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It is under the enlightened management of Robert Owen that New Lanark became famous, and Owen remains to this day the name most commonly associated with the site. Although Owen's period of ownership lasted only 10 years longer than that of his father-in-law, David Dale, Owen instiituted a wide range of workplace, social, and educational reforms which led to the idea of New Lanark as an 'ideal' community and of Owen himself as a Socialist. He was however, a many-sided character, whose work at New Lanark was part of a greater vision for society.
Early Life & Background
Robert Owen was born on 14th May 1771 in Newtown, Wales to Robert, a saddler, and his wife Anne. Robert was a bright child who read extensively and was apprenticed for 3 years to Mr. McGuffog, a Scots draper in Stamford, Lincolnshire. From there, he moved to a busy London drapers, then to a wholesale drapery in Manchester where he remained until he was 18. These posts gave hime excellent experience in book-keeping and the wholesale and retail trades. In Manchester, Owen formed his first business partnership with a mechanic named Ernest Jones to produce spinning mules. The business lasted only a few months and with his share, Owen embarked on a yarn spinning business with two other Scots and was soon making a profit of around £6 per week, highlighting his keen business accumen.
After a year or so, Owen applied for, and was appointed to the role of manager at Drinkwater's Bank Top Mill in Manchester, where, yet to reach his twentieth birthday, he found himself in charge of 500 workers and responsible for the whole concern, from buying raw cotton to its manifacture into yarn. It was at Drinkwater's that Owen not only honed his business knowledge, but also became interested in improving working conditions and othe wider philosophical matters. Following his time at Drinkwater's, Owen formed the Chorlton Twist Company with new partners, and represented the partnership on business trips to Glasgow. It was on one such trip that he met Caroline Dale, and was invited by her to view her father's cotton spinning enterprise at New Lanark.
Robert Owen married Caroline Dale in 1799 and in the same year formed a partnership to buy her father's mills at New Lanark. Robert and Caroline set up home in New Lanark on the 1st January 1800 and went on to have seven children: Robert Dale (1801), William (1802), Anne Caroline (1805), Jane Dale (1805), David Dale (1807), Richard Dale (1809), and Mary (1810). The family spent many happy years at New Lanark where Owen believed in play, fresh air and sport, and where they were joined by their grandfather David Dale for holidays. In 1808 Owen leased the much larger Braxfield House on the outskirts of the village. Owen and Caroline had a happy marriage and the children were encouraged to become involved with the life of the community.
Owen at New Lanark
Owen believed that New Lanark was the perfect place to build on the reforms he had begun to implement in Manchester- an isolated community far away from the temptations of the city. He instituted a range of radical reforms aimed at improving the efficiency of the business and the moral fibre of its inhabitants, paying for these reforms from the substantial profits of the cotton-spinning business- an early form of social enterprise. Owen described his work at New Lanark as “the most important experiment for the happiness of the human race that has yet been instituted in any part of the world”.
The first period of Owen’s management of the New Lanark Cotton Mills was characterised by his efforts to expand the business and make it more efficient. He introduced such initiatives as report books and product books to record daily production as well as new reporting systems and stock control. A much stricter regime than under previous managers meant that employees could be dismissed for theft, fraud, absenteeism and persistent drunkenness. But although he was strict, Owen was also fair and established an unusual form of discipline known as the Silent Monitor- a daily grading system on behaviour and effort. White was excellent, yellow good, blue just about acceptable and black- well as they say, ‘your jaicket was on a shoogly peg’!
Most importantly, Owen reduced the length of the working day to 10.5 hours and abolished the practice of employing orphans in the mills, supporting this through the provision of world’s first nursery. Owen also added to the physical fabric of the complex with a new Mechanics’ Workshop, an Iron Foundry and a series of low-rise buildings on the river bank, called the Waterhouses, all built to help increase efficiency and production, hence increasing profits to be used in his reforms.
In addition to workplace reforms, Owen also aimed to improve the living conditions of his workers and promote a sense of community responsibility that made the village a happy and peaceful place to live. He implemented a series of strict rules for residents to abide by, including:
The centrepieces of Owen’s experiment at New Lanark were his “Institute for the Formation of Character” finished in 1816, along with its companion building, the “School for Children”, finished a year later. Owen believed that every person had a right to an education and recreation and these buildings were used for this purpose.
Under Owen's management, children who would previously have worked in the mill were sent to school and received structured full-time education. No child under 10 was allowed to work in the Mills. As soon as village children could walk, they were taken into the nursery, where they were looked after by two young village girls. This meant their mothers could go back to work and the process effectively formed the world’s first workplace nursery. From Owen’s point of view, the earlier children were removed from the influence of their parents, who had not had the benefit of his ‘rational system of education’, the better! From age 3 to 6, children attended the infant school where they were taught to share and be kind to each other. Then aged 7, they attended junior school where, in addition to banning corporal punishment, Owen expected lessons and the teaching environment to be interesting and stimulating. Music and dancing played an important role in the curriculum which was also extremely varied and included nature study, history, geography and art, as well as reading writing and arithmetic. Owen even devised a uniform for the children- a toga like garment made of white cotton that was light and comfortable for the children to wear and well suited to dancing and physical activity.
Many visitors came to New Lanark to observe the classes, as can be seen in this well-known picture of a dancing class by R Scott. It, possibly more than any other images, highlights the difference between New Lanark and the 'dark satanic mills' of Manchester and elsewhere.
Starting work in the mills did not mean the end of education. Owen encouraged parents to leave children in school until age 12 but continued to provide evening classes for older children and adults, with the shortened working day making it possible for people to attend these. The Institute for the Formation of character acted as a library and social community centre for the village and balls, lectures, a weekly concert and religious services were all held in the building. The use of the Institute and School as social and educational centres continued with subsequent owners right up until the mills closed in 1968.
The Co-Operative Movement
Another significant development made by Owen was the establishment of a village store around 1813. This was run for the benefit of the community and was regarded as an inspiration for the Co-op movement which was subsequently founded by the Rochdale Pioneers. In David Dale’s time, there were traders in the village but many of them sold poor quality goods at high prices. The goods sold in Owen’s village store were good quality, fresh and affordable and workers could be paid in tokens or tickets which they would use at the store, encouraging the villagers to shop locally. As a result the store was successful and profits helped to fund what was for Owen the most important reform –education. For over 100 years the shop was owned and run by the mill company until 1933 when it was leased to the Lanark Provident Coop Society.
Never one to shy away from publicity, Owen commissioned a local artist called John Winning to produce a series of illustrations of New Lanark, and these were used as export labels, pasted on to each package of cotton yarn. By this time New Lanark had become one of the largest cotton manufacturing centres in the country with an international reputation. By 1813 the value of the mills had risen to £114, 000 (from £60,000 in 1799) and enough cotton was produced in a week to go around the world 2.5 times.
The American Experiement
Despite the profitability of the Mills, and for many debated reasons, by the 1820s Owen felt that it was time to move on from New Lanark. He decided to pursue his utopian ideas elsewhere and perhaps in a more conducive environment and set sail for New Harmony, Indiana, where he planned to build a truly utopian settlement. The experiment ran into trouble, being high on intellect with the so called ‘boatload of knowledge’ of eminent thinkers, but low on practical skills. Although it did not succeed in the same way as New Lanark, New Harmony did not disintegrate completely. Some of its most brilliant settlers remained and it boasted many American firsts, including the first free public school system and first free library, still in the town today. Many of Owen's family moved to and settled in the states while he himself returned to Britain and again took up campaigning for a better and fairer society.
Later Life, Death & Legacy
Back in Britain, Owen became, for a time, a recognised leader of the working class movement. He helped to set up the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union and in 1832, established the National Equitable Labour Exchange in London. Aged 64, Owen founded the Association of All Classes of All Nations. This was later known as the Universal Community Society of Rational Religionists or, more briefly, The Rational Society. By 1840 it had around 50,000 members and it's weekly newspaper, the New Moral world, ran for over ten years with circulation peaking at 40,000. Owen also became involved with various attempts to establish model communities.
Although he was opposed to organised religion, in his last years, Owen converted to spiritualism.He continued to write and make speeches but was not taken particularly seriously. Owen died on 17th November 1858 in Newtown, Wales, where he was born.
You can find out more about Robert Owen from the following sources:
The Story of Robert Owen, New Lanark Trust
Ian Donnachie, Robert Owen Social Visionary (John Donald, 2005)
Noel Thompson & Chris williams (Eds), Robert Owen and his Legacy (University of Wales Press, 2011)
Robert Owen, A New View of Society and Other Writings (Penguin Classics, 1991)
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