New Lanark is a set of cotton mills founded in the late eighteenth century in the beautiful setting of the Clyde Falls in Scotland. Now a World Heritage Site, the mills are famous in part because of the enlightened stewardship of Robert Owen.
In Owen’s day, the world’s first crèche, its treatment of children, its emphasis on education and on engineering excellence, made it a beacon of interest to visitors from across the world. Twenty thousand visitors came in the years between 1815 and 1825, in a period of post-war poverty and change for which New Lanark, as Owen saw it, was the cure.
Owen’s first impression of the area was less certain. On one trip, in 1798 to meet the owner of New Lanark, and his future father in law, David Dale, Owen felt that “he had come into a very primitive district”. Yet, a visit to the mills, he also turned to his companion to declare “of all the places I have yet seen, I should prefer this in which to try an experiment I have long contemplated and have wished to have an opportunity to put into practice.”
On January 1st 1800, a propitious date, he started work as manager and partner of New Lanark.
Owen focused both on the engines but also the ‘living machinery’ of the workforce and community of New Lanark. In the mills, cotton dust choked the lungs, open machinery was an ever present danger to those working by them. Between the tenements and the factory was the mill lade, which like the river beyond was represented an ever present danger of drowning to young children. Pilfering was rife. There was a need for good management.
The rules and regulations Owen drew up were influenced by his time in Manchester, including, with a focus on cleanliness, his involvement with the Manchester Board of Health. Each house was to be cleaned once a week, whitewashed once a year.
The minimum age that a child could work in the mill was set as ten (taken up later in factory legislation) and from the age of five, children could attend, free, the school.
Robert Owen himself, born in Newtown, the sixth child of seven, worked from the age of eight, covering his school costs by working as a teachers assistant and at or around the age of ten he left for London to find work as an apprentice.
The performance of every worker was assessed daily in ‘books of character’ and flagged up close to where they worked, on two inch blocks of wood, with yellow good, white excellent, but blue indifferent and black bad. Everyone had a right to complain if they disagreed with the grading.
Every worker contributed to a friendly society operating as a sick fund, to cover time off, and Owen started a savings bank, which flourished with deposits from the workforce of £3,000 by 1818.
In 1812, Owen published A Statement Regarding the New Lanark Establishment, which argued that social improvements such as schools would enhance profits. In the same year, he published Essays on the Formation of Character, eventually part of his major book, A New View of Society.
At an extraordinarily tough time for business, with war running through to 1815, New Lanark ran at a profitable level throughout. In 1816, Owen argued that, with new machinery and his social reforms, New Lanark, with its two thousand inhabitants, completed as much work as the whole population of Scotland might have managed sixty years earlier.
In the same year, the educational activities in the settlement were organised in a new building, the Institute for the Formation of Character.
The spirit of education was summarised by Owen’s instructions to the infant master, former weaver James Buchanan and his assistant Molly Young: “on no account to ever to beat any one of the children or to threaten them in any word or action but… always to speak to them with a pleasant voice and in a kind manner.”
Alongside New Lanark, which was a practical success, Owen was known for the establishment of New Harmony, a communitarian settlement in the USA, which, despite many ‘firsts’ (the first kindergarten, infant school and free library in the USA) was a practical failure.
The links between the two intrigues me. Both were utopian in their scope and ambition. In New Lanark, Owen harnessed a number of social innovations, including factory reform, public health and worker and primary school education, that dovetailed beautifully and worked economically. The great lesson that Owen drew was that human nature was shaped through the social and natural environment around it. Change the environment, you can create happiness and order – something that no doubt explained why one of New Lanark’s later investors was Jeremy Bentham, the great utilitarian.
In New Harmony, Owen tried to create a radically different environment, but with a different set of social innovations that proved impractical and without the time or opportunity to become sustainable in economic terms. I think his great insight was right, but it is not enough to say what is needed, if you can’t say how. Social change always faces obstacles of inertia, resistance and privilege and, despite his passion and persistence and his connections to both trades unions and co-operatives, the great social movements of the late nineteenth century, Owen had no theory of change except to point back to New Lanark.
Throughout his life, Owen attempted to argue the case for the working class to the wealthy and powerful. But indicative of the response, perhaps, were the frank comments of Friedrich von Gentz, secretary to the post-war international congress of European leaders, whom Owen presented to. “Yes, we know that very well; but we do not want the mass to become wealthy and independent of us. How could we govern them if they were?”
Owen faced opposition too from many of his fellow investors over time. Even where corporate responsibility, the first of its kind in modern times, generated outstanding profits as a system, the simple accountancy of investors was that profits would be higher if the costs of social provisions in the system were lower.
Owen inspired many people though, not least the wave of co-operatives that were to follow. He is rightly considered the father of co-operation. It is helpful to remember though that he himself acknowledged a number of grandfathers. John Bellers was one, a visionary writer, who had argued for a college of industry in 1696. As a teenage apprentice in Stamford, Owen read a second, Seneca, the Roman stoic, who argued in favour of treating everybody with benevolence.
It was the grandchildren of Owen’s thinking that saved New Lanark as a heritage asset in more recent times. The mills closed in 1968, neglected and run down. There were proposals to demolish the site, before local people stepped in with different ideas. One of these was Harry Smith, a local Labour and Co-operative councillor, who started a process with others that led to the formation of a trust in 1974, raising capital to start restoring the housing.
The trust invited people who could restore the houses to the right standard to purchase homes, bringing in investment and revitalising the village. In 1982, the local authority backed a compulsory purchase order, to take ownership of the mills from a mining company that had left them unused.
With young people getting jobs in the reconstruction, in an area hard hit by economic change in the 1980s, the trust won support and grants from the Manpower Services Commission. Work started on the Visitor Centre and with it. a dynamic local manager, Jim Arnold, a man in Robert Owen’s true mould.
In 2001, the site was given World Heritage status. When I visited it this week, courtesy of Scott McCauley, the new Trust Director, Jane Masters, visitor manager, and Iain MacDonald, trustee and co-operator, the restoration work continues, with new ideas and new exhibitions planned. A recent showing of the Scottish Tapestry had tripled the numbers of visitors. The trust acts as a housing association, offering a mix of homes for villagers. A new adventure play area, designed last year by children in local schools, has won multiple prizes. The New Lanark hotel, the former Mill Number One, is the most booked up hotel in all of Scotland and New Lanark ice cream is on the menu. It continues to be a model of social enterprise.
New Lanark is where the industrial revolution and a social revolution took hold. It is not just history. It is the past, the present and the future rolled into one.
PS for a history of the life of Robert Owen, I am indebted to Ian Donnachie’s book for Tuckwell Press, Robert Owen: Owen of New Lanark and New Harmony. I am pleased to see that in turn, he drew on the archives of Robert Owen’s correspondence, which were passed by Co-operatives UK to the Co-operative Heritage Trust just a decade ago. Education, as Owen would have perhaps approved, is not just about learning new facts, but not forgetting old truths.