Geek's Guide

Get thee behind me, Satanic mills! Robert Owen's Scottish legacy

Inside the works of Scotland's industrial revolutionary

By Bill Ray


Geek's Guide to Britain The European Route of Industrial Heritage marks New Lanark as an anchor point in the global development of textiles and architecture, and so it is.

Nestled in the Clyde Valley the village owes its existence to the falls that were harnessed to refine raw cotton sent in from the colonies: a picture-postcard image from a time when Britain was the factory of the world.

But for all its industrial heritage New Lanark is a long way from being a typical "dark satanic" mill, as it marks the end of that time and the dawning of a better age.

Visit the village today and you can see the big machines that kept the empire running. Enormous water wheels; later supplemented by steam engines, connected by belts and ropes to machines which turned raw cotton into usable thread and fabric. However, it’s not industrial history that is celebrated at New Lanark, rather a social revolution, and one driven by one man whose ideas created the working life as we understand it today.

The man was Robert Owen, who, in 1799, bought New Lanark and immediately embarked on his "grand social experiment". His radical ideas, such as refusing to employ children, providing medical insurance, and educating the workforce, were ridiculed by his competitors who couldn't see the value in teaching children, let alone adults. But Owen believed that industry should serve the betterment of all men, not just those who owned the factories.

It worked too, rather to the surprise of his peers. New Lanark was a successful mill and profits rose steadily under the beneficent command of Owen. It could be argued, perhaps, that New Lanark would have been even more profitable without the social agenda, but every afternoon at five we should all be grateful for his reforms that made our working lives what they are:

"Eight hours daily labour is enough for any human being, and under proper arrangements sufficient to afford an ample supply of food, raiment and shelter, or the necessaries and comforts of life, and for the remainder of his time, every person is entitled to education, recreation and sleep"

Not that the workers at New Lanark did quite as well as we do; their working day ran ten and a half hours, but once mealtimes had been deducted it was approaching eight and certainly much better than the conditions in other mills around the country.

No dark satanic mills here, though the roof garden is a later addition

In restoring the village, now a World Heritage Site, the Trust has (understandably) focused on the social revolution, but for those who want them there are big machines, and working technology, to provide a flavour of what life was like.

The mill was built in 1786 and originally powered by four water wheels, themselves pushed by water collected from above the falls and channelled 300 meters in the mill lade (an open channel, also known as a headrace) which runs alongside the mills themselves. The drop is nine meters, depending on the water level, so the wheels were constructed on site and big enough to turn a building full of machinery.

The open wheels were connected by belts and ropes to drive shafts running along the ceiling of each floor within the mill. The belts are long gone (something of a health-and-safety problem, even at the time women were required to wear hats following one particularly-unpleasant incident), but their paths can easily be traced through the building and the drive shafts are still in place.

Water power was great, and the mill owes its location to the availability of free motive power, but open wheels aren’t perfect: when the river was too high the wheels would get locked, and when the river ran low the working shift had to be moved into the night time when more water was available.

Steam engines were more consistent, and the first arrived at New Lanark in 1873. The original machines were scrapped or sold, but a fine 1911 example now sits in their stead for those who prefer their mechanisms swathed in brass.

The steam engines were only used to supplement the wheels, which (after a hundred years of loyal service) were replaced with turbines. The enclosed turbines were much more efficient, and proved so effective that in 1898 spare energy was used to generate electricity with lights being fitted throughout the workers’ cottages. Lights, and power, came for free, but the switch would have to be bought: those who preferred not to pay were dependent on a central control, which would be thrown each night at lights out.

Mind your ears

The mill operated that way until the 1950s, when the inefficiencies of running belts the length of the building became impossible to ignore. Generators were fitted to the main shaft, and wires carried power to electric motors running the machinery. Within five years it was clear that more power was needed, and mains electricity arrived to supplement the generated power until 1968 when the mill finally closed its doors.

New Lanark was all but abandoned for the next decade or so, falling into disrepair and gradually stripped of anything which could be recycled or sold off, until 1974 when a conservation trust was set up to preserve the site, as a model example of British industry, but also as a tribute to Owen who did so much to change it.

These days, New Lanark is a residential village; people live here, and most of the houses are occupied by locals who undertake restoration and maintenance in exchange for (quite literally) living in a museum. Visitors have to park at the top of the hill, which provides a suitably dramatic approach on the way in, but can prove a trial at the end of a day’s wanderings.

Around the village are spread various sites of interest – the school, the mill, the cooperative shop, and Owen's house which contrasts nicely to a typical workers’ house – he may have been a socialist, but he was no communist.

Three of the four mills are still standing; one is a hotel and another houses the souvenir shop amongst other things, but one mill has been converted into a visitors’ centre and it’s here that the sound and grime of the working conditions can be most-easily visualised.

Here we also find the “Annie McLeod Experience” – a walking-speed ride that carries you though life at the mill circa 1820. Annie has recently started working on the mill floor, and with some nice lighting effects, and a particularly-impressive hologram or two, she shows what her life is like, though to get a real feeling for the mill you’ll have to go up a floor to see a machine in action. You can get a taste for the authentic experience in the video, below.

Youtube Video

There’s only one working machine, where there would have been four, but one is more than enough to show how noisy and unpleasant the works would have been at their peak. The space around the machine is filled with examples of the thread and fibres that would have been manufactured at the mill, and some film showing how cotton was picked, packed, shipped, and finally delivered on horseback from the other side of the world.

There are also some children’s games – Peever (aka hopscotch) boards are laid out, and children can have fun with hoops and skittles, not to mention the rather fine “Rise and fall of the unscrupulous master” that lets one climb the steps of career and achieve the pinnacle of success for only a moment before pitching down the perilous slide of disaster.

The symbolism might be lost on the smaller children, but the short slide can be enjoyed by all.

Scattered around the room are quotations from the good Owen, who certainly had plenty to say on the subject of unscrupulous masters, and the rights and responsibilities of the citizenry. He was only 28 when he bought the mill from the man who would (that same year) become his father in law, but he already believed that improving the life of the workforce was essential to improving society as a whole.

According to Owen: "I know that a society may be formed so as to exist without poverty, with health greatly improved, with little, if any misery, and with intelligence and happiness increased a hundredfold."

With that in mind his intention was to avoid employing children, and to provide day care from the moment they could walk (getting the mothers back into workforce as a happy side effect). At three years the children would start school, and they’d be there at least until the age of 10 with further education on offer.

Borrowed from Philiphaugh Mill, Selkirk, and looking like a steam engine should

The education wouldn’t end when school was over. In stark contrast to received wisdom of the time Owen thought adults should be educated too, but that would require another new building.

Building the school and “The New Institution for the Formation of Character” was expensive, and the partners who’d helped buy the mill were not convinced such a thing was necessary, or desirable.

Owen wasn’t someone who’d give up easily, and on 31 December, 1813 he bought out his original partners, replacing them with more liberal-minded recruits who agreed to take only five per cent return, leaving the remaining profit for education, medical care, and other community benefits.

American dream

That left money for the school, complete with playground (claimed as another world first) and The Institute, where residents could gather two evenings a week to study, listen to public lectures, and learn to dance (there was a lot of dancing).

The schoolroom has been recreated as it was, complete with huge globe and a crocodile (sadly not real, though the school did at one point have such a pet). Children are invited to dress up and see what the world’s first primary school was like, though it turns out to be quite similar (only with more dancing).

Attached to the school room is a space dedicated to those who left New Lanark to build the new world in America and elsewhere, though it would probably be more accurate to say it’s dedicated to their descendants who’ve popped back to see the old place. During the summer Scotland throngs to the sound of tourists looking for their roots, and here there are lists of names and a map on which visitors are invited mark their origins.

When you’ve got a big empire you need a really big globe

The migration to America is pertinent, as Owen himself set out for the new world in the hope of building on the experiment of New Lanark. He purchased an existing community site; America was awash with utopian experiments at the time, and renamed it New Harmony.

The idea was that a new town, in a new world free from conservative society, could better achieve a perfect society. Sadly, the intellectuals and philosophers who settled to New Harmony were ill-equipped for self-sufficiency (the site eventually becoming part of the University of Southern Indiana), and Owen returned to England in 1828.

A good deal poorer, but in no way undaunted, he set about pushing employment reform and women’s rights, becoming a leading light in the trade union movement and campaigning tirelessly against child labour. His own children stayed in America, three of his sons celebrating a triple wedding in New Harmony in 1837. Robert Dale Owen went in to become a member of the US Congress, and introduced the bill to found the Smithsonian Institution, among other things.

Owen ran New Lanark for 26 years, long enough to convince him that taking better care of workers not only improved productivity, but improved society too. He inspired thousands of people, who trekked from around the world to see the miracle of New Lanark, where employees could be treated decently and would reciprocate by working hard.

One of Owen’s many writings, from 1817, expounds on just why workers and their management should strive for common goals.

According to Owen:

“Today he labours for one master, tomorrow for a second, then for a third, and a fourth, until all ties between employers and employed are frittered down to the consideration of what immediate gain each can derive from the other."

"The employer regards the employed as mere instruments of gain, while these acquire a gross ferocity of character, which, if legislative measures shall not be judiciously devised to prevent its increase, and ameliorate the condition of this class, will sooner or later plunge the country into a formidable and perhaps inextricable state of danger.”

It’s a lot to absorb. Fortunately, you can do so over lunch at the Mill Café which offers Victorian afternoon teas, plus you can sample the Mill’s own, home-made ice-creams – so good, they’ve earned a place on Scotland’s Ice Cream Trail.

You can walk away with some more enduring goods: a range of three yarns that you can purchase for knitting plus there’s the Mill’s own range of blankets and scarfs. New Lanark is the first wool production facility in Scotland to achieve the Soil Association's organic approval, while it’s also accredited by the British Wool Marketing Board.

The water still turns two of the wheels (hat shown for scale)

Its just over an hour to New Lanark from either Glasgow of Edinburgh; should you wish to stay locally, facilities scale from small hotels and B&BS (here and here) to chains including Best Western. Touring the area, you can – of course – take in more of the River Clyde.

Visiting New Lanark today won’t let you experience the worst of the industrial revolution, but it will give you a taste of what it was like, while the village stands testament to how strong people can reject the received wisdom and make things better for everyone.

If you come away with nothing more than that then a day spent walking around the village, seeing the big machines and learning a little more about Owen, is a day well spent.


55.662591, -3.780315

Post Code

ML11 9DB; Note, code for sat nav is different: ML11 9BY

Getting there

Car: 25 miles from Glasgow, 35 miles Edinburgh. Rail: Trans from Glasgow Central or Motherwell to Lanark then local bus or taxi. Bus: Service between Buchanan Bus Station, Glasgow, and Lanark – no trains Sunday

Other resources

New Lanark

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