Skip to main content

A share of happiness

Jonathan Croall visits New Lanark where, amid the great upheaval of the Industrial Revolution, Robert Owen created his brave model for a fairer society

Robert Owen, founder of the New Lanark community in Scotland, modestly described it as "the most important experiment for the happiness of the human race that has yet been instituted in any part of the world".

While it could never live up to such a claim, the extraordinary social reforms which this pioneering socialist launched early in the 18th century, in order to improve the conditions of those working in the largest cotton-spinning mills in Britain, brought thousands of visitors from all over the world to New Lanark village.

Many were educationists, who came to see what he was doing for the very young children of his workforce, for Owen had opened a school and a "New Institution for the Formation of Character" (later called the Institute) in the village. This was the start in Britain of infant education, and of a system that was soon to be copied in many other countries.

Today many people still come to New Lanark, but for a different purpose. The village is now a nominated world heritage site, and a tour round the beautiful mills, clustered in a deep valley alongside the swift-flowing river Clyde, provides a fascinating glimpse of the way both adults and children lived and worked within this unique community.

Owen was undoubtedly a philanthropist, but he was also an astute businessman, who realised that a reasonable working environment was more likely to produce an efficient and contented workforce. The appalling factory conditions, especially for children, which he saw on his travels around Britain, convinced him of the need for drastic reform.

At New Lanark he paid a lot of attention to the health and welfare of the 2,500 villagers. He established shorter hours in the mills, free medical care, a sick fund, and a savings bank. He opened a village store in which he sold goods virtually at cost price, with tokens being used in place of money.

He also introduced a new style of management in the factory, the most visible sign of which was the "silent monitor", a four-sided piece of wood placed next to the worker, which showed by the particular colour displayed their previous day's performance: bad, indifferent, good or excellent.

But his greatest ambition lay in his plans for a "new rational infant school" in the village. "The houses of the poor and working classes generally are altogether unfit for the training of young children," he wrote. Education, he felt, should be based "on the true principle of forming character from the earlies period at which infants could leave their parents".

After studying the pioneering educational ideas of Andrew Bell and Joseph Lancaster, Owen opened his school at New Lanark in 1816, with 14 teachers and 274 pupils. Children started there as young as 18 months, and stayed until the age of 10 or 12, when they began work in the factory.

The normal punishments and rewards were banned from the school, for Owen believed children could best be encouraged to learn through having their senses nurtured. So there were plenty of outdoor lessons in the playground or around the village, notably in subjects such as nature study, history, geography and drawing, which were taught even to the youngest children.

The grand-daughter of James Buchanan, the school's first teacher, recalls his relaxed methods. "He marched the children round the room to the strains of his flute. Then he marched them through the village, and allowed them to amuse themselves on the banks of the Clyde, and marched them back again."

A special emphasis was put on singing, dancing and music - a truly revolutionary idea in the education of the working classes at this time. The children were taught in groups of 150, learning many old popular Scottish songs, but they were also trained to sing in harmony.

Owen himself described a dancing lesson. "These children, standing up 70 couples at a time in the dancing room and often surrounded with many visitors, would, with the utmost elegance and natural grace, go through all the dances of Europe with so little direction from their Master that the strangers would be unconscious that there was a Dancing Master in the room."

Owen was also a pioneer in further, adult and community education. The Institute had a programme of classes in the evening, which were open to the older children who worked in the mill during the day as well as to adults in the village. It was also used as a social and recreational centre.

But not everything was plain sailing with his educational experiment. Initially Owen preferred not to have religion taught in the school, or for the children to be "annoyed" by books. But like many educational pioneers, he had eventually to yield to parents' wishes, and introduce both.

He also got into trouble with his Quaker partners and backers. They were worried that New Lanark might become "an infidel establishment" - they disliked the "military exercises" - and thought the cotton dress provided by Owen - akin to a Roman tunic, to help the children's freedom of movement - was indecent. So in 1824 it went, along with the singing, dancing and music.

Owen went too, to take part in another experimental co-operative venture in Indiana. But his pioneering school continued to be run pretty much on the principles he established, until it eventually became a board school in the 1880s.

Today the four huge education rooms, their structures and lightness much as they were in Owen's day, are an impressive sight. The high wooden gallery at the end of what was the music room is a reminder of the fact that balls and weekly concerts were held here, as well as religious services.

Because of its isolated position, the entire village has remained comparatively untouched by modern developments. It's designated a conservation area, with all the buildings listed Grade A. Although the mills closed in 1968, it's now a living community of families and small businesses, as well as a rich educational resource run by the New Lanark Conservation Trust.

For younger pupils there's a multi-media "ghost" ride narrated by the spirit of 10-year-old Annie McLeod, who worked as a "piecer" in the mill, joining together broken threads under the machines. It's an entertaining and effective way of bringing home the tough life that children had even in an enlightened place such as New Lanark.

One of the machines that girls such as Annie had to get used to, a Platt's spinning mule, is now a working exhibit in one of the mills, with an operator on hand to answer both technical and historical questions. Alongside is an open area where children can re-enact traditional Scottish games such as "Peevers" and "Hunch Cuddy Hunch".

Elsewhere, in the main exhibition area, two reconstructed rooms show how working families lived in the 1820s and 1930s. In the former there's a set-in bed, sleeeping four, and a cast-iron fireplace and pot, while the latter boasts a "stairheid cludgie" - an open toilet, reflecting the lack of privacy.

The village store is of special interest to students of history, since it was one of the inspirational roots of the co-operative movement, which now has 700 million members worldwide. The famous Rochdale Pioneers - made up of weavers and other skilled artisans - were just one of many small societies and self-help bodies set up by groups of socialists and Chartists inspired by Owen's work.

Owen opened the village store to improve the standard of living of the workers - the quality of goods in the previous shops was poor, the prices expensive - and all profits were ploughed back into the school. He also wanted to discourage alcoholism, but stopped short of banning the sale of spirits; instead he encouraged moderation by selling them in the store as a luxury.

There's a display of the kind of foods and household goods available to the mill workers, together with an explanation of the token system. One curiosity here is that Owen sometimes made use of foreign coins such as Spanish dollars, which were very cheap to buy, and which could be overstamped with the Lanark imprint and chosen currency value.

Anyone studying the Industrial Revolution will find plenty of interest. The mills were built near the end of the 18th century to take advantage of the new machinery driven by water power that revolutionised the production of cotton and woollen yarn. The Engine House on the site harbours a steam engine, now being restored.

There's also scope for environmental studies and geology work along the riverbank, in the nearby Falls of Clyde Reserve, run by the Scottish Wildlife Trust, which has a visitor centre based in the former mill dye works in the village. The educational possibilities seem endless, reflecting the breadth of Owen's interests, and his bold decision "to ascertain whether, by replacing evil conditions by good, man might not be relieved from evil, and transformed into an intelligent, rational and good being".

Further information and details of education pack from Lorna Davidson, education officer, New Lanark Conservation Trust, Mill Number Three, New Lanark Mills, Lanark ML11 9DB. Tel: 01555 661345

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you