Robert Owen at New Lanark: A Chapter of Autobiography

I AM very desirous to estimate at its just value, and no more, the character of that remarkable man, my father.

Perhaps no one has been more favorably situated than I to judge him fairly and dispassionately. His child, but not (except during my youth) a believer in his specific plans for regenerating the world, — or, to use his own favorite phrase, his “ disciple,” — the partiality of a son is so far corrected by the scruples of a dissenter, that I hope to avoid alike the weakness of eulogy and the error of extenuation.

Robert Owen’s ruling passion was the love of his kind, individually and collectively. An old friend of his said to me, jestingly, one day, when I had reached manhood, “ If your good father had seven thousand children, instead of seven, I am sure he would love them devotedly.” But the inference thence to be drawn is unfounded. If we were only seven, he was, to every one of us, a most affectionate, even indulgent, parent. His organ of adhesiveness could not have been less than that of benevolence ; while the organs of hope and self-esteem were equally predominant. I think that these four sentiments, together with very large order and firmness, chiefly governed his life and shaped his destiny.

My father enabled his children to obtain many weapons which he himself never possessed. He had none of the advantages of regulated study. He did, indeed, between the ages of eight and ten, devour a good many volumes ; among them he himself enumerates Robinson Crusoe, Quarles (including no doubt his Emblems and his History of Samson), Pilgrim’s Progress, Paradise Lost, Richardson’s novels, Harvey’s Meditations, Young’s Night Thoughts, and many other religious books, chiefly Methodist; but these works, justly famed as some of them are, must have made a strange jumble in an infant mind, left to digest their contents unguided even by a suggestion, and, as he tells us, “believing every word of them to be true.”

When I first remember him, he read a good deal; but it was chiefly one or two London dailies, with other periodicals as they came out. He was not, in any true sense of the word, a student. One who made his own way in life, unaided by a single dollar, from the age of ten could not well be. I never found, in his extensive library, a book with a marginal note, or even a pencil-mark of his, on a single page. He usually glanced over books, without mastering them ; often dismissing them with some such curt remark as that “ the radical errors shared by all men made books of comparatively little value.” Except statistical works, of which his favorite was Colquhoun’s Resources of the British Empire, I never remember to have seen him occupied in taking notes from any book whatever.

In this way he worked out his problems for human improvement to great disadvantage, missing a thousand things that great minds had thought and said before his time, and often mistaking ideas, that were truly his own, for novelties that no human being had heretofore given to the world.

Thus it happened that, while bringing prominently forward principles of vast practical importance that had been too much neglected both by governments and individuals, he forfeited, in a measure, the confidence of cultivated men by evident lack of familiarity with precedent authorities on the same subjects, and from inability to assign to a few favorite axioms their fitting place and just relative importance in a system of reformatory philosophy.

But to counterbalance these disadvantages he had eminent mental qualities that worked for him, with telling effect, whenever he came into contact with the masses, either as employer, in the early days of which I am now writing, or, later in life, as a public teacher. The earnestness of his convictions— all the stronger for imagining old ideas to be original — amounted to enthusiasm. I do not think that Napoleon was more untiring in his perseverance, or that Swedenborg had a more implicit confidence in himself; and to this was joined a temperament so sanguine that he was unable, — no matter what rebuffs he met with, — unable, even as an octogenarian, to conceive the possibility of ultimate failure in his plans. During the afternoon immediately preceding his death he was arranging, with the rector of the parish, for a series of public meetings (at which he promised to speak), looking to an organization that should secure to every child, in and near his native town, the best education which modern lights and knowledge could supply.

But I am speaking now of a period more than half a century past, when he was in the vigor of early manhood. At that time his two leading ideas of reform were temperance and popular instruction.

In those days Scotland would have been a rich field for Father Mathew’s labors. Habits of drunkenness were common alike to rich and poor. They were associated with good-fellowship, and were tenderly dealt with, even by the Church. The orgies of Osbaldistone Hall, graphically described in Rob Roy, found their counterpart in many a Scottish manor. The old bacchanalian rhyme,

“ He who goes to bed, goes to bed sober,
Falls as the leaves do, and dies in October ;
But he that goes to bed, goes to bed mellow,
Lives a long, jolly life, and dies an honest fellow,”

was quoted, half in earnest, as apology for the excesses which wealthy and respectable hosts, under the guise of hospitality, literally forced upon their guests, when the cloth was drawn and the ladies had abandoned the dinnertable to their riotous lords and masters.

I have heard my father, more than once, relate what happened on such an occasion, when he was one of the actors. He had been dining, with a party of eight or ten gentlemen and a few ladies, at the luxurious country-seat of a friend who had shown him much kindness. When the ladies withdrew, the host, having caused the butler to set out on the table two dozen bottles of port, sherry, and claret, locked the door, put the key in his pocket, and said to his guests, “ Gentlemen, no shirking to-night ! Not a man leaves this room till these bottles are emptied.”

No remark was made in reply, and the wine passed round. My father drank three glasses, — the utmost limit to which I have ever known him to go, though he habitually took a glass or two of sherry after dinner. At the fourth round he passed the bottles without filling. His host remonstrated, at first in jest, then in a half-angry tone, when the recusant persisted. Thereupon my father, approaching a front window which opened on the lawn, only a few feet below it, threw up the sash and leaped out, followed by three or four other guests.

This enraged their host. As the fugitives looked back they saw him upset the dinner-table with a violent kick, smashing bottles and glasses, and declaring, with an oath, that, if they did n’t choose to drink that wine, nobody else should.

The deserters joined the ladies in the drawing-room, but the host did not reappear ; and my father, as leading conspirator, lost, and never regained, his friendship.

Under my grandfather’s mild and easy rule the vice which embittered poor Burns’s life, and which blemishes some of his inimitable verses, had been very imperfectly checked. No grogshops, indeed, were permitted in the village, but liquor was obtained in the old town. Robert Owen, acting on his belief in the efficacy of circumstances, soon wrought a radical change. He had village watchmen, who patrolled the streets at night, and who were instructed to take down the name of every man found drunk. The inebriate was fined so much for the first offence, a larger sum for the second, the fines being deducted from his wages ; and the third offence resulted in dismissal, sometimes postponed if he showed sincere repentance. Then the people were so justly and kindly treated, their wages were so liberal, and their hours of labor so much shorter than the average factory-hours throughout Great Britain, that dismissal was felt to be a misfortune not to be lightly incurred.

The degree to which, after eight or ten years of such discipline, intemperance was weeded out in New Lanark may be judged by the following incident.

I was in the habit of going to “ The Mills,” as we called them, almost daily. One day, in my twelfth year, when I had accompanied my father on his usual morning visit, and we had reached a sidewalk which conducted from our porter’s lodge to the main street of the village, I observed, at a little distance on the path before us, a man who stopped, at intervals, in his walk, and staggered from side to side.

“Papa,” said I, “look at that man. He must have been taken suddenly ill.”

“ What do you suppose is the matter with him, Robert ? ”

“ I don't know. I never saw any man act so. Is he subject to fits ? Do you know him, papa?”

“ Yes, my dear, I know him. He is not subject to fits, but he is a very unfortunate man.”

“ What kind of illness has he ? ”

My father stopped, looked first at the man before us, and then at me. “ Thank God, my son,” he said, at last, “ that you have never before seen a drunken man.”

Robert Owen’s predominant love of order brought about another important reform. Mrs. Grant (of Laggan), for twenty years a Scottish clergyman’s wife, has well described, in her Cottagers of Glenburnie, the careless untidiness and slatternly habits which, at the commencement of the present century, characterized the peasantry of Scotland. “ I canna’ be fashed,” was the usual reply, if any one suggested that cleanliness, among the virtues, should rank next to godliness.

A writer, whose parents settled as workers in the New Lanark mills as early as 1803, states that, in those days, each family had but a single apartment, the houses being of one story only ; and that before each door it was not unusual to find a dunghill. He tells us, also, that one of Robert Owen’s first reforms was to add an additional story to every house, giving two rooms to most of the families ; and that the dunghills were carried off to an adjoining farm, and a renewal of the nuisance was imperatively forbidden.1

As I recollect the village, its streets, daily swept at the expense of the company, were kept scrupulously clean ; and its tidy appearance in every respect was the admiration of strangers.

A reform of a more delicate character, upon which my father ventured, met serious opposition. After each family became possessed of adequate accommodations, most of them still maintained, in their interior, disorder and uncleanliness. My father’s earnest recommendations on the subject passed unheeded. He then called the work-people together, and gave several lectures upon order and cleanliness as among the Christian virtues. His audience heard, applauded, and went home content “ to do as weel as their forbears, and no to heed English clavers.”

Thereupon my father went a step further. He called a general meeting of the villagers ; and, at his suggestion, a committee from among themselves was appointed, whose duty it was to visit each family weekly, and report in writing upon the condition of the house. This, according to the statement of the author last quoted, while grumblingly acquiesced in by the men, was received “with a storm of rage and opposition by the women.”2 They had paid their rent, and did no harm to the house ; and it was nobody’s business but their own whether it was clean or dirty. If they had read Romeo and Juliet, which is not likely, I daresay they would have greeted the intruders as the Nurse did her prying master, —

“ Go, you cot-quean, go ;
Get you to bed ! ”

As it was, while a few, fresh from mop and scrubbing-brush, received the committee civilly, a large majority either locked their doors or met the inquisitors with abuse, calling them “ bug-hunters” and other equally flattering names.

My father took it quietly; showed no anger toward the dissenters; encouraged the committee to persevere, but instructed them to ask admittance as a favor only ; and allowed the small minority, who had welcomed these domiciliary visits, to have a few plants each from his greenhouse. This gratuity worked wonders ; conciliation of manner gradually overcame the first jealousy of intrusion ; and a few friendlyvisits by my mother, quietly paid to those who were especially tidy in their households, still further quelled the opposition. Gradually the weekly reports of the committee became more full and more favorable.

Within the mills everything was punctiliously kept. Whenever I visited them with my father, I observed that he picked up the smallest flocks of cotton from the floor, handing them to some child near by, to be put in his waste-bag.

“ Papa,” said I one day, “ what does it signify, — such a little speck of cotton ? ”

“ The value of the cotton,” he replied, “ is nothing, but the example is much. It is very important that these people should acquire strict habits of order and economy.”

In working out these and other reforms, my father, a scrupulous respecter of the rights of conscience and of entire freedom of opinion, never exercised, except in the case of habitual drunkards, the power of dismissal which his office as sole manager placed in his hands. The writer already quoted, who spent his youth and early manhood at New Lanark, bears testimony to this. “ I never knew,” he says, “ of a single instance in which Mr. Owen dismissed a worker for having manfully and conscientiously objected to his measures.”3

Even when necessary rules were violated, he was quick to soften and ready to forgive. The same writer tells us that, during his childhood, he and another boy had slyly entered Braxfield woods to cut shinties (hockies, I believe, we generally call them) needed for a favorite sport. They proceeded in fear and trembling. “If Mr. Owen sees us, won’t we catch it! ” said the one to the other, as they found two prime ash-rods, with the requisite crook, and proceeded to use their knives upon them. Scarcely were the words pronounced and the trespassers busy at work, when Mr. Owen’s hand was laid on one of their shoulders. They knew they were recognized, hung their heads, dropped their knives, and remained silent and self-convicted. My father stood looking at them for some time, sorry, I daresay, that he had come upon them. Then he said, “ Perhaps you don’t know that what you are doing is wrong. It is wrong ; and if your parents never told you so, they neglected their duty. Take the shinties you have cut for this time ; but, if you should want more some other day, don’t steal them : thieves never come to any good. Come to me, and I will give you permission ; then you can take them without doing any wrong.”

The culprits slunk away; and one of them says that when he went, seventeen years afterward, to hear Robert Owen lecture at “ Bywater’s Room,” this act of clemency came back to his mind at the first sight of the benignant face, as freshly as the day it happened.4

This same boy, when past middle age, relates another reminiscence of his youth. At the age of seventeen he obtained a situation as teacher in the New Lanark schools, contracting to remain a year and a half. But after six months, prompted by an ambition not uncommon among the poorer classes in Scotland, he took a fancy to go to college. Ashamed, however, thus to break faith with his employer, he gave him no hint of his intention, and left abruptly, without even taking leave of him. When the college session closed, his funds being probably exhausted, he returned to New Lanark; and there one day, almost as unexpectedly as in the Braxfield woods, he met Robert Owen. He wished himself, he tells us, “a hundred miles off.” But, to his surprise and joy, his former employer came up to him at once, took him kindly by the hand, and, without alluding at all to the violated contract, asked him how he liked college life in Glasgow; adding an inquiry as to what he intended to do during the summer, and telling him he could have his former place again, if he wished it. “This,” adds the narrator, who was a member of the Scottish Kirk, “ this was genuine, practical Christianity.” 5

The New Lanark schools, and the cause of popular education generally, were the subjects which, at this period of my father’s life, chiefly engrossed his attention. His first appearance as a speaker was as president at a public dinner, given in the city of Glasgow in 1812, to Joseph Lancaster, the wellknown educational reformer. In the character of this gentleman, a Quaker, there was a strange mixture of honest, self-sacrificing zeal, and imprudent, selfindulgent ostentation. As early as 1789 he labored stoutly among the poor of Southwark, teaching a school of three hundred outcast children for years almost gratuitously. When his system finally attracted attention, and subscriptions poured in upon him, prosperity called forth weaknesses, and he squandered the money given for better purposes. I recollect that he drove up one afternoon, on invitation of my father, to Braxfield House, with four horses to his post-chaise,6 — a luxury in which I never knew my father to indulge.

When, somewhat later, my father gave five thousand dollars to aid in the general introduction of the Lancastrian system of instruction, I remember that my mother, adverting to the four horses, demurred to the wisdom of so munificent a subscription. And I think that, in view of Lancaster’s prodigality, she was in the right.

This Lancastrian system — one of mutual instruction, with monitors, selected from the pupils, as sub-teachers — was equally economical and superficial. It had its good points, however, and could be maintained where the funds were insufficient for anything better. My father, enthusiastic at first in its favor, gradually changed it for something more thorough and effective.

In the speech which Robert Owen made at the Lancaster dinner, the views which he afterwards elaborated touching the formation of character first peeped out. “ General differences,” he said, “ bodily and mental, between inhabitants of various regions, are not inherent in our nature, nor do they arise from the respective soils on which we are born ; they are wholly and solely the effect of education.” While it is difficult to exaggerate the importance of education, in the extended sense of the term, this proposition is clearly extravagant, ignoring, as it does, the influences, often dominant, of race, climate, soil, whether fertile or barren, and hereditary qualities transmitted through successive generations. But the speech was applauded to the echo, and called forth from a certain Kirkman Finlay — then the great man of Glasgow — a laudatory letter.

“ This induced me,” says my father in his Autobiography, “ to write my four Essays on the Formation of Character.” Of these hereafter.

As early as 1809 my father had laid the foundations of a large building, afterwards called “ The New Institution,” designed to accommodate all the children of the village. But the estimated cost, upwards of twenty thousand dollars, alarmed his partners, who finally vetoed the enterprise. Thereupon my father offered to give or take for the establishment four hundred and twenty thousand dollars, and at that rate they agreed to sell out to him.

A new partnership was formed, the two principal partners being sons-inlaw of a Mr. Campbell, usually called Campbell of Jura, being the proprietor of a small island of that name, one of the Hebrides. Others eagerly joined when it was shown, from the books of the late partnership, that the net annual profits, on the average of the ten years it lasted, were fifteen per cent.

This second partnership continued three years only. Campbell of Jura, a relative of my mother, had intrusted to my father, for safe-keeping on interest, a hundred thousand dollars. This he did unknown to his sons-in-law, for family reasons. Finally it came to their ears, and greatly exasperated them. Either from jealousy or desire for large profits, they objected to the new school - building, and carried a partnership vote against it; taking the ground that they were cotton-spinners, doing business for profit, and had nothing to do with educating children: other manufacturers never troubled themselves about such matters. They took exception, also, to the salaries and wages paid, as being too high.

By this time, my father says, he was “ completely tired of partners who cared for nothing but to buy cheap and sell dear.” So he sought others, this time among philanthropists. Jeremy Bentham, the utilitarian philosopher, was one ; William Allen of London, a noted Quaker, was another ; Michael Gibbs, afterwards Lord Mayor of London, a third. There were three others, equally benevolent, but not noted names. Of these three one was a gentleman of leisure, who had never before been in business. I afterwards became well acquainted with him and his amiable family. My father, who highly esteemed him, and ultimately won his entire confidence, told me one day certain particulars of his life, — a remarkable story that I never forgot. I think its lesson influenced, more or less, my whole life.

A man of letters, educated to every classical attainment, and the inheritor of a princely fortune, this gentleman had been able to gratify, at a wish, his cultivated tastes. His marriage was fortunate, and his children grew up around him with the fairest promise. He had a handsome town house in a fashionable square in London, and a country-seat six or eight miles off in the midst of one of those magnificent English parks, — the ideal of stately rural elegance, — with its trimly kept lawn and its wide-spreading chase, dotted over with clumps of noble old trees, where the deer sought refuge from the noonday heat, and a lair at nightfall.

Its owner had travelled over Europe and brought back, as mementos of his journey, paintings and statuary by some of the best masters, ancient and modern, with which to adorn his favorite retreat. The house itself, in which I spent some happy days, with its rich marble columns and balustrades, was a fine specimen of the purest Palladian manner, where all that luxurious refinement could devise had been unsparingly lavished.

There my father — during a brief interval in his own public life of incessant bustle — found his friend, with no occupation more pressing than to pore over the treasures of his library, and no graver care than to superintend the riches of a conservatory where wealth had brought together, from half the world, its choicest plants and flowers. They spent some days of undisturbed quiet : not an incident beyond the conversation of a sedate and intellectual family circle and the arrival and departure of a friend or two to break the complete repose.

Delightful my father thought it, in contrast with the busy turmoil he had left; and one day he said to his host, “ I’ve been thinking that if I ever met a man who has nothing to desire, you must be he. You have health, cultivation, a charming family. You have gathered round you every comfort wealth can give, the choicest of all that nature and art can supply. Are you not completely happy ? ”

Never, my father said to me, would he forget the sad, unexpected reply: “ Happy ! Ah, Mr. Owen, I committed one fatal error in my youth, and dearly have I paid for it ! I started in life without an object, almost without an ambition. My temperament disposed me to ease, and I indulged it. I said to myself, ‘ I have all that I see others contending for ; why should I struggle ? ’ I knew not the curse that lights on those who have never to struggle for anything. I ought to have created for myself some definite pursuit, literary, scientific, artistic, political, no matter what, so there was something to labor for and to overcome. Then I might have been happy.”

My father suggested that he was scarcely past the prime of life, and that in a hundred ways he might still benefit others, while occupying himself. “ Come and spend a month or two with me at Braxfield,” he added. “You have a larger share in the Lanark mills than any of my partners. See for yourself what has been done for the workpeople there and for their children; and give me the beneft of your suggestions and your aid.”

“It is too late,” was the reply. “ The power is gone. Habits are become chains. You can work and do good ; but for me, — in all the profitless years gone by I seek vainly for something to remember with pride, or even to dwell on with satisfaction. I have thrown away a life. I feel, sometimes, as if there were nothing remaining to me worth living for.”

And neither then, nor at any future time, did this strange martyr to leisure visit the establishment in which he had invested a hundred and fifty thousand dollars.

But in this I anticipate. It was in the year 1813 that my father, then in London and engaged in publishing the first two of his Essays on the Formation of Character, made the acquaintance of his new partners ; and he submitted to them these Essays as embodying the principles on which he proposed to manage the New Lanark establishment. They were briefly : —

1. Man does not form his own character : it is formed for him by the circumstances that surround him.

2. Man is not a fit subject of praise or blame.

3. Any general character, good or bad, may be given to the world, by applying means which are, to a great extent, under the control of human governments.

Important propositions, doubtless, with great underlying truths ; but not, as the author claimed in his title, A New View of Society.

Paul had already said : “ What hast thou that thou didst not receive ? Now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory as if thou hadst not received it ? ”

Both Calvin and Luther had gone further, denying to man free-will.

Hobbes, about the year 1654, had said : “ Liberty and necessity are consistent..... God, that seeth and disposeth all things, seeth also that the liberty of man, in doing what he will, is accompanied with the necessity of doing that which God will, and no more nor less.” 7

Priestley, more than a hundred years later, had written : “ There is some fixed law of nature respecting the will, .... which is never determined without some motive of choice.” 8

And this last writer, at least, seems to have estimated as highly as Robert Owen the doctrine of which he is a chief advocate ; for he says : “ I the less wonder at the general hesitation to admit the doctrine of necessity in its full extent, when I consider that there is not, I believe, in the whole compass of human speculation, an instance in which the indisputable consequences of any simple proposition are so numerous and important ” ; and as to these consequences he adds:

“ Great and glorious as they are, it requires so much strength of mind to comprehend them that (I wish to say it with the least offence possible) I cannot help considering the doctrine as that which will always distinguish the real moral philosopher from the rest of the world.”!9

But here the difference in the minds of Joseph Priestley and Robert Owen shows itself; for Priestley sagaciously adds : “ Like all other great and practical truths, even those of Christianity itself, its actual influence will not always be so great as, from theory, it might be expected to be”; while Owen, advocating a phase of the same principle, declares : “No human power can now impede its rapid progress. Silence will not retard its course, and opposition will give increased celerity to its movements. The commencement of the work will, in fact, insure its accomplishment. Henceforth all the irritating angry passions, arising from ignorance of the true cause of bodily and mental character, will gradually subside, and be replaced by the most frank and conciliating confidence and good-will.”

My father, after his own fashion, was a believer in the speedy advent of the millennium. It has always seemed to me a strange thing that a man who had so much practical knowledge of the world should have made the mistake of imagining that when one has set before human beings the means of being wise and happy, one has insured the certain and speedy adoption of these means, by the individual and by the government. If that were so there would be no drunkards ; for the veriest sot will not, in his lucid intervals, deny the blessings of temperance. My father, carried away by zeal and hope to benefit his race, failed to note the cogent fact that our civilization of today has not reached that point of progress when present self-indulgence shall no longer rule the majority of mankind.

Then his propositions lost part of their force because they were too sweeping and insufficiently guarded; for example, when he asserted that praise, even of the best man, is irrational. Eulogy, laudation, — self-laudation especially, — is irrational; but if we are just, we approve, we commend the conduct of the good; if we are warm-hearted, we like, we love them for their goodness. In strictness it maybe that they cannot help doing good actions. Then, it not for the actions, at least for the disposition of mind which impels to them, they are entitled to commendation, they are worthy of love. So of the wicked. We cannot help disapproving a propensity to vicious indulgence ; we cannot help disliking him who indulges such a propensity. The true point is, that we ought not to hate him ; and that all punishments should be reformatory, not vindictive. We know the evil deed ; we can never, as Burns reminds us, know the temptations resisted, that may have preceded it.

So of the third proposition, looking to governments as the chief agents of human regeneration. Goldsmith had said; —

“ How small, of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure ! ”

He and Robert Owen ran equally into extremes. But Robert Owen had this apology, that he regarded it as the legitimate province of government to provide for and educate all the children of the land. In New Lanark, however, he merely proposed to give a good common-school education to all the children of his work-people ; and to this end he obtained the assent of his proposed partners.

He showed them that the net profits of the concern, for the last four years, had exceeded fifty per cent on the capital invested (eighty-four thousand pounds); but he did not conceal from them that the reforms he had in view would materially diminish these.

His old partners refused to let him fix a sum which he would give or take for the property, insisted on putting it up at auction, and set to work to decry its value ; busily spreading the report that the mills, under the management of a visionary like Owen, were not worth more than forty thousand pounds. But my father, meanwhile, quietly obtained permission from his philanthropic associates to bid three times that amount, if necessary.

The day of sale was one of great excitement in Glasgow ; and the large hall in which it took place was crowded to the doors. The bidding was protracted ; the former partners, who bid in person, retiring several times for consultation, while my father’s solicitor, who had his instructions once for all, bid up, to the utter astonishment of his opponents and the public, to a hundred and fourteen thousand one hundred pounds ; at which sum the property was knocked down to him.10

The defeated party, anticipating success as a certainty, had incautiously invited their friends and well-wishers, in advance, to a public congratulatory dinner. Crestfallen as they were, they had to play the hosts ; and their mortification reached its climax, when a certain Colonel Hunter, a leading newspaper editor and a wag, rose to propose the health of the favorites of fortune who had just sold for a hundred and fourteen thousand pounds a property which they valued at forty. “ A bumper, gentlemen,” he cried, “ to a victory so unexampled ! ” The Colonel had his jest against the Campbells and their friends ; but it was the last time he sat at their dinner-table.

Their disappointment was to receive an additional aggravation. William Allen, with two others of the new partners, Quakers like himself, had come on to Glasgow to await the issue of the sale, and they accompanied my father to view their purchase. The author from whose pamphlet I have already extracted gives an account of their reception.11 And my father, in his Autobiography, supplies additional particulars. 12

The Scotch, though a warm-hearted people, are not usually demonstrative. But I remember the deep anxiety our work-people showed for weeks before the sale, and the enthusiasm with which they hailed my father’s success.

The writer alluded to says : “ Never will the inhabitants of New Lanark forget the afternoon of that day on which the sale of the mills to Mr. Owen took place. A horseman had been despatched, at speed, to make known the result. It was now in vain to check the sincere and unbounded joy of the workers. The managers saw and felt it ; the people having unanimously resolved to testify their feelings by an act of public rejoicing. The mills were stopped. Bands of music played merrily through the village, and the windows were illuminated, as for some great national triumph. The next day the work-people, with hundreds from the borough town and surrounding country, met Mr. Owen and his new partners three miles from New Lanark and proceeded to ungear the horses from the carriage. It was in vain that Mr. Owen warmly remonstrated, reminding the crowd that the workingman had too long already been treated as the brute. Accompanied with bands of music and the acclamations of some thousands, the people bore their benefactor triumphantly to Braxfield ; where, to the dense and happy multitude, he delivered an impressive address.”

My father states that when his Quaker friends first saw the crowd rushing to the carriage and calling to the postilions to stop, they were seriously alarmed ; but when they heard the cheers, and saw the men relieving each other at intervals, and found the cavalcade gradually increasing, and then, the procession passing first through the old town and afterwards through the village, the people everywhere filling the windows or crowding out of their houses to witness it, and testifying by the liveliest demonstrations their gratitude and delight, the amazement of these sober disciples of George Fox, unused to such scenes, was equalled by their gratification ; and they wrote, in glowing terms, an account of their reception to the other London partners.

The management of the mills and schools pleased them much, except in one particular ; dancing had been introduced by my father, as one of the school exercises. But Barclay, in his Apology, had taught: “ Games and sports, plays, dancing, consist not with the gravity and godly fear which the Gospel calls for ” ; and William Allen, especially, held strictly to all the rules set forth in that text-book of early Quakerism, as I well remember. For one day, a year or two later, dining with him at his London residence, in Plough Court, Lombard Street, I had a lesson, not easily forgotten, teaching me how to walk in the strait way.

I was sitting next to a gentleman in whose conversation I was interested. We had roast beef for dinner ; and when I had exhausted the quantity first sent me, my host asked, “ Will thee have more roast beef? ”

“ Thank you, no more,” I replied mechanically, engrossed in something my neighbor had just said. By and by I bethought me that I was still hungry ; and, begging leave to change my mind, asked for a further supply.

“ Robert, thee has already refused,” was all the answer I got, in solemn tones of reproof. Had I not said I would take no more ? I must not be suffered to tell a lie.13 It was better to let me eke out my dinner with vegetables.

To such a man, not dancing only, but music also, was a “sinful divertisement.”14 But the more liberal sentiments of the majority of the partners overruled him in this matter ; so that, under protest of himself and one or two of his rigid friends, the reels, Highland fling, and country-dances still went on.

The villagers were almost all Presbyterians ; but (in those days at least) dancing, a favorite national amusement in Scotland from the earliest times, was not forbidden by the Kirk. My mother had strong scruples about our walking on Sunday, except to church and back again ; but she sent us to dancing-school while we lived in Glasgow ; and when at Braxfield, the village dancing-master came twice a week to give us lessons.

This artist, whose name was Dodge, had “graduated,” as he was wont to tell us, in Edinburgh ; whence he returned with exalted ideas of his profession. No Pundit skilled in Sanskrit lore, no Doctor of Divinity in the Middle Ages, could have indulged in manner more stately or diction more pompous. After a year or two’s instruction in the various Scottish dances and the cotillon, as the quadrille was then called, he announced to us his intention of going a step further: not to teach us the waltz, for that was spoken of in Scotland then as we speak of the can-can now ; nor the German, for that was an unknown term; but something very different.

He came, one day, more elaborately dressed than usual, and, after he had called us up on the floor, paused, kit in hand, before the lesson began. “ Young ladies and gentlemen,” he said at length, “ I have had the honor of teaching you, so far, a few of those simpler exercises in the polite art of dancing which no person moving in good society can possibly dispense with; and, on the whole, I am not dissatisfied with your progress. I shall now proceed to induct you into the mysteries of a higher order of motion. I propose to give you some idea of the inimitable Minuet de la Cour, and the Gavotte, which is, as it were, its appropriate peroration. I use the term, ‘give you an idea,’ advisedly ; for I can do no more than that. A man’s life is too short to learn to walk a minuet properly.”

The earnest gravity and emphasis with which he pronounced the closing axiom, and the graceful wave of his bow as he declaimed, impressed us with mingled awe and curiosity ; and I have a hundred times since recalled the incident with a smile. I am not sure but that the minuet (if it be old-fashioned) might still be taught with advantage ; not for public exhibition on the ball-room floor, as in Sir Charles Grandison’s day, but as a useful exercise tending to easy grace of motion and elegance of carriage.

In the main, my father was now free to carry out his plans of education. He gradually completed and fitted up, at a cost of between thirty and forty thousand dollars, the spacious schoolhouse, the building of which his former partners had arrested. It had five large rooms or halls, besides smaller apartments, and a bath-room on an extensive scale, sufficing for the accommodation of from four to five hundred children. No charge whatever was made ; and not only all the children of the work-people, but also children of all families living within a mile of the village, were thus gratuitously instructed.

In this institution a novel feature was introduced. Pestalozzi and Oberlin have each been spoken of as originating the infant-school system ; but my father seems to have been its true founder. I have found no proof whatever that either of them even thought of doing what he carried out. He brought together upwards of a hundred children, from one to six years of age, under two guardians, James Buchanan and Mary Young. No attempt was made to teach them reading or writing, not even their letters ; nor had they any set lessons at all. Much of their time was spent in a spacious playground. They were trained to habits of order and cleanliness ; they were taught to abstain from quarrels, to be kind to each other. They were amused with childish games and with stories suited to their capacity. Two large, airy rooms were set apart, one for those under four years and one for those from four to six. This last room was furnished with paintings, chiefly of animals, and a few maps. It was also supplied with natural objects from the gardens, fields, and woods. These suggested themes for conversation, or brief, familiar lectures ; but there was nothing formal, no tasks to be learned, no readings from books. “ When the best means of instruction are known and adopted,” says my father in his Autobiography, “ I doubt whether books will be used until children attain their tenth year.” But this he could not carry out at New Lanark, as the children were admitted to the mills and were usually sent thither by their parents at twelve years of age.

No corporal punishment nor threat nor violent language was permitted on the part of the teachers. They were required to treat the children with the same kindness which they exacted from them toward each other.

Some years later an attempt was made by a London association, headed by the Marquis of Lansdowne and Lord Brougham, to introduce infant schools into the British metropolis. They obtained a teacher from New Lanark. But they undertook to do too much, and so failed in their object. They had lessons, tasks, study. Not satisfied with moral training and instructive amusement, as at New Lanark, they sought prematurely to develop the intellectual powers. The tender brain of the infant was over-excited ; more harm than good was done ; and the system fell, in a measure, into disrepute, until Froebel, in his Kindergartens, brought things back to a more rational way.

I visited our village infant school almost daily for years ; and I have never, either before or since, seen such a collection of bright, clean, good-tempered, happy little faces.

Robert Dale Owen.

“My sister and my sister’s child,
Myself and children three,
Will fill the chaise ; so you must ride
On horseback, after we.”
  1. Robert Owen at New Lanark, with a Variety of Interesting Anecdotes. By a former Teacher at New Lanark, p. 4. Manchester and London, 1839.
  2. Work quoted, p. 5.
  3. Robert Owen at New Lanark, p. 5.
  4. Robert Owen at New Lanark, p. 8.
  5. Ibid., pp. 7, 8.
  6. The post-chaise of those days, partly crowded out now by the first-class railway carriages, was a strong, light vehicle, corresponding to our coupé, and seating comfortably two persons, though more could be crowded in, as in “ John Gilpin’s ” case : —
  7. It was a pleasant, even luxurious, mode of travelling ; relays of horses being obtained at intervals of about ten miles, and at a cost of thirty-five cents a mile for a single pair, the usual speed being from eight to ten miles an hour. Only the nobility and Wealthy gentry indulged in four horses. The cheery, dashing mail-coach, with its red-coated guard and many-caped coachman — a cheaper and equally speedy conveyance — is now almost a thing of the past.
  8. Leviathan, p. 108.
  9. Philosophical Necessity, Sec. I.
  10. Preface to Philosophical Necessity, p. xxi.
  11. The equivalent of five hundred and seventy thousand dollars ; but as money rates, now and then, equal to more than three quarters of a million today.
  12. Robert Owen at New Lanark, pp. 15, 16. The author says of himself: “ Brought up in the Church of Scotland, having never received a farthing from Mr. Owen but what I rendered equivalent service for, being in no way dependent upon any one connected with the ‘ Social System,’ it may be reasonably inferred that any statements made by me which tend to reflect credit on Mr. Owen could neither have been dictated by love to his principles nor published from selfish motives.”
  13. Autobiography, pp. 97, 98.
  14. The definition, here implied, of a falsehood, reminds me of a story which I have somewhere read. A Quaker, walking near London, on a road leading to that city, met a youth who asked his way, thus wording his question ; “This is not the road to London, is it ? ”
  15. “ Friend,” was the stern reply, “ I understand thee not. Thou first tellest me a lie, and then askest me a question,”
  16. “ As to their artificial music, either by organs or other instruments or voice, we have neither example nor precept for it in the New Testament.” — Barclay’s Apology, p. 442.