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Robert Owen and New Lanark
Robert Owen and New Lanark

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6.5 Third Essay

By the time Owen got round to writing Essays Three and Four, probably at the end of 1813 or the beginning of 1814, events had moved on, particularly the success of his new partnership in purchasing the mills and placing him again in full control. But his presentation increasingly leaves much to be desired, and here I have tried to focus on Owen's key proposals. Notice another homily, again derived from Enlightenment notions, and widely adopted by Owen's followers, that ‘truth must ultimately prevail over error’ (p. 125). This precept may well have sustained Owen's optimism about changing society in spite of the criticism the essays attracted.

The Third Essay starts with a statement on the ‘progress of improvement’. This refers to the empirical study of human nature, helping to identify the universal principles explaining its operations and the possibility of rational reform based on this knowledge. Much of the essay is devoted to further detail about educational and social provision that is either in place or proposed for New Lanark. This should be seen in the context of the further development of Owen's ideas about education, character formation, the role of relaxation in people's lives, and the vexed question of religion and the role of the Church. Much of Owen's educational thinking was borrowed from others, but in his views on child development and the school curriculum he was certainly original and pioneering.

Exercise 14

Read the Third Essay, linked below, and as you do consider the following sets of questions, looking in turn at education, the role of religion, other social provisions and their application nationally:

First on education:

  1. What does Owen say about the role of play and how is the New Institution designed to develop this in infants and children?

  2. What other functions are to be carried out in the New Institution and how will they promote the well-being of the individual and the community?

  3. Does this feed through to Owen's views on relaxation more generally?

Click document below to open the Third 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. Play is a means of promoting happiness, and to this end the Institution is equipped with a secure playground where infants can be supervised. The superintendents will teach socially acceptable behaviour and older children will lead by example. So ‘rational conduct’ will result. The infant school and its playground have many advantages in terms of security and supervision. The playground can also be used by older pupils and for military drill (including the use of firearms: highly appropriate in wartime, if not to combat possible attacks on the mills by machine-breakers). Note too that this facility also saves parents time, hence contributing to greater efficiency on the factory floor.

  2. The Institution has a range of functions, as infant school, a school for older pupils, an adult institute, a church and a venue for recreation, notably dancing. Much of what Owen proposes amounts to what is now called lifelong learning, including improving lectures, known as ‘familiar discourses’ (alternating with the dances), designed to reinforce in adults the importance of character formation and to promote improved domestic economy (pp. 130–1).

  3. Owen sees relaxation as vital to the promotion of rounded individuals. Careful provision needs to be made for amusement and recreation, avoiding immorality and insobriety.

We shall return to the Institution, the schools and their curricula in due course.

Exercise 15

Owen's attitude to leisure has some relevance to his critique of religion. Read his views on religion in the Third Essay, pp.127–8 and 131–2, considering the following questions and briefly summarising your views:

  1. Why, in Owen's opinion, is the Sabbath in Scotland as currently observed not conducive to relaxation?

  2. What is the basis for Owen's attack on religion in this context?

Click document below to open the Third Essay

Robert Owen, A New View of Society


  1. Under ‘Relaxation and the Sabbath’ (pp. 127–8) Owen presents a typical Enlightenment onslaught on superstition and bigotry and a rational focus on increasing happiness, a problem the Enlightenment, with its characteristic confidence, thought it could solve. He attacks the Scots Sabbath as being a day of extremes: on the one hand ‘superstitious gloom and tyranny over the mind’, on the other ‘of the most destructive intemperance and licentiousness’. This is certainly a side-swipe at Scottish Presbyterianism, or at least at the moral control exercised over the community by the kirk and its ministry (and locally there was much ill-feeling between Owen and the parish minister about the kirk's interference in the New Lanark schools).

  2. Owen's main attack, in line with Enlightenment views, is on religious sectarianism and sectarian prejudices which generate ill-feeling, hatred and misery. Irrational instruction compounds the problems that sectarianism creates, so that ‘God-given inclinations and mental faculties’ are turned away from peace and happiness to evil and misery.

Owen's anti-sectarian views were to prove controversial, not on theological grounds alone (although these were clearly important since Owen himself, having rejected Anglicanism and Unitarianism, was probably by this time agnostic) but also because the Church occupied such an important place in people's lives, through its schools and through overseeing people's moral conduct and dispensing charity to the poor. Here Owen is indirectly challenging the Church's social and moral functions. His anti-religious views could possibly prejudice his various campaigns for reform, even in spheres beyond the authority of the Church.

Exercise 16

Now consider the following questions:

  1. What other social provisions are to be made in the community?

  2. How are these ideas to be more widely applied, and what danger can you discern here?


  1. Several provisions are suggested, including an improved sickness and superannuation fund, retirement housing and, turning to nature, garden plots and public walkways.

  2. All classes need to consider his agenda, Owen says. Indeed, the closing section on ‘The Audience’ reads like a manifesto of the Enlightenment, with the light of reason dispelling the darkness of ignorance, superstition and prejudice. Here he appeals to those who can take a dispassionate view, who can see the relationship between the individual and society and between what he calls ‘private and public good’ (p. 134). This might suggest that he is already thinking that social and moral reform could only be promoted successfully by partnerships between reform organisations and the state. However, the danger is that some of the people Owen dismisses might have helped to promote his ideas, and, I think, suggests a certain arrogance on his part.

The theme of Owen's Third Essay, again in line with Enlightenment thinking, is thus the general application of his principles, mixed with an attack on human error and how truth might prevail in matters of social reform. There is further exemplification of his initiatives at New Lanark, though more about the future rather than the past and present. He describes the central educational role to be played by his New Institution, also highlighting the importance of relaxation to his workforce. There follows a description of other social measures, notably the sick and pension fund (again not an original idea, but clearly well conceived) and other communal facilities.

Although the Third Essay clearly shows Owen's advanced thinking about educational, community and environmental issues, which were controversial enough, his views about the Church were radical and potentially damaging. Whether or not he realised it at the time, they set a dangerous precedent for the future in his relationship with his partners and the clergy (though, interestingly, reaction was divided on sectarian lines, with Anglicans, especially in Ireland, and Dissenters being most supportive). He clearly tolerated and even encouraged church attendance among the (mainly) Presbyterian villagers, probably as another means of promoting order and morality. Indeed, he even made special arrangements for the Gaelic-speaking population by engaging preachers in the language. For many years the summer communion at Lanark parish church was celebrated – at the invitation of Owen's neighbour, Lady Mary Ross – by Dr John Macdonald, the famous ‘Apostle of the North’ and the most popular Gaelic Evangelical preacher in the Highlands. On these occasions tables were actually set apart for New Lanark's Highland population and Macdonald ‘gave the addresses in their own native Gaelic’. Owen's actions locally in support of worship seemed to conflict with his public pronouncements, so on the matter of religion he laid himself open to criticism (Donnachie, 2000, p. 118).