New Lanark.jpg
New Lanark.jpg


New Lanark 1818
Robert Owen is a key figure in the story of British protest and contention between 1815 and 1850. Owen challenged the status quo through the promotion of social reform, by challenging key social institutions including marriage, by attempting to build a General Union, and through experimentation with socialist communities.
In 1800 Owen became manager (and part owner) of New Lanark Mill. He was already a successful industrialist and active in promoting social reform. The mill, just to the South of Glasgow, had previously been run along ‘conventional’ lines. Under Owen New Lanark became the testing ground for a variety of reforms.
Owen immediately sought to improve the condition of his workers - hoping to make them happier and more productive. Progress was initially slow. He faced resistance from some of the work force, but once they were ‘won over’ the pace of reform increased. Owen based his initiatives on his conviction that societal conditions were the crucial factor in shaping individual character. While adults were relatively fixed in their ways, children could be moulded through formal education and experiences ‘at home.’ The emphasis on juvenile education was deeply imbedded in New Lanark. Owen sought to send children to school from the age of three and he refused to allow those under 10 to work (and he discouraged work until the age of 12). In 1816 Owen opened an ‘institute for the formation of character’ a building which provided conventional education alongside lessons in singing and dancing. By night it offered a range of classes for adults and social events. Other reforms at New Lanark included the creation of a sickness fund, the banning of alcohol and the opening of a cooperative store selling high quality produce at reduced prices. Owen also created a system of workers councils to settle disputes and shape policy – with representatives drawn from divisions of the village.
By 1818 New Lanark was extremely successful: profits had nearly doubled since 1799 and visitors came from around the country to inspect the mill and observe Owen’s philosophy in action. Winning’s painting was commissioned by Owen in 1818 and used on export labels - pasted onto packages of cotton. Winning was a resident of New Lanark and taught in the local school. The painting depicts new Lanark as modern, innovative, clean and efficient. Wide walkways and imposing bright buildings sit harmoniously alongside rolling countryside – a far cry from the ‘satanic Mills’ immortalised by Blake.
In 1825 Owen sold New Lanark and left Britain for America. New Lanark is significant because of the practical critique it offered of the social relations of his time (even if Owens philosophy remained paternalistic), and for its role in providing Owen with a platform for his socialist agenda. In 1813 Owen published a series essays entitled ‘A New view of Society’ and in 1820 he produced a report for the county of Lanark outlining potential solutions to unemployment. In these texts Owen outlined his philosophical position and called for far reaching reforms: asserting that communitarian settlements of between 500 and 2500 provided an alternative to urbanisation, condemning the ‘marriage system’ and encouraging a greater emphasis on education. These ideas attracted notable vocal support (and dissent) and helped constitute ‘Owenism’ – a social moment significant across the period.