Throughout the 1800s Britain became a busy industrial nation. People migrated in increasing numbers from the countryside to towns and cities to work in new factories and mills. Working conditions were poor and dangerous, injuries from machinery were common and workers – including children as young as six – worked long hours. Overcrowding, limited diets and polluted water led to widespread disease and early death. New Lanark, a village on the River Clyde near Glasgow, was a revolutionary industrial and housing complex, combining a cotton mill with purpose-built housing, education and social care for its workers and their families. The ideas put into practice here marked the beginning of cooperative socialism.

The cotton mill at New Lanark was built by banker and entrepreneur David Dale (1739 – 1806) and Richard Arkwright (1732 – 1792), pioneer of industrial cotton spinning. It opened in 1786. Dale was convinced that a healthy, well-educated workforce would not only lead to greater productivity but was a moral obligation. The mill complex included purpose-built tenements providing clean, quality housing for the workers and their families. Although the working day was long (6am – 7pm) David Dale made sure the workforce was given plenty of healthy food, including as much porridge as they could eat! He introduced education for his child workers, employing 16 teachers in his newly established school.  Among the workforce were destitute children from local workhouses who were given food, clean clothes and comfortable accommodation in return for work.

He reduced the working day to 10½ hours, employed a doctor, operated a ‘sickness’ fund to support those in ill health and established a village store run for the benefit of the villagers.

In 1799, ownership of New Lanark passed to the Welsh manufacturer and reformer Robert Owen (1771 – 1858), whose management of the site would make it famous. Here Owen tried out what he called his ‘New Social System’, instituting a wide range of workplace, social, and educational reforms intended to support the labouring community. Owen expanded the business, made systems more streamlined and efficient, and introduced a no-nonsense policy dismissing anyone found guilty of theft or drunkenness. He reduced the working day to 10½ hours, employed a doctor, operated a ‘sickness’ fund to support those in ill health and established a village store run for the benefit of the villagers. The centrepiece of Owen’s vision was his School for Children. Robert banned children under the age of 10 from working in the mill, instead providing them with full-time education from the age of three. He also built ‘The Institute for the Formation of Character’ which served as a library and social community centre for village balls and lectures.

This revolutionary improvement in the employment conditions for working families was superior to anything available in Britain at that time, and as a consequence New Lanark is sometimes viewed as a birthplace of British socialism. The community’s success prompted similar schemes to be introduced around the country – at Quarry Bank cotton mill, near Manchester, the Cadburys’ factory near Birmingham, Port Sunlight village near Liverpool and Saltaire in Bradford. Due to its outstanding universal value to humankind, New Lanark has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Did you know..?

Robert Owen opened the first infant school in Britain at New Lanark in 1817.

Sources & acknowledgements

This object description and its related educational resources were researched and written by our team of historians and education specialists. For further information see the item’s home museum, gallery or archive, listed above. 

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This object is in the collection of New Lanark World Heritage Site