1799 - Robert Owen buys New Lanark Mills

New Lanark

Robert Southey was Poet Laureate in 1819 when he joined civil engineer Thomas Telford on a tour to Scotland. One of the places of interest on their itinerary was New Lanark and a meeting with its utopian co-owner - Robert Owen. New Lanark was a water-powered cotton spinning factory but it was also meant to be a model village, where the workers and their families were cared for in their physical and moral needs. Owen was unusual in demanding only 10¾ hours work per day from his employees, and for refusing to employ children under ten in his mills. Left to himself, he would not have employed children under twelve, but to protect the interests of his business partners he felt obliged to compromise over this. Owen was a definite exception in these respects - in other mills children could be expected to work for 14 hours a day or more.

Tuesday, September 28th. After breakfast we walked to New Lanark which is about a mile from the town . . . I had written to Owen from Inverary; and he expected us, he said to stay with him a week, or at the very least three days; it was not without difficulty that we persevered in our purpose of proceeding the same evening to Douglas mill.

He led us through the works with great courtesy, and made as full an exhibition as time allowed. It is needless to say anything more of the Mills than that they are perfect in their kind, according to the present state of mechanical science, and that they appeared to be under admirable management; they are thoroughly clean, and so carefully ventilated, that there was no unpleasant smell in any of the apartments. Everything required for the machinery is made upon the spot, and the expence of wear and tear is estimated at 8000 annually. There are stores also from which the people are supplied with all the necessaries of life. They have a credit there to the amount of sixteen shillings a week each, but may deal elsewhere if they chuse. The expences of what he calls the moral part of the establishment, he stated at 700 a year. But a large building is just completed with ball and concert and lecture rooms. All for the 'formation of character'; and this must have required a considerable sum, which I should think must surely be set down to Owen's private account, rather than to the cost of the concern.

In the course of going through these buildings, he took us into an apartment where one of his plans, upon a scale larger than any of the Swiss models was spread on the floor. And with a long wand in his hand he explained the plan, while Willy and Francis stood by, with wondering and longing eyes, regarding it as a plaything, and hoping they might be allowed to amuse themselves with it. Meantime the word had been given: we were conducted into one of the dancing rooms; half a dozen fine boys, about nine or ten years old, led the way. Playing on fifes, some 200 children, from four years of age until ten, entered the room and arranged themselves on three sides of it. A man whose official situation I did not comprehend gave the word, which either because of the tone or the dialect I did not understand; and they turned to the right or left, faced about, fell forwards and backwards and stamped at command, performing maneouvres the object of which was not very clear with perfect regularity. I remembered what T. Vardon told me of the cows in Holland. When the cattle are housed, the Dutch in the spirit of cleanliness, prevent them from dirting their tails by tying them up (to the no small discomfort of the cows) at a certain elevation, to a cross string which extends the whole length of the stalls: and the consequence is that when any one cow wags her tail all the others must wag theirs also. So I could not but think that these puppet-like motions might, with a little ingenuity have been produced by the great water wheel, which is the primum mobile of the whole Cotton-Mills. A certain number of the children were then drawn out and sung to the pipe of a music master. They afterwards danced to the piping of the six little pipers. There was too much of all this, but the children seemed to like it. When the exhibition was over, they filed off into the adjoining schoolrooms.

I was far better pleased with a large room in which all the children of the establishment who are old enough not to require the constant care of their mothers, and too young for instruction of any kind, were brought together while their parents were at work, and left to amuse themselves, with no more superintendence than is necessary for preventing them from hurting themselves. They made a glorious noise, worth all the concerts of New Lanark, and of London, to boot. It was really delightful to see how the little creatures crowded about Owen to make their bows and their curtesies, looking up and smiling in his face; and the genuine benignity and pleasure with which he noticed them, laying his hand on the head of one, shaking hands with another, and bestowing kind looks and kind words upon all.

Owen in reality deceives himself. He is part-owner and sole director of a large establishment, differing more in accidents than in essence from a plantation: the persons on it are white, and are at liberty by law to quit his service, but while they remain in it they are as much under his absolute management as so many Negro slaves. His humour, his vanity, his kindliness of nature (all these have their share) lead him to make these human machines as he calls them (and too literally he believes them to be) as happy as he can, and to make a display of their happiness. And jumps at once to the monstrous conclusion that because he can do this with 2,210 persons, who are totally dependent on him - all mankind might be governed with the same facility.

Robert Southey, Journal of a Tour in Scotland in 1819, ed. C. H. Herford, London, 1929.

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