Culture Heritage Learning

Robert Owen – a social conscience & a new society

10th May 2016 by Scran | 0 comments


Original Daguerreotype © New Lanark Trust

When we think of 18th century model villages and social reform, the mills of New Lanark feature large. The people linked with New Lanark are the founder David Dale and his successor manager Robert Owen. Born on 14 May 1771, the son of a saddler of Newtown in Montgomeryshire, Wales. He learned the textile trade in England, firstly in Lincolnshire and later in Manchester.

There, Owen developed the ideals which were to gain him renown. A member of the Manchester Literary & Philosophical Society, he was influenced by his reading of social and economic ideas expressed by Enlightenment writers. By 1800, he had built up business associations in the West of Scotland, made the acquaintance of the reformist entrepreneur, David Dale, and married his daughter, Caroline Dale.

Managing New Lanark


Late 19th century view of store © Historic Environment Scotland

When Dale sold out the mills at New Lanark to a group of English manufacturers, Owen was one of these and personally took on the management of the 2000 person labour force there. They enjoyed conditions generally considered to be of model standard, but Owen apparently still considered these to be ‘wretched‘. He began a programme of rebuilding to ensure that every family had at least two rooms. He was unhappy with Dale’s policy of employing pauper children and sought to replace them with families. Social ills, such as drunkenness and licentiousness were tackled by fines which were in turn devoted to improvements in education and medical care. A levy of wages and increased profits were siphoned into Owen’s particular brainchild, the ‘Institute for the Formation of Character‘. He firmly believed in education as a civilising force for the improvement of society in general, but he also mixed classes in basic reading and writing skills, mathematics, history and geography, with physical recreation and dance.



New Lanark Mills © Historic Environment Scotland

The rationale behind Owen’s measures is illustrated to an extent by his temporary partnership in the New Lanark Company from 1813 with Jeremy Bentham, one of the founders, and John Stuart Mill, of the Utilitarian school of philosophy which propounded the ‘greatest happiness principle‘. He himself became frustrated that his ideals were not more widely copied and came to be more closely involved with movements in support of factory reform and Poor Law amendment.

Address to New Lanark Inhabitants 1816


Sampler by Jane Dale Owen 1811 © New Lanark Trust

“What ideas individuals attach to the term “Millennium” I know not; but I know that society may be formed so as to exist without crime, without poverty, with health greatly improved, with little if any misery, and with intelligence and happiness increased a hundredfold”.

Split with New Lanark


Memorial Plaque, Indianapolis © New Lanark Trust

Disillusioned and in disagreement with his partners, Owen had by 1825 resigned as manager at New Lanark. He did not, however, cease to believe in the ideal of the importance of the social environment and founded communities at Ormiston in Lanarkshire, in Devon, in Ireland, and in New Harmony in Indiana in the United States. This was a settlement where Owen went with his sons in 1825, and where he attempted to establish a Utopian community. His sons Robert Dale, David Dale and Richard Dale, and his one surviving daughter Jane, became American citizens. He became closely associated with the Chartist movement. If his projects themselves failed to be long lasting, many of Owen’s principles were taken up by the ‘Owenite’ movement which grasped his ideas of workers’ cooperatives and trade unions. His vision led to him being dubbed the ‘Social Father’. He wrote much of what he believed in ‘A New View of Society’ (1813), ‘Two Memorials on behalf of the Working Class’ (1818), ‘Report on the County of Lanark’ (1821), and ‘Revolution in Mind and Practice’ (1849). He returned to Newtown to die at the age of 87 in 1858, and was buried there near his parents in the old St Mary’s churchyard.

Image © New Lanark Trust, Historic Environment Scotland Licensor Scran