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Robert Owen and New Lanark

Robert Owen has been called the 'father of English Socialism'. He was the founder of the Co-operative movement and believed in worker control although he was a high capitalist himself. He was the product of self-help; a paternalist. A very practical man, he concentrated on the means to the end. He believed that if the working man ever was to achieve equality, then the man must change first - in attitude. Also, the working man had to know of, believe in and be equipped to fight for the cause, according to Owen.

Owen's was a very individualistic socialism: he advocated social changes because he was trying to create a changed working man. This differs from philanthropy, which 'gives' things to the working man. Owen was therefore a revolutionary because he wanted to change attitudes: an idea cannot be killed. Owen became convinced that the advancement of humankind could be furthered by the improvement of every individual's personal environment. He reasoned that since character was moulded by circumstances, then improved circumstances would lead to goodness. The environment at New Lanark, where he tried out his ideas, reflected this philosophy. However, Owen received no criticism from below and he simply bought out critical partners, the result of which was that Owen became dogmatic. He was more devoted to his ideals than to any human being and had a greater love for mankind in the mass than for any individual. Owen forgot, at times, that 'mankind' was made up of individuals and so he failed

On 1 January 1800, Robert Owen took over the management of David Dale's cotton mills at New Lanark and put into practice the ideas that he had developed earlier in his life and his workers at New Lanark were made to adopt new living, working, sanitary, educational and other standards. New Lanark had a population of 2,000 people, 500 of whom were young children from the poorhouses and charities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. The children had been well treated by Dale but Owen found the condition of the people unsatisfactory.

Owen refused to take any more pauper children and he began to improve the houses and machinery. Crime and vice bred by the demoralising conditions were common; there was little education and less sanitation; housing conditions were intolerable. Owen set out to test his ideas on education and the environment by attempting to set up a model factory and model village. Under his new regime, conditions in the factory were clean and children and women worked relatively short hours: a 12 hour day including 1½ hours for meals. He employed no children under 10 years old. He provided decent houses, sanitation, shops and so on for the workers. He gave rewards for cleanliness and good behaviour and mainly by his own personal influence, encouraged the people in habits of order, cleanliness, and thrift. The Gentleman's Magazine commented that

the [children] live with their parents in neat comfortable habitation, receiving wages for their labour... The regulations here to preserve health of body and mind, present a striking contrast to those of most large manufactories in this kingdom.

Initially, the workmen obstructed his plans but he won their confidence by opening a shop in which goods of sound quality could be bought at little more than cost price and at which the sale of alcohol was placed under strict supervision. He became more popular duing the American embargo in 1806 when he stopped the mills for four months but paid the workmen their full wages, amounting to more than £7,000. After that, he was able to introduce other measures to reduce the amount of drink and pilfering that went on in New Lanark. The profit made by the shop was put straight into the school where the children of the factory workers were given a 'free' education. The mills continued to thrive commercially, but some of Owen's schemes entailed considerable expense; for example, he calculated that the initial outlay for the school would be £5,000 plus the annual expense for its upkeep.

Frustrated by the restrictions imposed on him by his partners, who wished to conduct the business along more ordinary lines, he organised a new firm in 1813. Owen decided to find men who would sympathise with his aims and circulated a pamphlet called A New View of Society (revised by Francis Place) describing his principles: he found ready support from Jeremy Bentham among others. Owen proposed that five per cent should be paid on capital and the whole surplus devoted to general education and improvement of the labourer's condition. Owen bought the business for £114,100; at the beginning of 1814 he was received enthusiastically by his workmen and had a free hand for his projects. Owen was a paternalistic factory aristocrat. He kept his eye on employees - an industrial version of William Cobbett's social ideal.

New Lanark gained international fame when Owen's experiments in enhancing his workers' environment resulted in increased productivity and profit. He was especially proud of the arrangement for marking each man's conduct daily by a ‘silent monitor,’ a label coloured to indicate either goodness and badness and placed opposite each man's post.

Contemporary illustration of Owen's school in New Lanark in about 1820

He was anxious to form the characters of the workers from the start and decided to set up a new school system that was to provide his ‘living machinery.’ He had been interested in the plans of Bell and Lancaster; he presided at a public dinner given to Lancaster at Glasgow in 1812, for example. Education of the young, to which he devoted special attention, was Owen's greatest success. He believed that education could lead men to transform the environment and to transform their characters so education was to be given to all. He saw education as being different from information: education must seek to promote higher ideals and achievements, and should be more than pure rote learning. In 1816 he opened the school at New Lanark which took children from 3 to 10 years old, or to 13 if their parents could afford for the child not to work. The aim of the school was to form good habits and dispositions in the children - the practise of the Utilitarian theory of education. It was very much the 'play way' of education. Nursery schools were a highly original concept from Owen. His first principle was that the children should never be beaten; that they should always be addressed kindly, and instructed to make each other happy. Owen insisted that the children should be taught by using 'visual aids' and thought that books should not be used for children under ten. Dancing, music, and drilling were an essential part of the system and he said that his school children were the ‘happiest human beings he ever saw’. His infant school was copied by Lord Lansdowne and Brougham among others. The New Lanark institutions became famous and Owen reckoned that between 1814 and 1824 there were about 2,000 visitors a year.

Owen believed that national education was essential to liberate it from the narrowness of the individual and the dogmatism of the Church. He saw education as the solution to all social ills and believed that traditional education perpetuated ignorance and an acceptance of error. Worse still, society punished men for being what society had made them become. Owen wanted to produce self-help and initiative in the working man so where other men advocated the reform of the country's political institutions, Owen became preoccupied with rendering the State itself redundant.


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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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