The ghost of schooldays past

21st September 2001 at 01:00
As the Industrial Revolution began, a more enlightened renaissance was happening in the Clyde gorge. Douglas Blane visits New Lanark and the world's first infant school.

The road to New Lanark winds through woodland greenery for miles, before descending steeply to the Georgian village beside the Falls of Clyde. Beech trees, hawthorn and rhododendron give way to lupins and poppies in the well-tended gardens opposite the flats that once held 2,000 people. The rows of white sandstone tenement blocks make the village look like a piece of a city removed to a delightful spot in the countryside.

New Lanark was established as a new community in 1785 by entrepreneur David Dale. He harnessed the water diverted from the Clyde to drive four great mills where cotton fibre was spun into yarn. It provided the villagers with employment and the owners with wealth.

Long hours, poor pay and dangerous conditions were the norm in the Industrial Revolution. But at New Lanark things were different. The second owner, Robert Owen, was both an effective businessman and a socialist reformer.

Owen believed education was the answer to reducing crime and poverty. He was appalled by the plight of children put to work in factories as soon as they could walk. In New Lanark he shortened the working day, offered free medical care, and forbade work by children younger than 10. Owen created a heavily subsidised system of education so radical that he roused the opposition of all his partners. So he bought them all out.

Two buildings were at the heart of the system. In the Institution for the Formation of Character, evening classes, lectures and concerts were held for adults and children. The other building was the School for Children, now lovingly restored following engravings from the period.

A party of children from West Linton primary school, Scottish Borders, are ushered into the airy classroom overlooking the river. They notice a few resemblances to a modern school, but also key differences. For one thing, the room is three times larger than they expected. The walls are hung with brightly painted canvases of wild animals, maps and musical scores. At one end is a raised gallery. In Owen's day musicians would play there every morning before the lessons began, while the children danced on the wooden floor below. The original gallery remains. The musicians are now realistic waxworks in evening dress.

The excited pupils put on the authentic uniforms of white cotton tunics fastened by maroon belts. They take their seats on the wooden benches to hear from education officer Carolyn Blackburn about the children who sat in that same spot almost 200 years before.

"This was the first infant school in the world and children came as soon as they could walk. But until they were six they were not to be annoyed with books. Instead they played and learned to be kind to each other," she says.

"Older children were taught history, geography, art, singing and dancing. The crocodile in this glass case was bought by Robert Owen for five shillings for natural history lessons."

Owen's ideas on how to treat workers and children were far in advance of his time. New Lanark became famous as a model village in the 19th century. However, it would be more than 100 years before bitterly contested laws forced employers to improve factory conditions elsewhere to anything approaching those at New Lanark.

Education is only just catching up with some of the methods used there, with specialist teachers for many subjects and no harsh punishments.

The West Linton pupils' teacher, Ruth Simpson, says:"I think I'll get the children to make the silent monitors they heard about. I might even try using them in class."

These little blocks of wood, hung beside each factory worker. Supervisors turned the silent monitors to show one of four colours, from black for unsatisfactory to white for exemplary. A disapproving look from the factory owner at a young worker who had "got a black" was usually enough to encourage him to mend his ways.

The West Linton class explore the schoolroom, writing on slates, playing with toys. laughing, chatting and examining the crocodile. The sight is every bit as delightful as the Victorian engraving of the school used to guide the restoration.

For many youngsters the high point of the visit to the world heritage village is the Annie McLeod presentation. A convincing, blue-hued and apparently three-dimensional ghost of a little girl speaks directly to visitors and shows scenes of long-gone schooldays, work in the factory and family life.

"We are the past but we are part of the future too," Annie tells the children as she fades from view at the end. "Remember us."

ContactNew Lanark Mills, New Lanark ML11 9DB Tel: 01555 661345 Email: Web: www.newlanark.orgEducation officer Carolyn Blackburn.

Open daily except Christmas and New Year's, 11am-5pm. Tours from 10am Admission pound;2.50 per pupil, including teachers' notes and activity sheets.

Charge for other educational resources.

Guided tours can be arranged for particular 5-14 curriculum topics, such as the Victorians, the Industrial Revolution or the area's natural history. School parties should book in advance and are encouraged to discuss their interests beforehand with the education officer.

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