Wednesday, 28 September 2016

The New Moral World: Robert Owen's New Lanark

New Lanark, Scotland, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site about 25 miles from Glasgow on the Falls of Clyde. David Dale founded New Lanark as a textile mill village in 1785, taking advantage of the water power the falls provided. It became famous as a model factory town in the early 19th century after Dale's son in law, Welshman Robert Owen, took it over.

Contrary to the ideas of many factory owners of the early industrial era, Owen was convinced that he could treat his workers humanely and still make a profit. Besides offering better wages and shorter hours than most mills, he provided the workers and their families with decent housing and opportunities for education and self-improvement. He established the first infants' school in the UK in 1817, to take care of and educate young children while their parents worked. 

New Lanark flourished. Owen made a lot of money, and the town became well known, attracting the rich and famous from all over the European world. At its height, it was home to 2500 people. Owen's success convinced him that he could replicate it elsewhere, and go further in the direction of what he called "The New Moral World."

Owen believed, in common with many Enlightenment thinkers, that environment shaped human character, and that the right environment would produce morally superior people, a "New Moral World." By the 1820s, he had decided that the right environment was a "cooperative" one, in which people worked together for the common good.

In effect, Owen had embraced what Karl Marx later called "utopian socialism." In 1825, Owen sold New Lanark and sailed to America, where he founded a cooperative community, New Harmony, in Indiana. Below are two images of Owen's concept of the community, with housing, workshops, schools, and factories.

The New Harmony experiment was largely a failure. The inhabitants, not Owen's employees, proved to be un-cooperative. Perhaps, too, Owen was seen as a tyrant, trying to direct people's lives too much. 

After a few years, Owen gave up on New Harmony and sailed back to Britain, though several of his children remained and carved out successful careers in America. Back in Britain, he tried to establish a union of all British workers, The Grand National Consolidated Trades Union. Due in part to government persecution, it failed by 1834, and Owen began to promote a new movement to found producers and consumers co-operatives. The first successful co-op was founded in 1844, in Rochdale, Lancashire, by the Rochdale Pioneers. It soon became a model for countless others since.

New Lanark itself went into a gradual decline after Owen left. It continued producing textiles until 1968. After the mill closed, people moved away and the buildings began to deteriorate. In 1974 a trust was founded to save them, and they have been gradually restored. About 200 people live in the restored housing and thousands more visit the site every year, learning about Owen's "New Moral World."

The old mill is now a hotel and some of the housing is now used as a hostel.

The infants school has also been restored to what it looked like when Owen established it. (School and Mill Race)

Today, New Harmony, Indiana, is also a popular tourist destination and so, in some form, Owen's legacy lives on. 

Further Reading: JFC Harrison, Robert Owen and the Owenites in England and America: The Quest for a New Moral World (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969)

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