Edward Royle Talk

Professor Edward Royle : New Lanark

Ted gave a commanding and scholarly talk on New Lanark – its origins, the key players and a history covering the best part of 250 years.  Ted took us back to the early days of the industrial revolution in 1784 when David Dale, a banker turned industrialist, invited Richard Arkwright to visit Scotland and look at the potential of the Falls of Clyde as a place for a cotton mill.  One could imagine Arkwright marvelling at both the sight and its potential – and the rest, as they say, is history.

As Ted pointed out, building workers’ villages was a necessity because most water powered mills were located away from existing population centres.  So in 1786 David Dale, working in partnership with Arkwright initially, started building a village in parallel with the construction of a series of cotton mills.  This had the advantage of women and children being available to work the cotton mills.  This workforce was supplemented by apprentices from Glasgow and Edinburgh who also had accommodation built for them.

Four large mills were built making New Lanark the largest Mill centre in Scotland at the time.  Ted showed excellent photos of the Mills through time including the Falls of Clyde to illustrate his talk.  Interestingly a number of the mills were consumed by fire but generally replaced. The Q&A session revealed that the cotton dust in the air created the fire risk hazard for mills in those times.

David Dale’s management style was philanthropic.  He provided workers’ meals, work clothes and a 3Rs education.  Robert Owen who visited the mills later, built on this foundation helped by his own personal philosophy and experiences in Manchester.  He had started out as a draper’s apprentice but by the age of 19 he had become the manager of a cotton mill in Manchester.  Owen’s position meant that he got to know many of the important people of the time.  One of his key influencers was Dr Thomas Percival who was interested in public health.  He was leading an ad hoc committee on an investigation into putrid fever and its impact on public health. Owen later joined this group.  The work of this committee resulted in the first Factory Act of the 19th Century.  Another influencer on the committee was Dr James Currie, a Scot, based in Liverpool, who had been very impressed with New Lanark and the welfare and morals of the workforce.  So perhaps it is no surprise that Robert Own was attracted to New Lanark to see Dale’s work.

In 1799 Robert Owen married Dale’s eldest daughter Caroline.  He also persuaded Dale to sell New Lanark to him with complicated but favourable purchase arrangements.  A purchase price of £60,000 was agreed repayable over 20 years at 5% interest.  This proved to be the first of a number of deals Owen struck over the years.  As Ted put it, Robert Owen became the master of the take-over bid.  For instance, about a decade later, the Campbells of Jura, major investors in New Lanark, got ‘windy’ over Owen’s degree of indebtedness to them and Owen had to re-finance the deal.  Rather than turn to the business community, he went to philanthropists for finance, such as Quaker, William Allen, who supported his reforms.

No one can say that Owen lacked energy.  He took over Dale’s philanthropic practices and developed them further.  In the running of New Lanark he introduced shorter working hours, improved factory conditions, generally improved public health and provided education for adults and, especially, children.  Owen had particularly strong ideas on the formation of human character.  This was reflected in the construction of the Institute for the Formation of Character (1816) and the School for Children (1817).  The Institute functioned as a library and community centre and remained in use until the 1960s.  With respect to education Owen didn’t believe in corporal punishment and was a great believer in the use of visual aids.  Ted’s photos of the actual maps and images of insects, birds and animals Owen used can still be seen at New Lanark.  They looked very familiar. How long ago was it that this author went to school?!!!  However, education didn’t finish with the children but continued with evening classes for adults and older children who had started work.  Owen also opened up a village shop in 1813 where the quality was good and the prices low – a precursor for the later Co-operative movement.  He was a shrewd manager of people paying low wages but provided high ‘social wages’. That Owen became a great self-publicist is clear because New Lanark was visited by as many as 2,000 visitors a year including the great and good.

Between 1813 and 1817 he wrote four seminal essays, entitled ‘A New View of Society – The Formation of Human Character’.  This was evidence of Owen’s passion to transform the world.  Much of Owen’s essay made sense to the working class of the time.  They had first-hand experience of exploitative employment conditions allied to dirt, drink, poverty and a lack of education.  Owen saw New Lanark as the prototype for new communities, a model he wished to share with the rest of the world.  His mission occupied the rest of his life until he died in 1858.

Unfortunately there isn’t space here to cover the breadth of Ted’s talk.  This brief blog cannot include Owen’s ill-fated American dream for New Harmony, intended to translate the experience at New Lanark to the American frontier.  Nor can it share the evolution of ownerships of New Lanark over the decades, including the introduction of a gasworks (1851), the introduction of steam power (1873) and even electricity driven by hydroelectric power (1884).  The economics of the mills started going into gradual decline at the turn of the 20th century and they finally ceased to work in 1968.  After two years without occupancy a scrap metal company took over the mill buildings, breaking the link with the village after nearly two centuries since New Lanark’s establishment.

Ted’s talk ended on a more positive note as he moved on to the rescue and restoration of New Lanark. This was driven by the New Lanark Conservation Trust established in 1974.  Its first chair was Jim Arnold, a former student at the University of York.  Ted’s interest in New Lanark began in the mid-1960s, when he was researching George Jacob Holyoake, a 19th Century lecturer for the Owenite and the Co-operative Movements.  When reading Owen’s papers in Manchester he found the correspondence between David Dale and Dr James Currie along with references to New Lanark.  These gave him insights into Dale’s philosophy, his far sighted humanitarian aims for New Lanark and the reasons why he chose to sell to Owen.  When Ted moved to teach at the University of York, he offered a course on Owenism and this led to him organising a visit of students to New Lanark in 1974 when it was at its nadir.  Jim Arnold acted as guide, showing the group around the virtually derelict New Lanark. Hindsight tells Ted that it would have been treated as a hard hat area today. Since that time he has made regular visits to New Lanark and enjoyed watching steady progress made over time.  The transformation of New Lanark has been a great success.  Indeed, it was recognised by UNESCO in 2001 as one of Scotland’s six World Heritage Sights.  The buildings and houses have been restored, there is a visitor centre, toilets, car parking and a four star hotel.  Last, but not least, the Falls of Clyde, a short walk away, are still as spectacular as they were in Arkwright’s time.  ‘World Heritage on your doorstep’ was Ted’s concluding message to his audience. Be grateful and enjoy it!

Many thanks to Ted for these insights into our heritage.

Edward Royle Talk

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