New Lanark Kids

Robert Owen

Who was Robert Owen, and how did he make New Lanark famous? Is it true that he changed the lives of the workers at New Lanark? Read on and find out more.

Robert OwenRobert Owen was born in 1771 in Wales. In 1799 he married Caroline Dale, whose father owned the New Lanark Mills. On New Year’s Day, 1800, he became the manager of the mills. He decided that he was going to try an experiment at New Lanark. He was going to introduce changes that would improve the lives of those living and working in the village. He hoped that they would become good, happy citizens.

Here are some of the things that Owen did during his management at New Lanark:

What a lot of changes he made. Some people were not too sure of Robert Owen at first because he was very strict, and his ideas were new. They were not sure if these new ideas would work, or if the rules would stop them enjoying themselves. Soon they realised however, that things were better at New Lanark than in other mills.

Robert Owen wanted others to listen to his ideas and theories. He wanted them to be applied to everyone, not just the villagers at New Lanark. He wrote books and speeches and gave lectures. His work became known all over the world, and people travelled from far and wide to see his model community at New Lanark.

The World's first infant school.

BlackboardNowadays children get the chance to go to nursery, primary, and secondary school. In the early 1800s there were very few schools, and to receive a good education you had to pay for it.

Robert Owen felt education was important. He built two buildings to educate the adults and children of New Lanark. "The Institute for the Formation of Character" was the first to be built. It held evening classes, school lessons and social events. There were even bathing machines for children to go for a bath!

The Institute is now our Visitor Centre.

Young children went to the nursery whilst their mums were at work. The infant pupils were very lucky because this was the first infant school in the world!

Meeting a crocodile.

CrocodileAs well as learning about geography, history, art, the children also got music, singing, dancing and nature lessons. Robert Owen believed that lessons should be interesting, and stimulating. The school expenses book shows that one day all the children were taken to Lanark to see a Wild Beasts Exhibition. It also states that 5 shillings was paid for the exhibition of a crocodile in the classroom. If you visit the Historic Classroom at New Lanark you can see the crocodile. Don't worry, it isn't real!

The schoolchildren’s uniform was quite different from yours. They wore a white, cotton tunic with a coloured band along the bottom. Even the boys wore the tunics! Look at the children in the picture below. What are they doing? Who do you think is watching them? What is on the wall of the classroom?

Historical image of schoolroom

What was a Silent Monitor?

Silent MonitorOne of Robert Owen's most unusual new ideas was the use of a "silent monitor". This was to encourage hard work and good behaviour in the mills.

The monitor was a small, wooden block which hung next to each person's machine. The colour facing out showed how hard that person had been working.

This was then recorded in the "Book of Character" to show the overall behaviour of the workers.

White = Brilliant work
Yellow = Not bad
Blue = Could do better
Black = Really naughty

ScissorsClick here to find a silent monitor template. Have a go making one yourself. You can buy a wooden silent monitor in the New Lanark Gift Shop.

What happened to Robert Owen after New Lanark?

Robert Owen remained at New Lanark for 25 years. During this time it was not always easy for him to convince his partners that education and good working conditions were worth investing in. Unlike Owen, they were more interested in making profits.

By the 1820s Owen felt that it was time to move on. He wanted to try out his ideas elsewhere, and thought that America would be a good place, because people were moving there to start a new, better life. He bought a community at New Harmony in Indiana, USA where he planned to create a co-operative community. Everyone would live and work in the community, and help one another. The community did not evolve quite as he had planned, but it did have the first kindergarten in America and the first free public library. Owen returned to Britain a few years later, and continued his campaign for better working conditions.

For more information on New Harmony visit:

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