The Social and Educational Reformation in New Lanark

New Lanark, the former cotton spinning village in the valley of the River Clyde near the old town of Lanark, is famous internationally because of its pioneering management, and social and educational experiments led by the publicist, Robert Owen. New Lanark is also an important industrial monument, because of its role as an early center of mass production using state-of-the-art technology at the time in 1785. It was built by David Dale, Owen’s father-in-law, a resourceful textile entrepreneur and banker. One reason for the success of New Lanark in the early stages of Industrial Revolution was its geographic location.

With the natural, cheap power of the Falls of Clyde to drive its spinning machinery, and a close connection with Glasgow, the industrial center of Scotland, New Lanark was established quickly by David Dale. Although much of the recorded history of New Lanark is about the era when the factory was under Robert Owen’s management, from about 1800 to 1825, New Lanark existed and performed well as an extremely efficient textile mill for about 200 years since Dale’s era! Therefore, it is interesting to examine its rather long history for a Scottish textile factory and how it became a suitable laboratory for Owen’s social reformation.

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New Lanark was under several major ownerships from 1785 to 1968: David Dale, from 1785 to 1800; Robert Owen, from 1800 to 1825; John Walker and sons, from 1825 to 1881; Birkmyres and ‘the Gourock’, from 1881 to 1968. Since then much effort had been put in both from public and private forces to make it possible to be one of the England’s best tourist attractions.

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This document, it will mainly focus on humanitarianism and social and educational reforms in Dale’s to Owen’s era and what impacts these activities had on its architecture, rather than on the industrial revolution and the successes of the entrepreneurs. However, the connections between the social reconstruction and cotton businesses are important.

Philanthropic practices were not new in Owens period. David Dale was a well known philanthropist in the period when New Lanark was under his management. He settled in Glasgow in the 1760s, where he started out as a clerk of a silk merchant, from whom he gained experiences in textile trading, and later on he formed partnership with Archibald Paterson, who shared the same religious and provided financial backing to Dale. Their textile trading expanded rapidly and simultaneously with the textile trading broom of Scotland in the late 1770s. At the same time his political and commercial figures in Glasgow became prominent that he was assigned as a member of merchant guild and a burgess of the city. Like a number of Glasgow yarn dealers, Dale was unable to obtain sufficient fine yarn in Scotland, and was forced to import yarn from the other continents. In 1777, Dale enhanced his financial position through a marriage with Anne Caroline Campbell, a daughter of a wealthy landowner. In 1782 he became the founding member of the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, which took active part in improving legislation about cotton and linen goods. In a opportunity which was setup by the Chamber, Dale met a key figure in his life, Richard Arkwright. Arkwright was a famous English inventor and businessman. With his innovative water-frame, which improved the efficiency of yarn manufacturing, Arkwright formed partnership with Dale and established the very first cotton mill at New Lanark, for its natural power from the Falls of Clyde.

Dale’s initiative in building the factory in New Lanark was probably driven by the innovative invention of Arkwright, the geographic previlege of the Falls of Clyde, and, most importantly, his commercial and financial connections to Glasgow. The site was laid over several landlords’ properties in order to establish the 100-ft-subterranean-passage, into which water from the Falls was routed. Dale had to pay property taxes and an annual rent for using the Falls, but the payment was so little. The first mill was erected in 1786 with locally quarried stones. Few records about this mill were found because it was completely destroyed by fire in 1788, while the second mill was under construction. By the end of the same year, the second mill was completed and the replacement of the first mill was erected a year after. About 1794 there were four giant mills and housing accommodation for over 200 families. The dimensions of these mills were all slightly different; No. 1 and No. 2 were both 154-feetlong, 27-feet-wide, and 60-feet-tall; No. 3 was a little smaller while No. 4 was 156-feet-long, 33-feetwide and 70-feet-tall. All mills shared the common aspects: “five-storey-building with an attic and a basement, and stairbays with Palladian or neo-classical windows” (Donnachie and Hewitt 54). The uniformity of the buildings probably was designed probably due to economical reason, not communal appearance. Other buildings were built in Dale’s period, such as grocery shops, mechanics’ shops, a manager’s house, and Dale’s summer residence. In general, all of New Lanark housing accommodations were built in Dale’s period for pragmatic reason, except for the Nursery Buildings, which were erected in Owen’s period to coordinate with his social reform. All buildings were built and decorated according to Scottish common style, with slight differences in construction materials, which were gathered locally.

Spinning commenced at new Lanark in March 1786. Though in the beginning of the business, it was not successful because of a number of fires and the demise of the partnership with Arkwright, Dale was not discouraged. No. 1 and No. 2 mills had three waterwheels installed to provide power for Arkwright water-frames as well as various carding roving machines. No. 3 mill was mainly for waterpowered jennies and No. 4 mill served as storage and housing for some children. Approximately twothirds of the work force were women and children, and most of them were hired from the counties around Glasgow and Lanark. Perhaps the most remarkable benevolent practice of Dale was to provide shelter, food, clothing, work, and education to the children in his factory. In the record of a report that Dale provided to Thomas Bayley, the president of the Manchester Board of Health, in which details of nutrition, health, education, and safety issues were reported. (Donnachie & Hewitt 42) All workers were well fed, and trained. In addition, Dale established an education system for the children, mostly after working hours everyday. The curriculum included the 3 Rs (reading, writing, and religious instruction), which were taught by sixteen teachers. Accommodation was cleaned routinely and mills were cleaned everyday to prevent fire, which was common in cotton factory. Ventilation issue was dealt with by opening windows in the summers. One significance of Dales management was a rather low mortality rate of only five deaths in seven years, revealing that a safe working environment and healthy diet were provided by the employer.

Not surprisingly, Dales enhancements on the workers’ standard attracted considerable attention, his paternal figure became quickly well known. Among many visitors, there were different classes of people, like doctors, clergymen, university students, military and naval officers. However, some negative criticisms were published against Dale’s philanthropy, notably from his son-in-law, Owen. In his autobiography, Owen declared that the people had been collected hastily from any place whence they could be induced to come and the great majority of them were idle, intemperate, dishonest, devoid of truth and pretenders to religion which they supposed would cover and excuse their shortcomings and immoral proceedings.” (Cole 78) He also stated that the workers of New Lanark “lived in idleness, in poverty, in almost every kind of crime.” (Cole 78) He paid much attention to the health and education of the juvenile employees in New Lanark and thought that these children were in desperate conditions. Driven by a rather envious manner, Owen definitely exaggerated the situations in order to promote his new management. However, by criticizing to his father-in-law, he had upset the members of the Glasgow establishment. When New Lanark was in the hand of Owen, he dedicated a radical change of many management systems in order to distinguish his philanthropy from Dale’s, so as to ensure that he would be superior to his predecessor. Much had to be live up to for Owen in order to continue the industrial legend created by Dale. As a matter of fact, Owen not only accomplished what Dale had done, but also deliberately practiced his long-waited characteristic reformation.

As a son of a saddler and ironmonger, Robert Owen was born in Newtown, Montgomeryshire in 1771. He was an intelligent boy who did well at his local school, but at the age of ten, he was sent to work in a large drapers in Stamford, Lincolnshire. At the age of sixteen, He found work at a large wholesale and retail drapery business in Manchester. Two years later, he formed a partnership with a fellow countryman and engineer, John Jones, from whom he gained his first experience in managing a small factory building. Thereafter this partnership had come to its end, Owen formed another rather most influential association with Per Drinkwater, who owned Bank Top Mill. During this four years partnership, Owen learned much from Drinkwater, whose interview techniques included that asking applicants how often in the week they were drunk. Owen awarded special respect to Drinkwater in his autobiography, that he is “a very active and enlightened factory owner”. (Grogory 257) Drinkwater was also a pioneer in installing a rotary steam engine in his cotton mill in Manchester, thus he was able to produce particularly fine yarn counts at the period of time. Also, having the ventilation and sanitation of the factory improved, Drinkwater believed that good working conditions are necessary to improve the quality and efficiency of the factory.

Inevitably, Owen’s later achievement in New Lanark was clearly affected by Drinkwater. In 1794, once leaving Drinkwater, Owen formed his significant partnership in a large Manchester firm, the Chorlton Twist Company, in which his associates included Barton and Atkinson brothers. Eventually Owen became the company’s Scottish representative to sell fine yarns to Scottish weavers. In some commercial event, he met Ann Caroline Dale, David Dale’s eldest daughter, and eventually Owen and Caroline wished to be married. Even though Dale was reluctant to agree this marriage, because Dale was not impressed by this “unscrupulous adventurer” (Donnachie & Hewitt 59). In 1799, Owen and Caroline ultimately married in Glasgow, and by the terms of marriage agreement, Owen was placed in a very favourable financial situation. Owen was also benefited by Dale’s financial and commercial relationship network in Scotland. In the same year, Dale sold the factory in New Lanark to Owen and his partners at a cost for $60,000, divided into twenty equal payment of $3,000 a year. At the beginning of his management, Owen immediately replaced the two managers in New Lanark, including Dale’s half-brother, James Dale’s, that they were ‘incompetent to comprehend’ Owen’s ‘views or to assist’ Owen in his ‘plans’. Besides, he believed that he has to ‘introduce principles to conduct people’, and New Lanark was a very suitable place to try an experiment long wished for’.

“My intention was not merely to be a manager of cotton mills, but to change the conditions of the people who were surrounded by circumstances having an injurious influence upon the character of the entire population.” (Simkin)

At the initial stage of the Owen’s era, he spent much of his time in New Lanark introducing his experiments on the efficiency of the factory, and improvement on the living standard of the workers. He soon introduced a series of measures affecting both the mills and the village. Owen stopped using children under ten years old as workers in the factory, because he believed that early education was very important for them and they were not efficient workers. A significant change was to change the day shift from 11.5 hours to 10 hours without sacrificing the yield of the factory, perhaps it was achieved by systematizing the working environment. A significant device, “silent alarm” (Donnachie & Hewitt 64), was introduced to measure the worker’s performance. Their performance was scaled as four levels: bad (no. 4 / black), indifferent (no. 3 / blue), good (no. 2 / yellow), and excellent (no. 1 / white). The performance of each worker was recorded on every working day, and all the statistics were collected on logbooks. This device was not unique and original since some similar devices were used by others, such as Joseph Lancaster, a Quaker educationalist used these devices in schools to systematise students’ performance. However, what does appear to be innovative in Owen’s ‘silent alarm’ was the right of the workers to claim complaints directly to Owen. This aspect of Owen’s managerial system was unusually democratic. An atmosphere of strict discipline was quickly spread over the factory once Owen’s management was in place. The common problem of thieves and absences without permission in Dale’s period was resolved immediately by dismissing any misbehaved workers. From large events like machine breakdowns to small mistakes by the workers, all aspects of the mills and the workers were recorded regularly. He also improved the accommodation of the workers and set up new rules for the tenants to maintain and to clean their accommodation. This new manager with strict regulations were not welcomed by most of the workers at the beginning, it was until Owen’s major benevolent action in 1806, he won the trust from the workers: He kept paying salary to the workers for four months during the economic crisis in 1806 that the factory was forced to stop running.

Owen was an active publicist that he propagated his ideas through publications, and speeches. He generally developed his education reformation in his writings, Essays on the Formation of Character, which was published in 1813, and later became part of A New View of Society. In this publication he evolved as a social philosopher with mixed contemporary social and educational ideologies from other great minds and partly on his own benevolent paternalism. The most radical innovation in Owen’s era was the reformation of educational system, a rather ambitious experimental action on creating a utopian community. Owen did not obtain a total control on the educational reformation until 1814, because of the opposite forces from his partners. In that year, Owen brought the shares of his partners by borrowing money from a local banker. Later Owen sold shares to his philanthropic sleeping partners who were unlikely to interrupt his day-to-day management. In 1816, the Institute for the Formation of Character and its school were completed. Thus he conducted a new educational system in New Lanark to replace Dale’s system, in which children were considered to be slow in progress of learning. Infants above a year old were taken care at the nursery and children over six had to attend school daily, and children over ten years old were allowed to work but they had to attend school in the evening. Owen believed that “much of good or evil is taught to or acquired by a child at a very early period of its life”, thus he had strict rules in choosing proper teachers who would never “beat any one of the children or to threaten them in any word”. (Gregory 147) Much of this came directly from a Swiss educator, Heinrich Pestalozzi, who emphasized the importance of kindness and common sense in his teaching. It was also very Utopian and reflected the views of Jeremy Bentham, Owen’s most famous philanthropic partners at that time.

Books and toys were rarely seen in the school, children were taught dancing and playing a series of games, also exploration the natural objects around the factory was also adapted. These exercises were also borrowed from Pestalozzi. A distinguished feature of Owens schools from the other educators whom he learned from was instruction by lecture, discussion and debate in various courses, such as geography, natural science, ancient and modern history. Visual materials like charts, maps, the history time-charts or “Stream of Time” (Dennis 29) were often found as teaching aids in these lectures. Also military-style exercises were a major part in both schools. These exercises definitely reflect the docility that Owen always emphasized on in his social reformation. The adjective, docile, was used equivalent to happy in many of Owens writings. Thus one could easily see that Owens utopia must be supervised by a dictatorship. Owens schools had attracted about 20,000 visitors during 1815 to 1825, all of them were fascinated by the dancing, music, and military exercise in the school curriculum.

Owen did only minor impacts on the existed architectures in New Lanark, because most of the contributions his made were about modernizing the factory machineries and the utilities of the accommodation of the existed buildings. However, in order to carry out the social and educational reforms, a series of nursery buildings were built according to his plans. Thus these buildings were distinctive in functionalities and structural designs, among the old buildings. A distinction between the nursery buildings and the old ones was the height of the spaces. The lecture rooms were 12-feet-tall while the common height of the old buildings were merely ten feet. The difference seems to be insignificant, however, the 12-feet-spaces enabled that Owen had freedom to provide visual aids, like maps and paintings to the children. Vast floor areas without obstructions of the columns were also created, since group assemblies and exercises were often carried out.

In the later years in New Lanark, Owen lost interest in managing the factory due to his enthusiastic in his propaganda campaign, which was later defeated by his controversial attacks on religions. He also felt that there was nothing he can do (social experiment) with New Lanark. After he had been defeated politically, he established New Harmony, a new community in United States, to experiment the practicality of his social and educational reformation from New Lanark. Owen thought that New Lanark was a good model of reformation, and it has universal application, however he failed to foresee the contexts between manufacturing nature of both communities: New Lanark was a textilefactory-based community while New Harmony was an agricultural community.

In a broad sense, Dale and Owen were both sucessful entrepreneurs and benevolent employers that had taken care the standard living aspects of their workers, but Owen was not satisfied with his paternalistic role. He was ambitious to be a famous socialist, by propagating his ideas throughout the continent, but, ended up being only an ambitious benevolent employer with experiences in social reform. New Lanark under Owens management was successful to be a capitalist enterprise with an efficient, docile labour force, on which social and educational experiments were carried out. However, in terms of democracy, there was no place for democracy for that to happen, because Owen was an autocratic, benevolent employer. He might be a good king of a country but definitely not a pioneer in social reformation, or children psychology. The nursery buildings were built to coordinate with his social reformation, thus the design of these structures were determined by the pragmatic values that were required by Owen’s experiments. Owen has strong influences on humanitarianism because of his effort or courage in clarifying human character or preventing it from impurities. Dale was a decent good employer without the ambition of tempting to change the inherent character of human. Also, Dale’s effort in establishing a brand new community from a rural land should be accredited.


  1. Edinburgh University Press Ltd, 1993.
  2. Cole, Margaret. Robert Owen of New Lanark. New York: Augustus M. Kelley, Publishers, 1969.
  3. Claeys, Gregory. Selected Works of Robert Owen, Vol 1 & Vol 2. New York: Pickering & Chatto, Publishers, 1993.
  4. Hardy, Dennis. Alternative Communities in Nineteenth Century England. New York: Longman Inc., 1979.
  5. Simkin, John. Teaching History Online: Robert Owen., 1997.
  6. Robert Owen, 1771-1858.
  8. The Robert Owen Muesuem, 1999.

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The Social and Educational Reformation in New Lanark. (2021, Sep 14). Retrieved from

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