Robert Owen and New Lanark
Robert Owen and New Lanark

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Robert Owen and New Lanark

7 New Lanark as showpiece and text

Owen's partnership of 1814, consisting of Bentham and other enlightened individuals, mainly wealthy Quakers, paved the way for the rapid implementation of the innovations spelled out in the Statement of 1812 and subsequently in the essays. Two of the partners, William Allen (1770–1843), a chemist and businessman, and the wealthy and philanthropic John Walker (1767–1824), Owen's closest associate, were interested in education and had encouraged the establishment of schools adopting methods developed by Lancaster and others. Given their religious inclinations, they seemed strange allies, but Owen was able to deliver high returns on their investment, and for much of the time this may have counterbalanced worries about his views and propaganda campaigns.

The major developments took place in the mills, the community, the Institute and schools, with the last being the focus of attention for droves of visitors attracted to the place by Owen's publicity and the proximity to the Falls of Clyde. We can now see and hear discussed some of Owen's reforms for ourselves.

Exercise 19

Now view the rest of the video, below, and answer the following questions:

  1. The mills: what were the major reforms on the factory floor and how was discipline enforced?

  2. The community: what changes did Owen initiate in the community and what were the checks on people's conduct?

  3. The Institute and schools: what were the main functions of these buildings and how were they organised? What curricula were followed in the various departments?

Click play to view the video (Part 3, 10 minutes)

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Transcript: Introduction - Part 3

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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  1. On the factory floor the major reforms included (as we saw in the essays) phasing out the employment of children under the age of ten and introducing strict rules and regulations and a rigorous monitoring and reporting system. These actions greatly improved efficiency, productivity and profits. Owen also rebuilt on more modern lines one of the mills that had been destroyed by fire.

  2. In the community a whole set of rules and regulations was issued governing everything from street cleaning to personal behaviour. Environmental improvements were undertaken, mainly to improve sanitation and water supply, but also including gardens, allotments and public walkways. Owen built more housing and housing stock generally was upgraded. A company store provided good-quality provisions at competitive prices, though workers were sometimes paid by cheque, the ‘ticket for wages’ (see Figure 9), exchangeable for purchases. The profits went towards subsidising the schools and the sick fund. (This looks distinctly devious, because in some instances no money changed hands and folk would be obliged to spend their wages at the store, enhancing Owen's profits twice over! But petty cash was in short supply at the time, so it was a neat solution to that problem.)

  3. The Institute served as the main educational and social centre of the community. At first all the facilities were concentrated in the Institute, until the opening of a separate building for the school in about 1818 or 1819. As far as we know there was an infant department on the ground floor with a playground adjoining, and schoolrooms for older children on the upper floor. The Institute also provided facilities for evening instruction, lectures, concerts and dances, as well as for religious services.

    The curricula, apart from the ‘three Rs’ designed to promote literacy and numeracy, embraced ancient and modern history, geography, natural history and what we might call civics or citizenship. All these subjects were promoted by the famous Swiss educator Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746–1827), whom Owen visited during his European tour in 1818. Numerous aids were deployed for the teaching of grammar, arithmetic and other subjects. There was considerable emphasis in the infant curriculum on play and the stimulation provided by the environment, with, apparently, a limited role for book learning. Again much of this probably came from Pestalozzi, who is thought to have been influenced by Rousseau's Emile (1762), another key text of the Enlightenment. At New Lanark children were also taught the ‘polite accomplishments’ of dancing (see Plate 2, below), singing and playing musical instruments, while boys, to the strains of the village band, engaged in military drill.

Ticket for wages, c.1815, Donnachie-Owen Collection. The ticket for wages was one of several denominations exchangeable for goods at the community store. It may have been a model for the time-notes issued by later time-stores in the United States and Owenite labour exchanges in Britain during the early 1830s.
Donnachie-Owen Collection ©
Donnachie-Owen Collection
Figure 9: Ticket for wages, c.1815, Donnachie-Owen Collection. The ticket for wages was one of several denominations exchangeable for goods at the community store. It may have been a model for the time-notes issued by later ‘time-stores’ in the United States and Owenite labour exchanges in Britain during the early 1830s.

Click to open Plate 2 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , G. Hunt, Dancing Class, The Institute, New Lanark, c.1820, coloured engraving, New Lanark Conservation Trust.

Owen's son, Robert Dale Owen (1801–77), who as a US citizen was also to become a reformer of distinction, wrote a book entitled An Outline of the System of Education at New Lanark, first published in 1824, where he describes the schools and curricula. We can catch the flavour of this in a brief extract and by examining a picture of one of the schoolrooms and dancing children.

Exercise 20

Read the extract below and examine Plate 2, linked above. Comment on the scene. Does the extract give an accurate picture?

The ‘New Institution’, or School, which is open for the instruction of the children and young people connected with the establishment, to the number of 600, consists of two stories. The upper story, which is furnished with a double range of windows, one above the other, all round, is divided into two apartments.

The principal school-room, fitted up with desks and forms on the Lancasterian plan, having a free passage down the centre of the room, is about 90 ft long, 40 ft broad, and 20 ft high. It is surrounded, except at one end where a pulpit stands, with galleries, which are convenient when this room is used, as it frequently is, either as a lecture-room or place of worship.

The other apartment on the second floor has the walls hung round with representations of the most striking zoological and mineralogical specimens, including quadrupeds, birds, fishes, reptiles, insects, shells, minerals etc. At one end there is a gallery, adapted for the purpose of an orchestra, and at the other end are hung very large representations of the two hemispheres; each separate country, as well as the various seas, islands etc. being differently coloured, but without any names attached to them. This room is used as a lecture- and ball-room, and it is here that the dancing and singing lessons are daily given. It is likewise occasionally used as a reading-room for some of the classes.

The lower story is divided into three apartments, of nearly equal dimensions, 12 ft high, and supported by hollow iron pillars, serving at the same time as conductors in winter for heated air, which issues through the floor of the upper story, and by which means the whole building may, with care, be kept at any required temperature. It is in these three apartments that the younger classes are taught reading, natural history, and geography.

(R.D. Owen, 1972, pp. 28–30)


We are in the schoolroom described by Dale Owen where three troupes of girls in uniform dresses dance (Scottish quadrilles?) to the music of a fiddle trio. On two walls are murals or visual aids (mounted on rollers) showing exotic beasts and a large map of Europe, described by Dale Owen. Parties of visitors, women predominating, look on, as do two persons clearly in supervisory capacities, at the lower right (possibly the benevolent Mr Owen and his son?). The extract certainly seems to describe the arrangements accurately and adds a great deal more detail about other facilities. (Dale Owen's book, incidentally, helped boost his father's reputation as an educational reformer.)

As pointed out in the video, the Institute and schools were the main items of interest for visitors. The nursery school was certainly pioneering and the subject of considerable comment in numerous accounts. John Griscon (1774–1852), an American scientist, educationist and reformer, visiting in 1819, described it as the ‘baby school’, pointing out its value to mothers working in the mills secure in the knowledge their infants were in safe keeping. So the promotion of nursery education could be seen as another simple device to promote efficiency. Another notable enlightened American, William Maclure (1763–1840), a founder of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and Owen's later associate in the New Harmony community, also praised this initiative. Seeing the many female visitors brought Maclure to the conclusion that women were more interested in education than men.

Of course, the use of New Lanark as a showpiece raises almost as many questions as its function as a test-bed for Owen's ‘New Society’. What were visitors shown and why? Just as significant, what were they not shown? Industrial espionage was a problem, so visitors were unlikely to be conducted round the mills, apart from the disruption this would have caused. There was much in the systems of policing, supervision and control, the regimentation in work and home, the communal activities and the indoctrination of children that was widely criticised. What did Owen mean when he talked of ‘happiness’? Was it not really ‘docility’? And while acknowledging some of Dale's achievements, Owen tried to deny New Lanark a history before his arrival as managing partner. These are some of the issues which might well have influenced the success or failure of the ideas set out in A New View of Society.


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