Saturday, 5 September 2009

New Lanark

After some debate about the weather we drove to New Lanark last Sunday, a place Bill said he has long wanted to visit. We had also debated about what we might find there but decided that a mere tourist trap wouldn't likely be named a World Heritage Site. We were right about that.

You remember our friend G.M. Trevelyan, of English Social History? He mentions this place several times, but in order to appreciate it, I think some context is required. At the end of the 18th century we have the growing industrial revolution. Apprenticeships have disappeared and along with them the personal relationship between a journeyman and his employer. The gulf between a factory owner and a factory worker is vast. This is also just after the French Revolution (about which I must read some time) and all "combinations (I take it to mean joining together) of workmen, whether for political or for purely economic purposes, were regarded as 'seditious'." The law was supposed to apply to both masters and men but in fact masters were allow to combine as freely as they wished. Soon after the Elizabethan statute giving magistrates power to enforce a minimum wage was repealed.

It also needs to be remembered that most people didn't have a vote at that time. One source states that less than 3% of the people in England and Wales had the vote in 1780. It gives numbers rather than percentages for Scotland and I did the math: fewer than 2/10th of 1% of the population could vote then. A moderate move was made in 1832 which gave the vote to men occupying property with an annual value of £10 or more; this still excluded 6 out of 7 men from voting. I still find this staggering.

Trevelyan writes about the contrasts between village, rural life and that in the towns and cities. He says that their food, lodging, clothing and wages were possibly less bad than they had been in the farms and country cottages and they had more independence in some ways. However, the beauty of the country, the village green and the games, the feasts and sports and rural customs were gone. In the farming community man and master lived side by side and unmarried hands boarded with the farmer and ate food cooked by the farmer's wife. The farm hands were also a few at each farm. This contrasted with "The mass of unregarded humanity in the factories and mines were as yet without any social services or amusements of a modern kind to compensate for the lost amenities and traditions of country life. They were wholly uncared for by Church or State; no Lady Bountiful visited them with blankets and advice; no one but the Nonconformist minister was their friend; they had no luxury but drink, no one to talk to but one another, hardly any subject but their grievances." I don't think I can even properly imagine what housing conditions will have been like.

Enter Robert Owen, a completely remarkable Welshman with reasonably humble beginnings but quite a lot of ambition and more than a fair amount of success. By 1799 he was able to buy (with partners) the cotton mill factory at New Lanark from David Dale and marry his daughter. The mill employed about 2 - 2 1/2 thousand men, women and children. About 500 of the latter were brought in from poorhouses in Edinburgh and Glasgow. The conditions were unsanitary, the hours long, the drunkenness and crime rates high; local country people wouldn't work the hours or tolerate the environment.

Owen improved the sanitation facilities by providing bathhouses (mind a family, no matter how large, still lived in two rooms), he provided nursery facilities and sent children under 10 to school to be educated. He built the Institute for the Formation of Character, a community facility aimed at education and recreation. He took 1/60th of each person's wages and put this towards providing free medical care for workers and families. He reduced the working hours down to 10 hours a day and 6 days a week. He bought in wholesome quality food and sold it to workers at little profit; any income went back into benefitting the workforce. This represents the beginnings of the Cooperative movement, aimed not just at ending the exploitation of the consumer by the retailer, but also to teach the working classes self-government and business management.

Owen believed that a person's character was shaped by their environment and his aim was to raise the character of his workforce through improving their environment. One exhibit outlined a view of what components a community should have for its population. I was struck by how many of those ideals we all now take completely for granted. Also, I noted that one definition of wealth for that time was to live in a place that had more rooms than people.

New Lanark was internationally famous and was visited by many politicians, royalty and religious leaders. However, it remained a unique experiment in his time.


Boywilli said...

What I thought amazing was that Owens gave up in Scotland and went to Indiana where his socialist ideas were more acceptable

Anonymous said...

What a fascinating place! Must start a list of places to see - from your blogs - that I have never visited. Jane