Robert Owen and New Lanark
Robert Owen and New Lanark

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Robert Owen and New Lanark

1 A New View of Society

Some of Robert Owen's ideas were confirmed by personal experience as a philanthropic employer who strongly emphasised the importance of environment, education and, ultimately, cooperation in improving social conditions. Owen was closely involved with the factory movement (for the improvement of working conditions), Poor Law reform, public education, economic regeneration in post-Napoleonic War Britain, the relief of distress in Ireland, creating what he called ‘communities of equality’ in Britain and America, and, after 1830, trade unionism and cooperation. He supported religious toleration. He advocated sexual equality, marriage and divorce law reform, and alluded to birth control as a means of regulating population. He thus gained fame, even notoriety, as a social and educational reformer, and long after his death continued to inspire others, notably through the ideas presented in his most important and famous work, the essays in A New View of Society.

Mary Ann Knight, Robert Owen, c.1799, colour pastel drawing, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. This first-known likeness catches Owen's vitality around the time he arrived at New Lanark
Mary Ann Knight, Robert Owen, c.1799, colour pastel drawing, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. 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. ©
Mary Ann Knight, Robert Owen, c.1799, colour pastel drawing, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. 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.
Figure 1: Mary Ann Knight, Robert Owen, c.1799, colour pastel drawing, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. This first-known likeness catches Owen's vitality around the time he arrived at New Lanark

A New View of Society is an important text for three reasons. First, it is a brilliant illustration of the notion that there are general, universally applicable rules or principles that we can discover through proper, empirical, use of reason, and which once identified will lead to progress (economic, social) and greater happiness. Apart from the ideals of social progress through the means of reason, and happiness generated by rational means, the essays highlight other key Enlightenment notions too. These include reference to the view that human nature is universal, the use of reason to dispel error and darkness from the human mind, the attack on superstition, the appeal to ‘nature’ and the natural environment, the importance of self-knowledge, and the reasoned conditioning of people.

Second, it highlights important aspects of economic progress and political and social change in Britain during and after the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. It shows how enlightened ideas could be applied to reform issues, particularly the major social problems of the period: poverty, poor housing, diet and health, and lack of educational opportunity. Owen's brand of rationality and progress may well have been deployed to his own pragmatic, commercial ends, but there is more emphasis on the happiness of the lower orders than in most Enlightenment texts.

Third, while it shows how Owen's ideas relate to wider currents of thought and the problems of his day, A New View of Society also serves to emphasise the point that Enlightenment and Romanticism did not necessarily progress neatly and steadily. Owen clearly held, well into the nineteenth century when Romantic ideas were making strong headway, many enlightened notions from the second half of the eighteenth century. Ideas and intellectual movements invariably overlapped.

Although the essays were all written at slightly different times between 1812 and 1814, they have a coherence arising from the subject matter. In turn they explain Owen's views about character formation, how his theories were applied in the context of New Lanark, the potential for further reform and, finally, the application of these ideas nationally and internationally.

Owen was often portrayed as benevolent and kind, a defender of factory children and a patron of the poor, all of which paint an essentially accurate picture of the man. But he also attracted considerable criticism, being described by his detractors as a knave, a charlatan and a speculative, scheming, mischievous individual. He had enormous wealth, much of it spent on his propaganda campaigns and, it has to be admitted, on self-promotion. Yet he disclaimed any self-interest. He had considerable charisma, which won him large audiences, including apparently many women. His flirtations with royal dukes and cabinet ministers made him enemies, particularly among political reformers, who ought to have been his natural allies. Owen evidently believed, however, that he was being propelled by some supernatural force to change society. Perhaps blinded by the strength of this conviction he was utterly single-minded in advocating his views, which, he felt, held the solution to the problems of his time.

Yet I am sure you will enjoy the modernity of Owen's practical measures, from nursery care to pension funds, even if his ‘principles’ are not always immediately evident. Although I shall guide you through the extracts in the essays, you might like to read them over now to get a sense of their style and content. You may also like to take a preliminary look at the video New Lanark: A New Moral World? (given below in three parts), to which you will be referred later in this course. The essays are provided as links below the video clips.

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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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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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Ian Donnochie
In the factory too the workers were constantly scrutinised and their productivity recorded. Owen used what he called a silent monitor. This block of wood hung beside each worker. The different colours represented how well the worker was performing.
Jim Arnold
So this, this is the silent monitor, which Owen used and it was a mechanism for social control, and the what colour it was, was moved, was exposed by your supervisor during the day and it was recorded in a book, you know and can still go and look at them and so Owen characterised himself as called himself the recording Angle and had that benign feeling about it. The interesting thing about it was the recording wasn't actually only about your performance, in terms of economics. For example white was excellent an excellent state of morals, but it was actually both your morale and economic performance. So if you put up a black, black side, it was excessively naughty. But when they weren't working it was that morally you were deficient and it's quite interesting when you go to other textile mills, you hear what happened to the people, the corporal punishment and beating was quite a normal thing, the people were treated almost like slaves, like chattels like commodities there was no consideration of the individual, to the tremendous different that there was here which really would have been an absolutely totally different work experience for people.
Ian Donnochie
As well as imposing a discipline on the workers, Owen was himself a skilled operator and understood how to run a mill effectively.
Jim Arnold
I think one of the things that people forget is what a good technologist, what a good manager Robert Owen was and this was a big complicated factory to run. He introduced things like stock control and process control to he know what was happening.
He must have been something of a control freak in that sense, in a sense that he knew what was happening to the processes going through and he was technically extremely good at it. So that the product going out the door here was saleable anywhere, it was they just walked of the shelf. So he was an extremely successful factory organiser.
Ian Donnochie
Robert Owen seemed to be doing the impossible, he was introducing reforms far in advance of any other manufacturer yet still making money. He was also making a name for himself as a propagandist.
Dale had exploited the Clyde for its power and the falls of continued to play a part in New Lanark’s history. It became a popular attraction from the lake district to the Scottish highlands.
Lorna Davidson
People were drawn to the beautiful romantic scenery, the picturesque, the huge interest in that. So poets and painters and writers and philosophers were coming to see the Falls of Clyde and as it happened they could also see this wonderful new community that Robert Owen was developing while they were here, so it became an added attraction. It made a very interesting extra feature to their journey and they’re another interesting thing to write about in their travel journals and that’s what did happen of course people like Dorothy Wordsworth notably accompanying William to the picturesque beauty, is just as fascinated I think in the community that she found here.
Ian Donnochie
At the same time as New Lanark was becoming a curiosity for the wealthy tourist, Owen was becoming a successful publicist for reform. During his years at New Lanark he began to associate with other influential radical thinkers, including Jeremy Bentham and William Godwin. Both of these enlightenment figures greatly influenced Owen’s thinking. He was also influenced by the religious reformer Thomas Chalmers.
By the time the essays were published New Lanark was a manufacturing phenomenon. Owen had a firm belief that his system could be replicated across the country. He wanted to use his wealth and influence to convert others to his cause.
Greg Claeys
Now the period from eighteen O five O six perhaps, and eighteen twelve fourteen, is one of mounting frustration in this regard, and if one wants to ask the fundamental question, about what takes us from, Owen number one to Owen number two, the two great images of Owen. When the great capitalist who's also a philanthropist, but is essentially a benevolent capitalist. To Owen the founder of socialism, the answer in one word is, frustration. He takes this programme of reform, to fellow reformers, to members of parliament and so on, essentially they want nothing to do with it.
Ian Donnochie
The reasons why so few manufacturers wanted to follow Owen’s example despite the publicity it attracted are mixed. In part however he was viewed with suspicion, particularly by the church. He himself did not have a faith but at New Lanark he encouraged religious tolerance.
Greg Claeys
He thought, that they would go through the same essential development of thought that he himself had in his youth. Namely by comparing the different religions and the different sects of the Christian religion. Against each other you’d end up at the end of the day with a sense of the palpable absurdity of the whole business, of the sense the way you believe was effectively a function of where your were brought up and as a result of this that they would end up philosophically in the position that Owen himself was in. In other words toleration had a hidden agenda to it.
Ian Donnochie
These ideas published in his essays brought him into conflict not only with the church but with his partners. One partner William Allen, a devout Quaker, became a vehement critic of Owen. But by 1816 there were other reasons why his so few manufacturers followed his example.
Greg Claeys
The period after eighteen sixteen clearly is very different from that beforehand. The end of the war is a major watershed, here there had been high employment, great demand high profit throughout the wartime period, this is the greatest boom of the industrial system. All of a sudden, there's a tremendous drop in demand particularly for cotton goods, all of a sudden, hundreds of thousands of people are demobilised from the army the navy and so on, a sever recession begins.
Ian Donnochie
Owen remained proprietor at New Lanark until 1825. However from 1816, he spent less time in the community Owen relied more heavily on managers as he himself concentrated on taking his message to the rest of the country. Nevertheless his dream of creating new types of communities remained at the heart of all his activities.
David McLaren
Even before New Lanark was established he has this idea that it will transform the world. When it's established it is successful if controversial and so on. And it's no surprise then that off he goes in 1824 to establish a community in America. As far as possible on the same kind of basis as New Lanark. It was the model which he thought would transform the entire world.
Ian Donnochie
New Lanark remained the basis for all Owen’s later ideas. His experiments with model communities in Britain and America were all based on New Lanark and the community remained an important influence on later reformers.
Many of the things Owen introduced there had lasting consequences. The village store became the inspiration for the co-operative movement which sprung up later in the 19th century and still exists today. His views on infant and popular education were picked up by many other reformers and his notion of citizenship and the environment still have resonance today. Of all the experiments which the great idealists and thinkers of this age tried out, it was this community that demonstrated the power of enlightened ideas to change society.
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Before undertaking a closer reading of the essays, let us look at the economic and political situation at the time they were written and say something about Owen's origins and career, as well as the background to the essays.

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