New Lanark Experiment

by John Duncan

David Dale, (1739-1806)

Lanark is a town, royal burgh, and seat of the district of Clydesdale, Strathclyde region, Scotland, and situated by the right bank of the River Clyde, on the south-eastern periphery of the metropolitan complex of Glasgow.

One mile south of Lanark, is New Lanark, which was founded in 1785 as a cotton-spinning centre, by David Dale with the support of Sir Richard Arkwright, inventor of the spinning frame; the village became well known for its humane working and living conditions, brought about by the experiments of the Socialist, Robert Owen, Dale’ son-in-law.

Robert Owen’ New Lanark mills, with their social and industrial welfare programs, became a place of pilgrimage for statesmen and social reformers, while in the town of New Lanark lived 2,000 people, 500 of whom were young children from the poorhouses and charities of Glasgow and Edinburgh.

The children, especially, had been well treated by David Dale, but the condition of the people was unsatisfactory. Crime and vice bred by demoralizing conditions were common, education and sanitation alike were neglected, and housing conditions were intolerable. Owen improved the houses and mainly by his own personal influence, encouraged the people in habits of order, cleanliness,and thrift.

He opened a store at which goods of sound quality could be bought, at little more than cost price, and at which the sale of alcohol beverages, was placed under strict supervision.

His greatest success, however, was in the education of the young, to which he devoted special attention. In 1816 he opened the first infant school in Great Britain, at the New Lanark mills, and thereafter gave it his close personal supervision.

Robert Owen

Though Owen -a Welshman- at first was regarded with suspicion as an outsider, he soon won the confidence of the people.

New Lanark:- Counting House and Caithness Row.

Many of the early residents of New Lanark were Gaelic speaking Highlanders. In 1791 the emigrant ship “Fortune” sailed from the isle of Skye, bound for America. It was dismasted in stormy weather and forced it in to port.

David Dale offered the would-be emigrants housing and employment. To prevent further emigration, he pledged to build houses in New Lanark for 200 families. Caithness Row was completed in 1793, and by tradition was named by these early villagers after their homeland.

The rounded end of the row was added by Robert Owen as a counting house. It makes a striking addition to the architecture of the village square. From this office the whole village could be surveyed. An iron safe protected the weekly wages of the workers, and gave the office its distinctive name.

Today Caithness Row looks very much the same, but has been converted into 16 self-contained centrally-heated, modern flats, which now house 30 people.

Village Store.

The Store, built in 1813, which originally included the present shops and houses, was built by Robert Owen.

It had an effective monopoly in the village, but Owen developed a co-operative system to the advantage of the community. Good quality goods bought in bulk were sold to the workpeople at near cost. Profits were re-invested in the village. In 1823 the profit of over 8,000 pounds sterling was used to meet the cost of the School.

New Lanark’ store was an inspiring example of the success of the early co-operative movement.

Nursery Buildings.

The Nursery Buildings, built in 1809, next to the store, is one of Robert Owen’ few house building projects in the village. As its name suggests, it was used as a nursery to house several hundred pauper apprentices who had normally lived in the mills.

It was part of Owen’ policy to improve the situation of these apprentices, and of child workers in general. The severe working conditions and long hours seemed both horrifying and inefficient to Owen. He tried to provide an improved environment, especially for children, and no person under 10 years was alloyed to work in the mills.

To forgo the profit from child labour was considered revolutionary and the accommodation provided for the children was excellent by contemporary standards.

New Buildings.

New Buildings were built in 1798 by David Dale, the village’ co-founders, as a centre-piece in a plain classical style. Its main function was as workers' housing, though a room was used for religious purposes. The bell-cote houses a bell which was used by the mill to summon workers. The popular story is that it was brought by Highlanders from their storm-bound ship, when David Dale persuaded them to work in his mills instead of crossing to America.

It still bears its inscription - Hagarston, Washington County, Lutheran Congregation, Glasgow - Maryland 1786.

Village Housing, Long Row, Double Row and Rosedale Street.

Together, these rows with their simple and descriptive names, comprises the bulk of industrial housing. Rosedale Street is one of the few places in the village relatively isolated from the magnificent surrounding scenery.

The rows are of tenement construction, with interior wooden stairs. The housing was of a high standard for its time. Each house [flat] comprised a single room,in which an entire family would live. Sleeping accommodation was managed with hurley beds which ran underneath the built-in box-beds, of which there were two.

Spring water came from public wells. Sewage was removed by horse and cart, from public dung heaps. Owen introduced a system of inspection and cleanliness, and expanded the living accommodation for large families.

Every single room in the village had a large open fire, and it was around this that the family revolved. Even with five or six people to a room, heat was still needed in winter, and on the fire range water would be heated and food cooked.

To cope with this fire needed constant attention. The range itself would be kept painted and well polished since it was the main focal point of the living quarters. It is dificult to imagine today the bustle that must have existed when the village held 2,500 people. The movement to and from work, the barefoot children, the horses and carts, the washing lines, the gossip, the constant hustle and bustle, have all completely disappeared. The people, who remember something of it, say it was a warm and generous community - but now only the spirit remains.

The Institute for the Formation of Character.

Opened by Robert Owen in 1816, the Institute is in the classical style he favoured. The Institute cost 3,000 pounds sterling and was paid for by the company. It was central to his environmentalist theories, and was the means by which he was to deal with, the problem of reforming the character of the adult generation. It contained rooms for both educational and recreational purposes, including a library and reading room. In fact it served many functions. It was first used as a school, and later a dance and concert hall, religious meeting place, and works canteen. It was, as intended, the social centre of the village.

The Engine House.

With tall arched windows, the Engine House was added to the Institute in 1881 to accommodate a steam engine. Drive from the engine was transferred to the mills by a series of ropes connecting the back of the Engine House with Mill No.3. Steam was never the main source of power for the mills, since water was so freely available. Steam was a useful standby.

School For Children.

This is probably the most famous single building in the village, completed by Owen in 1817. Made famous by its size, its attempts to deal with the problem of mass industrial education and his educational philosophy, it accommodated the children of the village from obout one year until they were 10. They were taught on a "rational approach" with no punishment, only kindness.

The children wore light cotton Roman or Highland dress, and were taught a wide curriculum which was not restricted to the basic 3 "R’ ", but included singing and dancing, and visual aids in the form of large coloured canvases. The pupil-teacher ratio was good even by modern standards: 12 teachers in charge of 194 children in the elementary school; 7 teachers in charge of 80 children in the infant school. The school represented Owen’ greatest attempt to realise a more rational social system by means of education.

Continuing our walk around the New Lanark village, visiting the various buildings, we now come to:-

The Mill Lade.

The Mill Lade is one of the most important features of New Lanark. It was the means by which the power of the river was controlled and applied to the manufacture of cotton. A tunnel 300 yards long was cut to lead the water from the Clyde to the water wheels in each mill.

This was the source of primary power throughout the period of operation of the mills.

By the end of the 19th century, the water was driving a turbine to generate electricity.

Water wheels finally disappeared as a source of power in the 1930’ .

The Mills.

The mills are the key to New Lanark. It was cotton spinning by water-power that brought the village into existence. Three of the original four mills remain.

No. 1 mill is the oldest surviving. Built in 1789, it stands across the lade, and its water wheel ran in the centre of the building. The curved Palladian windows were a feature of the early structures and may have been influenced by the architect Robert Adam. It was cut down in 1945 from its original five storeys to three, to ensure structural stability.

No. 2 mill was widened in the 1890’ , producing its present brick facade. The original facade remains facing the Clyde.

No. 3 mill of 1826 is probably the best preserved. It is a superb example of the architecture of the period. It replaced the original mill which burned down in 1819.

No. 4 mill was directly next to No. 3, but burned down in 1883 and was not replaced. Fire was a constant threat in cotton mills, and all the mills suffered severely from its ravages.

New Lanark mills worked until 1968, producing mainly cotton threads and canvas. In 1968 the then owners, The Gourock Ropework Company, who had looked after the village so carefully, announced the closure of the mills. This created a crisis for the future of the village. Demolition became a real possibility. Conservation efforts have been successful and have produced the restored village that you can now visit.

A revitalised New Lanark has had to find a new role in the modern world.

Foundry and Mechanics' Workshop.

In modern times the lower buildings on the river’ edge were the dyeworks, but were originally an iron and brass foundry. The Mechanics' Workshop, the long 3 storey building, was vital for the mill’ operation. Any factory in the 18th century had to be independent, and be able to repair, develop and make much of its own machinery. Therefore, part of the workforce was made up of skilled tradesmen, such as millwrights, brass-founders, wood and iron turners - the "mechanics" on which the mills depended.

Retort House.

The elegant octagonal chimney at the easternmost end of New Lanark was for the village gasworks. Coal gas was produced, mainly to provide lighting for cotton production and the village. Two small gasholders [gasometers] once stood next to the Retort House where there are now some picnic tables and a river viewing point.

Falls of Clyde Nature Reserve.

The Clyde Gorge was formed after the last ice age, 12,000 years ago, when a meltwater channel from the retreating glacier gouged a new river bed. The area is now a Scottish Wildlife Trust Nature Reserve.

Three falls are located upstream of New Lanark. Dundaff Linn [10 feet] is the smallest and lies closest to the village. All the falls can be seen from footpaths along the side of the Gorge.

Dale’ and Owen’ Houses.

David Dale’ house was used by his family in the summer, and by Dale on his visits to the village.

The manager’ house was occupied by Owen in about 1800, after his marriage to Caroline Dale. Both houses are notable for their simple sturdy style, and for their central position in the village. The landscaped area behind the two houses provided a pleasant feature, now restored for community use.

........................Oral history in New Lanark:- Courtesy of New Lanark Conservation Trust, The Counting House, New Lanark, Lanark, ML11 9DG.

“If the 1780’ , when New Lanark was born, are beyond the reach of the Oral Archive, the 1880s are still within living memory.

The oldest voice in the 'memory-bank' belongs to a lady who was born in the village in 1887. She had given up full-time education by the time the Boer War broke out, and at the age of eleven was working part-time in the cotton mills.

Her recollections of life in New Lanark are an important reminder of the vast social changes that have taken place in one lifetime.

Another lady, whose great-grandfather worked for Robert Owen, was born in Caithness Row in 1895. She regrets that as a child she did not enquire more into her grandmother’ early days, born as she was in 1825; but the significant fact emerges that her grandmother, a mill worker, was well able to read and write, a tribute to the education system established in the village by David Dale and greatly expanded by Robert Owen. The size and prominence of Owen’ Institute and School bear witness to the high priority he gave to providing educational and recreational facilities for his work-force and their families, from nursery education to evening-classes for adults.

Owen’ Institute, which began as a sort of community education centre in 1816, was the social hub of the village, the scene of dances, band-practices, concerts, badminton-matches and much more, until the mills finally ceased production in 1968.

Street-games, which are largely unknown to the sophisticated children of today with their video games and expensive bicycles, are recalled with pleasure - 'Hunch,cuddy, hunch', 'Buff the bear', ’ teppie-ringie', and ’ heep lie low', to name but a few.

Many and varied were the ways of earning a few precious coppers: carrying nets to and from the mill for the women who supplemented the family income by mending nets at home; following the horse-drawn brakes of the tourists who came to view the Falls of Clyde and performing such likely antics as 'biting their big toe for a half-penny'; even catching rabbits in the cornfields to sell to the old lady who sold sixpenny tickets to the tourists at the Falls Gate.

The back-breaking household chores are recalled too - carrying endless buckets of water up several flights of stairs from the wells which supplied the village. Although modern plumbing has superseded these wells, the semi-circular recesses which mark their sites can still be seen in the stone walls opposite Caithness Row and Braxfield Row.

It is hoped to establish a museum in New Lanark where visitors will be able to see typical examples of furnishings such as fireplaces with swees [swings] and hobs [a surface by the fire to keep pots hot], recessed beds, and so on.

These may well be viewed with the same mixture of nostalgia and relief that characterises the recollections of those who once had to black-lead the grates, and scrub the boards of the ‘set-in’ beds.

One lady remembers with a wry smile the discomfort of the first few nights after mattresses had been filled with a fresh batch of chaff from the farm -there were sure to be thistles in it!

The cotton-mills, of course, were New Lanark’ ‘raison d‘etre’, and their history is well documented.

Oral History goes farther: Men and women who answered the early-morning summons of the Mill Bell can describe from personal experience their working conditions. They remember the heat which caused the girls in the spinning-room to work barefoot, the deafening clatter in the weaving-shop, the cotton that clung to their clothes and hair. They remember too the camaraderie of the mills, the girls in their shawls walking arm-in-arm through the village, and the special traditions of a mill girl’ send-off when she left to get married.

On pay-day they queued up for their ‘tinnie’, into which their wages had been carefully counted to the last half-penny.

Anecdotes abound: The boys who got into hot water in more ways than one, when discovered by the manager taking an illicit bath in the big steam-heated tubs of the dyeworks; the old mill-worker who stumbled on to some patent glue intended to catch mice, and had to be extricated, amid much uproar and merriment, by fellow-workers.

And there are sad stories too; moments when tragedy touched the lives of the villagers. The River, so attractive to the boys who built bonfires to warm themselves after swimming, could be dangerous, and inevitably claimed some young lives.

As the weathered stones in the now disused burial ground remind us, some of the original inhabitants, who had been born in the Highlands and Islands, found there last resting place on the hill-side overlooking the Clyde Valley.

Some of the oldest contributors to the Sound Archive remember the last burials to take place in the hill-side graveyard in the early 1900’ , the old clock-repairer from the Long Row, and Jenny Ballantyne, who sold sweeties in the Double Row.

Much earlier, according to oral tradition, still-born babies were buried there in boxes from the village store.

A few families, are descended from some of the early inhabitants of New Lanark. Many came later, attracted to the steady work in the mills, and the low rents of the workers’ houses. All have a story to tell. To many, New Lanark is one of the most important industrial sites in Britain, of great historical significance. To the people in the Oral Archive, it was home.

..............................................Finally: David Dale & Robert Owen.


David Dale [1739-1806] was born in Ayrshire, the son of a grocer. By the age of 24 he had become a prosperous cloth merchant.

He was one of the first agents of the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Bridgeton was one of the early industrial meccas of Glasgow and rapidly developed in this field after David Dale and George Macintosh established the first Turkey Red Dyeing Works in Britain there in 1785 when they brought over a native of Rouen to reveal the trade secrets of the dyeing process, and Landressy Street, Bridgeton, is thought to be named after a French village where some of these Turkey Red workers had previously lived.

George McIntosh invented the India Rubber Macintosh.

Dale & McIntosh began calico printing to the east of the Rutherglen Bridge until, in 1805, Henry Monteith took over the business.

When Richard Arkwright, the inventor of the water-frame spinning machine, came to Scotland in 1783, he and Dale visited the Falls of Clyde, near Lanark, with a view to harnessing the water power.

Dale and Arkwright decided in 1785 to build the cotton mills and other establishments in the village, they called New Lanark.

The village is situated in the narrow, wooded, gorge of the River Clyde and is built of the sandstone from which the gorge is formed.

By 1799, New Lanark was the largest cotton mill in Scotland, and eventually 2,500 people lived and worked in the village and when Robert Owen came to the village in 1800, he attracted world attention, by the gradual introduction of his Utopian social experiment.

Besides being a talented businessman, David Dale was deeply religious, a founder member of the “Old Scotch Independents”.

His beliefs inspired him to make excellent provision, for the many orphan apprentices, who worked in the mills - wholesome meals, clothing and decent accommodation.

He employed teachers who taught the 3 “R’”, sewing and church music.

When the first mill was destroyed by fire in 1788, his generosity extended to paying his workers, until production could be resumed in a new mill.

In 1799, his daughter Caroline married Robert Owen, who was to carry on Dale’ work in New Lanark.

David Dale, age 40, set-up house in Charlotte Street in the Calton, when he was a successful importer of linen yarns which he gave out for weaving to the large number of Hand-Loom Weavers, through-out the West of Scotland, and who worked from home.

He left Charlotte Street in 1800 to live at Rosebank in Cambuslang, where his unmarried daughters continued to live after his death in 1806.

David Dale was buried in Ramshorn Churchyard, Ingram Street. The David Dale College at 161 Broad Street, and also Dale Street, Bridgeton are named after him.


Robert Owen [1771-1858] was born in Newtown, Montgomeryshire, Wales. The Welsh manufacturer turned reformer, was one of the most influential utopian Socialists of the early 19th century.

Owen attended local schools until the age of 10, when he became an apprentice to a clothier. He did so well in business that by the time he was 19 he had become Superintendent of a large cotton mill in Manchester, which he soon had made one of the foremost establishments of its kind, in Great Britain.

Owen made use of the first American sea island cotton [a fine, long-staple fibre] ever imported into the country and made improvements in the quality of the cotton spun.

On becoming manager and a partner in the Manchester firm, Owen induced his partners to purchase the New Lanark mills in Lanarkshire. It was at New Lanark that Owen developed an international reputation. He applied his ideas for the development of a harmonious society to the village.

His success was founded on his managerial ability in the mills, for it was their cotton production that provided the finance for his schemes.

It was for his ideas outside the mills, that he was best known. The most famous buildings of the village were built by Owen: Nursery Buildings, the Store, the Counting House, the Institute and the School for Children.

Together these created a social environment in which Owen believed Man’ character could be improved.

The success of the venture at New Lanark became a place of pilgrimage for social reformers, statesmen, and royal personages. According to the unanimous testimony of all who visited it, the results achieved by Owen were singularly good. Children brought up on his system were generally felt to be graceful, genial, and unconstrained; health, plenty, and relative contentment prevailed.

In the late 1820’ Owen became less involved with the village, as he tried to apply his ideas in America.

His later schemes were less successful than New Lanark, and he became better known for his trade union and labour activities.

In 1825 he bought 30,000 acres of land in Indiana and renamed it New Harmony. For a time, life in the new community was well ordered and contented, under Owen’ practical guidance, but differences about the form of government and the role of religion soon appeared, and numerous attempts at reconstruction failed to compose them.

The other chief Owenite community experiments were in Great Britain - at Queenwood, Hampshire, at Orbiston, near Glasgow, Lanarkshire and at Ralahine, County Cork.

The 1882 Scottish Gazetteer advises: “ORBISTON:- estate in southern vicinity of Bellshill,Lanarkshire. It contained the quondam Owenite establishment of New Orbiston, popularly called Babylon. The Owenite establishment cost about 48,000 pounds sterling, and went to utter ruin”.

His son, Robert Dale Owen, was born in Glasgow in 1801 and continued to promote his father’ socialist philosophy in America.

He served three terms in the Indiana legislature and two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he introduced the bill creating the Smithsonian Institution.

The Smithsonian Institution is an American research institution founded by the bequest of the English scientist James Smithson [1765 - 1829].

Robert Dale Owen was appointed charge d’affaires at Naples in 1853 and minister to Italy in 1855.

His father, Robert Owen, died in 1858, in Newtown, Wales, his birthplace. He had spent his life and fortune in efforts to benefit humanity, and his ideas remain strongly influential to this day.

Compliments of John Duncan, Melbourne, Australia.


My little story “The New Lanark Social Experiment” interested quite a few Listers and those who knew the village made these comments:-

1. From Jean Spendlove.

“I was born at 4 New Buildings, just to the left of the bell that summoned the workers to the mill in the morning.

My grandfather (G B Greenshields) ran the bus service that brought the workers from the surrounding towns and villages.

We used to stand outside the gates of the mill and wait for our mothers and aunties coming out.

By the time I was born (1944) the flats consisted of three rooms, a kitchen, bedroom and “best” room. The range was still there and so too was the hole in the wall bed. Inside toilets had been installed but they were on the landings between two flats. We had a pee pail behind the scullery door in case anyone wanted to go, in the night.

At that time also, electricity was free from the mills but came and went, at certain times of the day, and was always switched off at night, unless someone was dying. Then it stayed on.

We used calor gas and oil lights, when no electricity was available. The one fire in the house was carried through to the best room, when we were expecting visitors.

Also I went to the village school, which by this time was located further up the hill towards Lanark. I remember the Co-op and putting your book in the box and sitting waiting your turn.
Also the village Post Office, at that time run by Ella McPherson and her family.”

2. From Peter MacAuslan in Melbourne, Australia.

“I was born in the Burgh of Lanark in 1925, and knew New Lanark well. You are probably aware that it is now an historical site and has very sophisticated now available.

In my time in the 1930’ , the Gourock Ropework Company was operating there, and made canvas, ropes, and tents. The Company had a Stanley Steamer wagon which made daily trips up to Lanark’ goods yards - a long pull from the Works.

I did a Boy’ Brigade route march and church parade there once - a long time ago.”

3. From Helen Jennings in Nelson, New Zealand.

“My husband and I stayed at the hotel in New Lanark las year, where the Cotton Mills were located.

We toured the whole complex and saw how the Mills were operated and some of the small houses and shops - just like they were back in earlier years. The Complex won a Millenium prize for the restoration, and if anyone goes to Scotland, it is well worth a visit.”

The above feedback comments, to ‘New Lanark Social Experiment,’ were forwarded to Jezzmo, by John Duncan, Melbourne, Australia.

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