Robert Owen’s social experiment at New Lanark

One of the Scotland’s great social reformers was a Welshman, Robert Owen, born in 1771. He would have been saddened that such misery still exists. Twenty miles south-east of Glasgow, further up the Clyde, where the river is not the broad, shipbuilding estuary of the great city but a tumbling stream hurtling through narrow, tree-lined gorges, is the scene of the great experiment to make the world a better place.

In speech to the workers at the cotton mill he had bought at New Lanark he talked of his dream. “I know not; but I know that society may be formed so as to exist without crime, without poverty, with health greatly improved, with little, if any misery, and with intelligence and happiness increased a hundredfold; and no obstacle whatsoever intervenes at this moment except ignorance to prevent such a state of society from becoming universal.”

Robert Owen (1771-1858)

Robert Owen (1771-1858), painting by William Henry Brooke (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Owen had married the daughter of the founder of the mill, David Dale. At the end of the 18th century Dale was employing 800 young children, mainly culled from the orphanages of Edinburgh and Glasgow. They made up the larger part of a work-force of nearly 1,200. Two hundred of them were under 13 years old, and a few as young as six.

Child labour was considered normal at the time, and dale’s reputation for treating the youngsters well was generally admired. The hours were long. Work started at six in the morning and finished at seven ay night, with breaks of half an hour for breakfast and an hour for lunch. After work children were expected to go to school for two hours, where they learnt writing, arithmetic and music. Dale recorded that at night children slept three to a bed on straw mattresses which were changed once a month. The rooms were swept every day and the windows left open. Twice a year the walls were whitewashed with hot lime.

New Lanark cotton mill advertisement early 19th century

New Lanark cotton mill advertisement early 19th century

Within a few years Lanark was attracting a work-force from the Highlands, many of whom were victims of the clearances. The terraced houses and row cottages, which are well built, if very cramped, curve round the bank of the river whose rushing current drove the water-mill. Dale was an efficient businessman but was a philantropist and educationist as well. For the education of his 500 child workers he employed sixteen teachers. When Robert Owen first visited Lanark he decided that it was the best place to ’try an experiment I have long contemplated’.

Owen is usually described as a socialist, but it is hard to find traces of socialism in his early days at Lanark. When he bought the mill from Dale, his first act was to increase rather than to reduce the working hours. He devised a system of monitoring each worker’s performance. Over their machines was a cube that could be turned to display one of its four sides. If the white side showed, it meant that person’s work had been excellent, while yellow meant good, blue indifferent and black bad. The overseer would decide each day which colour to display, and Owen would walk down the lines of looms, look at the coloured side of the cube displayed and at the worker’s face. „I could at once see,’ he wrote, ’by the expression of countenance what was the colour which was shown.“. This emotional coercion of the work-force, almost amounting to blackmail, was pure Owen. He believed, like so many other liberal reformers, that if he imposed the right conditions on the ignorant and the poor they would respond and live happier, more fruitful lives. He was proud that his coloured cubes replaced the abusive language and beatings that were the more conventional means of controlling a work-force.

Cotton mills at New Lanark

Cotton mills at New Lanark

For a time Owen’s methods were unpopular, but gradually his work-force were won round to the benefits that came from efficient production, particularly after Owen revealed a liberal streak. He kept them on full pay during a prolonged closure of the mill caused by American embargo on the export of raw cotton to Britain. He introduced a sick scheme which gave his workers free treatment in return for a small weekly subscription. He opened a village shop, which sold at bellow market prices. He gradually reduced a use of unpaid child labour and campaigned throughout Britain for better child employment laws. But his great achievement at Lanark was his school for infants and young children. Here his reforming zeal and his benevolence could flourish.

Quadrille dancing at Lanark, Robert Owen's Model Community

Quadrille dancing at Lanark school

He opened a school in 1816. You can still visit the schoolroom today and see all its teaching aids, intended to stimulate the imagination of the young. There is a stuffed alligator. Wallcharts displays different species of fish, insects, butterflies and moths, and offer classification of all living creatures. The room is large and airy. Each morning the children, wearing the smock-like uniforms designed for them by Owen, would dance for an hour or more and sing in choirs 150 strong before lessons began. There was no corporal punishment, in fact no punishments at all; neither were the prizes. Most radical of all was his introduction of infant education for three-to five-year-olds, unheard of at the time. They were gently treated, urged to share with each other and, on Owen’s instructions, they were not be ’annoyed’ with books while too young.

New Harmony, Indiana, USA

New Harmony, Indiana, USA, painted by architect F. Bate

Owen left New Lanark in 1825 to set up a community in the United States: New Harmony. It was not success, and he returned to Britain three years later to spend the rest of his life campaigning for radical reform and championing the working class. He was no longer as concerned with efficiency and profit as with education and conditions of employment. he argued for a reduction in the working day to eight hours. He preached that religion was a source of conflict and that marriage should be a civil contract, to be terminated by mutual agreement. In the schoolroom at New Lanark a phrenology head is displayed with a note saying it was bought in 1820 for 12s 6d. It is New Lanark’s tribute to Owen, and records that a phrenologists who had examined Owen’s skull declared himself amazed by the size of his ’bump of benevolence’.