. The key enlightened ideals seem to be the light of reason to dispel error and darkness, the reasoned conditioning of people, and the potential universality of progress. In sum, the total, rational solutions in which the Enlightenment showed such faith underpin his ideas.