We stood at the top of the slope and gazed down at the grey sandstone buildings nestling in the valley along the banks of the river Clyde. We could hear the water far below rushing from the Falls of Clyde past the village and through the trees onwards to the city of Glasgow.
It was hard to believe that this was an industrial site, a spinning mill, famous not for its yarns but for the social experiment carried out here in the early 18th century at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the UK. It well deserves its accolade as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, awarded in 2001.
In Your Bucket Because…
- You glimpse working life in former times.
- You learn about Robert Owen and realise what a forward thinker he was.
- There are plenty of interactive activities for children.
- Good for: families, those interested in social history, anyone wanting a good day out.
New Lanark’s History
The site had been chosen by David Dale and Richard Arkwright, the inventor of the spinning jenny, as an ideal spot to set up a spinning mill run on water power from the river. But it was Robert Owen, who had married Dale’s daughter, who made it a unique and inspiring settlement. He had a vision as to how an industrial community should be run and he set about putting his ideas into practice at New Lanark.
He believed that the labor of men and women should be valued and respected by their employers. So he built a complete village to house them with a school for the children, shops and a meeting house for adults where dances and education classes were held. He insisted that the children went to school until they were 12, that there was a sick fund if workers were ill and that workers should be given the opportunity to better themselves through education and learning.
It took over 100 years for the rest of the employers and government to catch up with him.
Robert Owen set up the first nursery school in the world at New Lanark, so that his skilled female workers could come back to work. His ideas about education would not go amiss nowadays with its emphasis on learning through experience and the benefits of exercise and fresh air.
In 1825 he traveled to the United States and bought an entire settlement in Indiana which he named New Harmony, and, joined by his sons, attempted to replicate the success of New Lanark. But it was not to be and he returned to Scotland in 1828. However, his sons remained, one of them, Robert Dale Owen, becoming a congressman and introducing the bill to found the Smithsonian Institute.
Touring the Mill and Village at New Lanark
We made our descent to the village and entered the long building which is the spinning shed. Outside, the river Clyde rushed past and over the mill wheels, supplying non-stop power to the looms. The information sheet there told us that the damp climate of the West of Scotland is ideal for spinning as yarns break less often and that the workers spent ten hours a day in here, far less than that of other factories in Manchester and other spinning areas, while the children attended school or nursery.
The school room was a large well-lit room with a huge world globe in a corner next to a nature table with pine cones, animal bones, a bird’s nest and various plant specimens. The children were taught to dance as well and games were encouraged. We tried out a gird and cleek, a large metal hoop guided by a short metal stick but we couldn’t seem to get the knack and turned our attention to the desks, each with their slate for writing on.
At the Institution, where in Owen’s time, meetings and classes for adults were held, we joined the Annie McLeod Experience and were whisked back to the 1820s in a Disney-like audio and visual trip to the past. Although their lives were much better than many workers of the time, by our standards, it was a hard life they led.
Robert Owen, although he was a successful mill owner, did not build himself a mansion like many did. We were surprised, and pleased, to see that he lived among his workers in a solid, respectable home where he was available for those who wished to speak with him and where he entertained the many visitors who came from across the world to see New Lanark for themselves.
We climbed to the roof of the mill where a restful garden has been created and where there is a view across the entire settlement. As I looked across at the buildings, I sensed the many tales that they could tell of life long ago.
- Information about New Lanark is available in 26 languages.
- There is a steep walking path down to the village so wear comfortable shoes.
- All areas are wheelchair accessible, with wheelchairs available for use.
- Take rainwear: yes, it does rain a lot here.