Robert Owen and the survival of things

Tonight, the University of Glasgow is opening its Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change. Owen was a great social reformer and utopian socialist, who had an enormous influence on radical movements in Britain and Ireland. He is popularly associated with Scotland (although not specifically with Glasgow) through New Lanark, an industrial village founded in 1786, and centred around a cotton mill, which Owen managed after marrying the owner’s daughter.

Owen had strong and clear ideas about education. The nature of his ideas is expressed in the name that he chose for the school and adult education centre at New Lanark: the Institute for the Formation of Character was formally opened on New Year’s Day 1816. Essentially, Owen thought of education as a training for citizenship: ignorance and community were, he thought, incompatible; his ‘new view of society’ depended upon a literate, sober, disciplined, physically active, hard-working and well-informed population.

For Owen, education was not only inseparable from social change but was its essential precondition. It is, then, entirely appropriate that the Welsh-born and Manchester-(adult)-educated Owen should lend his name to a centre which will study educational inequalities and promote educational change. Hats off to my colleagues at Glasgow for this initiative, and I’ll be looking forward to seeing the results of its work in the years ahead. Here, though, I want to draw attention to the contrasting fate of two Owenite communities: the village of New Lanark, and the settlement at Orbiston.

New Lanark is one of Scotland’s outstanding visitor attractions, which has been garlanded by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. It is indeed beautiful, sitting as it does in a valley below the Falls of Clyde, and comprising a group of solidly-built stone buildings. As manager, Owen insisted on well designed and equipped workers’ housing, as well as impressive public buildings designed to improve their spiritual as well as their physical needs. As well as believing that this would make the workers more productive, Owen hoped – rightly – that the village would also attract visitors, who would be persuaded by his views.

New Lanark stands to this day as an intensely physical symbol of progressive education, factory reform, humane working practices, and forward-looking town planning. But Owen also has another strong Scottish connection, through his association with the short lived co-operative community at Orbiston, now subsumed into the North Lanarskshire town of Bellshill. James Archibald Hamilton, radical landowner and military man, was keen to promote Owenite co-operative production, and in 1825 he gave over part of his estate at Orbiston for use by an Owenite community. The experiment lasted little longer than other Owenite communities in Britain and North America, and was wound up at the end of 1827.

Orbiston gives us at least as much of an idea of Owen’s thinking and its reception as does New Lanark. Like all such radical settlements, Orbiston was also a movement of learning, in two senses. First, it required educational institutions and practices in order to produce the new women and men of the new moral order; and second, it was a huge exercise in learning how to live otherwise. And as Ian Donnachie’s account makes clear, Owen also saw it as a demonstration project, from which the gentry would learn to change their attitudes towards the working class, and understand that crime and pauperism were the products of Old Society, with its inbuilt imposition of popular ignorance and disorder.

Nothing of Orbiston survives. Those who use Strathclyde Country Park are treading what was once Owenite land; the rest of us use the ferris wheel as a landmark as we drive past on the M74. One set of memories is enshrined in a world heritage site, the other set lies under a theme park. This is probably inevitable, but remember that the most imposing physical remains – planned villages, majestic castles, proud palaces and ruined abbeys – invariably distort our understanding of the past.