Case Study: New Lanark: a nexus of industry, Improvement, Enlightenment and Capitalism

Owen’s improved settlement nevertheless retained class divides, and in fact used the principles of surveillance of the workers to enforce their desired patterns of behaviour. Owen’s own house was centrally positioned with a view not only of the mills but also of the residential streets and the institutional buildings, and controlling the main routes of communication between places of residence, work and leisure in the village, ©RCAHMS.

The mills and the neighbouring settlement of New Lanark on the Clyde have been designated as a World Heritage site.  The mills were set up in 1786 by David Dale using the kind of technology pioneered by Richard Arkwright in Derbyshire.  Under Dale’s management, New Lanark came to be regarded as a progressive industrial enterprise and Dale was seen as a progressive employer who provided ‘improved’ homes for his workforce, many of whom were displaced Highlanders.  However, it was under the direction of Dale’s son-in-law and successor, Robert Owen, that New Lanark gained its fame.  When Owen took over the mill in the early nineteenth century he took a particular interest in the workforce, improving their living quarters further and founding a school for the community’s children (the first infant school in Britain) and an Institute for the Formation of Character for the whole workforce.  A utopian and radically progressive thinker, Robert Owen attracted the attention of improvers around and beyond Britain for his work at New Lanark.

New Lanark exemplifies several of the important technical and social Improvement processes of the period.   First, it is an example of the technological innovation of the industrial revolution, producing a classical elongated settlement shape conforming to the line of the river (Palmer and Neaverson 1998).  Using the technological know-how emanating from the Enlightenment, the mills harnessed the power of the Clyde to drive complex production processes on a factory scale.  Next, and famously, New Lanark demonstrates the extent to which Improvement was a cross-cutting ethic in this period: with the Improvement of industrial production went Improvement of the homes of the new working classes and the Improvement of the people themselves through schooling and the Institute for the Formation of Character.  The name of the latter, built in 1816, is interesting as it evidences Owen’s ‘environmentalism’ – the belief that character was not determined by divine creation nor inherent in race or class but a product of the environment in which people were formed.  This had important implications for eighteenth and nineteenth-century planning and reform: if people were malleable and could be formed by their surroundings, then changing those surroundings could ultimately produce an ‘improved’ people.

New Lanark was an exercise in new technological expertise and a social experiment, and it also exemplifies the emergence to prominence of capitalist relations in the modern world.  New Lanark participated in and contributed to the development of global capitalism: the cotton textiles produced by the mills were shipped around the world and the cotton used in the mills was grown in the slave plantations of the New World.  For all his progressive proto-socialism, Owen was deeply implicated in the worst inequalities and exploitations of capitalism.  In fact, his social programme was inextricably linked to his concerns as an employer in a capitalist enterprise: Owen wanted his workers to be happy, but by happy he meant docile, and docile workers are compliant and productive.  The material form of New Lanark and its mill buildings betrays the extent to which the workers were subject to new forms and degrees of supervision and control.  Robert Owen’s house sits centrally, standing between the workers’ housing and the mill buildings and well-placed for the observation of movement to-and-fro within the site.  In the mill buildings, large open-plan spaces were not just suited to the new, large forms of machinery used to work the cotton; they were also suited to the easy observation of the mill’s workers.

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