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New Lanark as it is today


New Lanark was a village created by David Dale in a region of the Clyde Valley above Glasgow. Dale had started out as an apprentice in the linen industry which dominated Scotland through most of the eighteenth century, but had prospered in Glasgow as a merchant, eventually, with his friend Robert Scott Moncrieff, establishing a branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland in Glasgow in 1783. In 1784, Richard Arkwright, who possessed the patent for the 'water frame', visited Glasgow. He was in the process of establishing an industrial empire based on the frame through Derbyshire and Lancashire, and he thought of expanding into Scotland. Dale showed him an area near the already established town of Lanark, and Arkwright was impressed. Work in the first mill began in 1786 and by 1793 there were four mill buildings and accommodation for more than 200 families. Dale was no longer in partnership with Arkwright though they seem to have parted on friendly terms.

The advantage of the New Lanark site was the force of the current of the River Clyde which could be used to turn the mills that operated the new machinery. This was also the advantage of the remote, mountainous areas of the North of England where Arkwright had established his factories. The industrialists were looking for the same remote  parts of the landscape as the romantic poets. Scotland also had the advantage that it was already importing cotton as a complement to the linen industry since cotton and linen could be combined in the cheaper 'fustian'. Cotton was now replacing linen because of the new capacities of production. It was to be many years before the linen industry could be industrialised to anything like the same extent.

The disadvantage of these remote sites was the difficulty of attracting workers. The textile factories had a bad reputation for strict discipline and long working hours in unhealthy - damp and hot - conditions. They attracted people in a state of desperation, many of them fleeing what had become impossible living conditions in the highlands. But most notoriously they used children, often, at the time, pauper children and orphans who had been taken from the streets and placed in the newly established 'foundling hospitals'. Some of the children at New Lanark came from the Town Hospital in Glasgow of which David Dale was a director.


When New Lanark started in 1786 there were around 80 children working there; by 1793 there were 273 and, according to Owen's account, by 1800, after he had taken charge, there were between 400 and 500. The total workforce on his arrival was between 1,700 and 1,800. Around two thirds were women and children.

Responding to questions on conditions in the factory, David Dale said that each of the rooms in the mills held some 2,000 spindles and had around fifty to seventy five children working in it. The youngest children were 6-7 years of age. They worked from 6.00 in the morning to 7.00 in the evening, with a half-hour breakfast at 9.00 and an hour at 2.00 p.m. for lunch. They had supper at 7.00 in the evening and, as soon as possible after that, teachers would arrive, mainly teaching them to read. Sundays were busy with church activities and with school. The children would stay at New Lanark until they were fifteen when they were considered 'fit for any task'. Many of the boys went into the army and navy; the girls had little difficulty finding work as domestic servants in the area.

Given this picture it is surprising to realise that, even before Owen's arrival, New Lanark was regarded as a model of humane factory management. A "Society for Bettering the Condition and Increasing the Comfort of the Poor' was formed to promote Dale's methods, which included providing the children with clean linen and regularly changing the mattresses, or straw 'ticks', on which they slept, three to a bed. Owen himself was to comment to a Parliamentary Committee in 1816 that under Dale 'the children were extremely well fed, well clothed, well lodged and very great care was taken of them when they were out of the mills.' Owen's New Lanark would become something of a tourist attraction, with 20,000 visitors in ten years, but there were already 3,000 entries in Dale's visitors' book for the four years between 1795 and 1799. 

Owen's first important piece of writing - A New View of Society, published in 1813 and 1814 - nonetheless lays out his dissatisfaction with New Lanark as he found it, and what he tried to do to remedy it. The emphasis is on the condition of the adults rather than the children and in particular on their moral condition:

'such was the general dislike to that occupation at the time, that, with a few exceptions, only persons destitute of friends, employment, and character, were found willing to try the experiment; and of these a sufficient number to supply a constant increase of the manufactory could not be obtained. It was therefore deemed a favour on the part even of such individuals to reside at the village, and, when taught the business, they grew so valuable to the establishment, that they became agents not to be governed contrary to their own inclinations ... It is therefore scarcely necessary to state, that the community by degrees was formed under these circumstances into a very wretched society; every man did that which was right in his own eyes, and vice and immorality prevailed to a monstrous extent. The population lived in idleness, in poverty, in almost every kind of crime; consequently, in debt, out of health, and in misery. Yet to make matters still worse although the cause proceeded from the best possible motive, a conscientious adherence to principle, the whole was under a strong sectarian influence, which gave a marked and decided preference to one set of religious opinions over all others, and the professors of the favoured opinions were the privileged of the community.'

This last may refer to Scottish Calvinism in general or, more specifically, to the 'Old Scottish Independents', a group which had been formed in Glasgow when the town council took the power of appointing ministers out of the hands of the church. When the next vacancy occurred the council appointed a 'moderate' minister rather than  one whom Dale and his friends would have recognised as an Orthodox Calvinist. A section of the congregation separated and formed The Chapel of the Scotch Presbyterian Society. Dale was one of the original subscribers. In 1768, he was won over to the Independent system of church government, under which each congregation was a complete church in its itself without any need for a larger corporate discipline grouping several congregations in presbyteries, synods etc as in the Presbyterian system. The term 'Old Scottish' was introduced at the end of the century to distinguish them from the new evangelical independency that was spreading at the time under the influence of the brothers, James and Robert Haldane.

The Old Scottish Independents also took the view that a man called to be a minister had no need for academic qualifications. Dale himself became a minister in 1769 and as a result was subject to a great deal of public mockery and abuse. By the late 1790s, however, his wealth, power (largely through the bank) and charitable giving had secured him a respectability that was unshakeable. The wealth and the generosity complemented each other as it was said: 'David Dale gives his money by sho'elful, but God Almighty shovels it back again.'

Owen's New View goes on to praise Dale's efforts on behalf of the children but states what might seem to us to be obvious, that the hours of work rendered all the other attentions, especially the education, vain:

'It is not to be supposed that children so young could remain, with the intervals of meals only, from six in the morning until seven in the evening, in constant employment, on their feet, within cotton mills, and afterwards acquire much proficiency in education. And so it proved; for many of them became dwarfs in body and mind, and some of them were deformed. Their labour through the day and their education at night became so irksome, that numbers of them continually ran away, and almost all looked forward with impatience and anxiety to the expiration of their apprenticeship of seven, eight, and nine years, which generally expired when they were from thirteen to fifteen years old. At this period of life, unaccustomed to provide for themselves, and unacquainted with the world, they usually went to Edinburgh or Glasgow, where boys and girls were soon assailed by thme innumerable temptations which all large towns present, and to which many of them fell sacrifices.'