Education in Robert Owen’s new society: the New Lanark institute and schools

Robert Owen on his tomb

Education in Robert Owen’s new society: the New Lanark institute and schools. Robert Owen’s educational venture at New Lanark helped to pioneer infant schools and was an early example of what we now recognize as community schooling. Yet education was only a single facet of a more powerful social gospel which already preached community building on the New Lanark model as a solution to contemporary evils in the wider world. Ian Donnachie investigates.

contents: introduction · beginnings · the institute · infant schooling ·schooling and adult education · curricula ·civics and environment · dancing, music, drill · happy children · further reading and references · links · how to cite this article

Robert Owen (1771-1858), social and educational reformer, remains a controversial and enigmatic figure. Having profited enormously from enterprise in the early Industrial Revolution he set about trying to remedy its excesses through environmental, educational, factory and poor law reform. Synthesizing reformist ideas from the Age of Enlightenment and drawing on his own experience as an industrialist he constructed A New View of Society (1816), a rallying call for widespread social change, with education at its core. New Lanark, the test-bed for his ideas, became internationally famous.

Robert Owen moved on to the world stage, using New Lanark, however inappropriate, as a model for his Village Scheme, where rather than profit mutual co-operation would be the prevailing ethos. Owen later translated his ideas to the United States, attempting to establish a Community of Equality at New Harmony (1824-28) in Indiana. This was followed by a fantastic and abortive scheme to colonise part of the new Mexican republic on communitarian principles.

Robert Owen returned to Britain, continuing his propaganda campaign, by promoting labour exchanges, consumer co-operatives, trade unions and other Owenite organisations. By the 1830s the man had become a movement headed by Owen as Social Father. Always education, for what Robert Owen was by then calling the New Moral World, was central to his thinking.


The beginning of 1814 undoubtedly represented a major turning point in Robert Owen’s development of New Lanark as a test-bed for his social psychology and economic philosophy. Reinstated as director of New Lanark and supported in capital and ideals by his philanthropic sleeping partners, who were safely located far away in London and thus unlikely to interfere much in day-to-day management, he had at last been able to pursue his goals. At that moment Robert Owen had entered what was undoubtedly the most dynamic and productive phase of his life. His continued success in business at New Lanark coincided with, and indeed made possible, his rise to national and international prominence as a social reformer and philanthropic savant following the publication of his essays on A New View of Society. There is no doubt that New Lanark played a vital role in his propaganda campaign for improved social conditions and the re-ordering of society. The further reforms and innovations he introduced after 1814 built on what had been achieved and showed how his community ideals could be applied to Old Society.

As Robert Owen made clear, the prime vehicle for social reform was education, which figured prominently in A Statement Regarding the New Lanark Establishment, the prospectus Robert Owen drew up in 1812 to attract potentially sympathetic partners. Education remained the key element of on-going reform at New Lanark, and like the enterprise itself the schools took on their own momentum. They were also the centre of attention as far the majority of visitors were concerned.

According to Robert Owen’s autobiography he had begun ‘to clear the foundation for the infant and other schools, to form the new character of the rising population’ in 1809, though it is possible that his memory was defective and that work did not start until much later. Certainly, A Statement Regarding the New Lanark Establishment described the planned ‘New Institution’, and provided a detailed account of his ideas for its development at that point. When New Lanark was advertised for sale in the Glasgow Herald of 24 December 1813, a building 145 ft long by 45 ft broad ‘at present unoccupied’ was described as having been ‘planned to admit of an extensive Store Cellar, a Public Kitchen, Eating and Exercise Room, a School, Lecture Room and Church.’ Quite likely this was what ultimately became the Institute and was said by Owen in his statement to have been erected at a cost of £3,000. The articles of the new partnership, by which Robert Owen was bound, called for the establishment of a school run on Lancasterian lines. Teaching aids would be provided by the British and Foreign School Society, the brain-child of Owen’s partners, among others, and religious instruction was to be non-sectarian, with the Bible being used only as an aid to reading. Now that Robert Owen was in effective control of the mills and village, the long-planned building to be entirely devoted to education could be fitted out to his specifications at the cost of another £3,000. Some uncertainty surrounds the date of the building ranging with the mills which was also used as a school. It was marked as ‘Public Kitchen’ on a plan of 1809 but if built by then was certainly never used as a school at that time. When Griscom visited New Lanark ten years later he noted that this building was ‘nearly completed’ and had been designed as ‘a kitchen for the whole village’. At that point, Robert Owen thought this refectory could save £4-5,000 a year, ‘besides the superior training and improved habits it will produce’, but it never became a reality. Unfortunately, most of the descriptions leave us somewhat confused about which activities were pursued in the Institute and which in the School. To all intents and purposes, they were probably interchangeable as far as the instruction of the children was concerned. William Davidson, writing in 1828 long after Robert Owen’s departure, observed dancing being taught in the school, which was also used for lectures given in rooms which still housed the ‘historical maps and paintings’ as well as a terrestrial globe 19ft in circumference.

The Institute

As events transpired the new Institute for the Formation of Character was not formally opened until New Year’s Day 1816. In a lengthy ‘Address to the Inhabitants of New Lanark’, mercifully punctuated by a musical recital, Robert Owen expounded his educational aims and explained to an audience of 1,200 villagers the main objects of the Institute. The basis of his speech was a reiteration of the central thesis underpinning A New View of Society in which he articulated his unfailing belief in some sort of material determinism ‘that the character of man is without a single exception, always formed for him’. He stressed the importance of proper education from early years saying that ‘it must be evident to those who have been in the practice of observing children with attention, that much of good or evil is taught to or acquired by a child at a very early period of its life; that much of temper or disposition is correctly or incorrectly formed before he attains his second year; and that many durable impressions are made at the termination of the first 12 or even 6 months of his existence’. Robert Owen probably got much of this from his own experience. But a critique of Pestalozzi’s methods was published in Paris as early as 1805 and it is possible he may have known of this and had it translated by his boys’ tutor. In essence, his theory of character formation and general education involved the belief that social training ought to begin from the very moment a child ‘can walk alone’.

The Institute for the Formation of Character with its school was considered by many who visited New Lanark to be ‘one of the greatest modern wonders’ and Robert Owen, revelling in the role of a paternalist laird, took great pride in showing it off. Many descriptions of the Institute’s arrangements survive, but the most helpful is that furnished by the young Robert Dale Owen, who following his return from Switzerland occupied himself in teaching and writing a book about the school and its curriculum, published in 1824. According to the younger Owen:

The principal school-room is fitted up with desks and forms on the Lancastrian plan, having a free passage down the centre of the room. It is surrounded, except at one end where a pulpit stands, with galleries, which are convenient when this room is used, as it frequently is, either as a lecture-room or place of worship.

The other and smaller apartment on the second floor has the walls hung round with representations of the most striking zoological and mineralogical specimens, including quadrupeds, birds, fishes, reptiles, insects, shells, minerals etc. At one end there is a gallery, adapted for the purpose of an orchestra, and at the other end are hung very large representations of the two hemispheres; each separate country, as well as the various seas, islands etc. being differently coloured, but without any names attached to them. This room is used as a lecture- and ball-room, and it is here that the dancing and singing lessons are daily given. It is likewise occasionally used as a reading-room for some of the classes.

The lower storey is divided into three apartments, of nearly equal dimensions, 12 ft high, and supported by hollow iron pillars, serving at the same time as conductors in winter for heated air, which issues through the floor of the upper storey, and by which means the whole building may, with care, be kept at any required temperature. It is in these three apartments that the younger classes are taught reading, natural history, and geography.

Dale Owen’s Outline of the System of Education at New Lanark (1824) is perhaps the fullest description of the New Lanark schools and is of particular value when set alongside the elder Owen’s memories of the infant school in The New Existence and his later autobiography. According to Owen, the school was attended by ‘every child above one-year-old’, although some observers thought the youngest was probably two or three years old. During the first few months of the nursery schools, Robert Owen ‘daily watched and superintended … knowing that if the foundation were not truly laid, it would be in vain to expect a satisfactory structure’. With his usual finesse in matters of human relations he ‘acquired the most sincere affections of all the children’ and apparently also won over the parents ‘who were highly delighted with the improved conduct, extraordinary progress, and continually increasing the happiness of their children.’

Infant school

Robert Owen was cautious about the selection of teachers in the ‘new rational infant school’, for ‘it was in vain to look to any old teachers upon the old system of instruction by books’. He says he had very little belief in books, which is strange given his own enthusiasm for reading as a boy. At any rate, Robert Owen evidently parted with the old dominie at New Lanark and selected from the villagers ‘two persons who had a great love for and unlimited patience with infants.’ His unlikely choice was a former handloom weaver, James Buchanan, condescendingly described as a ‘simple-minded, kind-hearted individual who could hardly read or write himself’, but who was willing to do exactly what Robert Owen told him. Buchanan’s assistant was to be Molly Young, a seventeen-year-old village girl.

Robert Owen’s instructions to his new infant master and assistant were simple :

They were on no account ever to beat any one of the children or to threaten them in any word or action or to use abusive terms; but were always to speak to them with a pleasant voice and in a kind manner. They should tell the infants and children (for they had all from 1 to 6 years old under their charge) that they must on all occasions do all they could to make their playfellows happy – and that the older ones, from 4 to 6 years of age, should take especial care of younger ones, and should assist to teach them to make each other happy.

Much of this came indirectly from Pestalozzi, who also emphasised the importance of kindness and common sense in his teaching. It was all apparently very Utopian, echoing the views of Bentham, Robert Owen’s partner, regarding the greatest happiness of the greatest number. But by ‘happy’ Owen meant ‘docile’, an adjective that recurs in much of his writing at the time.

The nursery school occupied the play-ground in front of the Institute in fine weather, and on wet days the three main rooms on the ground floor. The principle on which the school was run we would call the play principle, no child being forced in any way, not even to mid-morning rest, although ‘when an infant felt inclined to sleep it should be quietly allowed to do so’. Toys were rarely seen, for to Robert Owen’s mind ‘thirty or fifty infants, when left to themselves, will always amuse each other without useless childish toys’. When they became bored or distracted ‘a young active teacher will easily find and provide something they will be interested in seeing and hearing explained’. Robert Owen’s lengthy description of the infants’ actual instruction is worth quoting in part:

The children were not to be annoyed with books; but were to be taught the uses and nature or qualities of the common things around them, by familiar conversation when the children’s curiosity was excited so as to induce them to ask questions respecting them.

The schoolroom for the infants’ instruction was furnished with paintings, chiefly of animals, with maps, and often supplied with natural objects from the gardens, fields and woods – the examination and explanation of which always excited their curiosity and created an animated conversation between the children and their instructors.

The children at four and above that age showed an eager desire to understand the use of maps of the four quarters of the world upon a large scale purposely hung in the room to attract their attention. Buchanan their master, was first taught their use and then how to instruct the children for their amusement – for with these infants everything was made to be amusement.

It was most encouraging and delightful to see the progress which these infants and children made in real knowledge, without the use of books. And when the best means of instruction or forming character shall be known I doubt whether books will be ever used before children attain their thirteenth year.

Again the emphasis on observation and experience was borrowed from Pestalozzi. But the infants at New Lanark were, in Robert Owen’s opinion, completely unlike others of their age, indeed, he said ‘unlike the children of any class of society’. Griscom took a more pragmatic view, probably shared by Owen when he observed that ‘this baby school is of great consequence to the establishment, for it enables mothers to shut up their houses in security, and to attend to their duties in the factory, without concern for their families.’ As Robert Owen showed his visitors around children would come forward to be patted.

In addition to this elementary instruction, those over two were given dancing lessons and those four and upwards taught singing. Military-style exercises were also a major feature of both schools, and the sight of youthful marches led by fife and drum was frequently remarked upon by contemporaries, especially the upper-class dignitaries who much approved of such discipline. Conformity in the children was further reinforced by a ‘beautiful dress of tartan cloth, fashioned in its make after the form of a Roman toga’. However, like the kilt and plaid worn by older boys, this was thought by some of Robert Owen’s partners to encourage sexual promiscuity. According to Captain Donald Macdonald of the Royal Engineers, who like the laird, Archibald Hamilton of Dalzell, had become a convert to the New System and who accompanied Robert Owen on the visit of inspection to Harmonie in 1824-25, the New Lanark dresses and plaids were part of the baggage. Owen showed them to fellow passengers and apparently had them copied in New York to be displayed there and in Washington along with his plans and models of the Village Scheme. The dress code for the new communities was another subject about which Robert Owen said little about unless pressed to do so.

New Lanark School

New Lanark School

Schooling and adult education

Dale Owen also left a detailed report of the school for the older children of the community. At the time of writing the Institute had been functioning for nearly eight years, and although it was in some respects a biased account, Dale Owen’s Outline did make some attempt to assess his father’s experiment. The age group concerned was that from about five to ten or twelve, the majority of youngsters being removed from school at ten by their parents to begin a full day’s work in the mills. Most working children, however, continued their education at evening classes in the Institute. Attendance at the school for all ages was practically free – the payment being only 3d per month for each child, hardly sufficient, said Owen, ‘to pay for the consumption of books, ink and paper’.

Robert Owen gave details of attendance at day and evening classes in the Institute during 1816 the Select Committee on Education of that year. It is interesting to note that prior to his reduction of working hours average attendance at evening schools was often less than 100 per night. After the opening of the Institute and reduction of the working day to ten and three-quarter hours (less meal-breaks) attendance rose rapidly. In January 1816 the average was 380, rising to 396 in March. According to Owen’s evidence, this upward trend continued giving an average of 485 per evening session. The annual cost of running the schools in 1816 was said to be £700, £550 being for the salaries of a headmaster and ten assistants, and £150 for materials, lighting and heating.


In the preparatory classes, all the children learned to read, write and cypher. Owen adopted in part the methods of Lancaster, whereby certain boys and girls chosen to be monitors passed on lessons learned by rote to other children, in a sense the factory system applied to education. Great difficulty was experienced in finding suitable books for the pupils. Tales of adventure, voyages and travel were popular, and though much misrepresented on the fact Owen consented to the use of the Bible and catechism. Children were questioned on all they read and encouraged to look upon books as a means to an end. In writing, copy-books were abandoned as soon as possible, and the children encouraged to develop their own style. Arithmetic was at first taught ‘on the plan generally adopted at that time in Scotland’, but soon after Pestalozzi’s system of mental arithmetic was introduced.

Proceeding alongside these elementary studies, and forming perhaps the most notable feature of Owen’s educational system in the Institute, was instruction by lecture, discussion and debate, in geography, natural science, ancient and modern history, and what we might well call civics or contemporary studies, all subjects much favoured by Pestalozzi. These lectures were a feature of both day and evening schools and would be attended by 40-50 children, though possibly over 100 on some occasions. As far as the subject matter allowed the lecture would be illustrated with maps, pictures and diagrams, aids always much favoured by Robert Owen. The talk was usually short, so as not to lose the attention of the young listeners and time would be allowed for questions. Robert Owen also loved plans and models and contemporary prints show the extensive use made of visual material for all age groups. Outstanding in this respect were geography and history, which both had an important place in the curriculum at New Lanark. The history time-charts or ‘Streams of Time’, as well as other visual aids were painted by one of the teachers, Catherine Whitwell. A sister of the Owenite architect, Stedman Whitwell, who produced designs for a community and accompanied Owen on the second journey to New Harmony, she was said to be an advocate of free love. Following her dismissal from New Lanark by Owen’s partners she later taught at the Orbiston Community. Her teaching aids were certainly as novel for the time as her ideas about sexual relations:

Seven large maps or tables, laid out on the principle of the Stream of Time, are hung round the spacious room. These being made of canvass, may be rolled up at pleasure. On the Streams, each of which is differently coloured, and represents a nation, are painted the principal events which occur in the history of those nations. Each century is closed by a horizontal line, drawn across the map. By means of these maps, the children are taught the outlines of Ancient and Modern History, with ease to themselves, and without being liable to confound different events, or different nations. On hearing of any two events, the child has but to recollect the situation on the tables of the paintings, by which those are represented, in order to be furnished at once with their chronological relation to each other. If the events are contemporary, he will instantly perceive it.

Many years later in 1903, when Frank Podmore, Robert Owen’s most distinguished biographer, first visited New Lanark, he was shown some of the original visual aids described in this account. Podmore’s guide, John Melrose, told him that in his boyhood thirty years before he and the other village children still danced every morning from 7.15 to 8.00 am! According to Melrose the painting and maps were only taken down when the old school closed, half a century after Robert Owen left New Lanark.

Civics and environment

Both Robert Owen and his son were at pains to stress how everything was made relevant for the children, that they should understand what they were learning and why, and that they should enjoy what they were doing. Geography lessons played a prominent part in the education of children at New Lanark, and seem to have been practical as well as relevant. Geography also had a strong moral undertone, for the children were often reminded that but for an accident of birth they might have been born into a different society with values totally unlike those of their own. They were taught to respect other people’s ideas and way of life and never to be uncharitable or intolerant. Field studies were important, and youngsters were encouraged to go out into the woods and fields surrounding the village, through which Robert Owen cut paths and walks, collecting specimens and making observations. Robert Owen himself painted a fascinating picture of a geography lesson during which something like 150 children vied with each other in pointing out places on large wall-maps:

This by degrees became most amusing to the children, who soon learned to ask for the least-thought-of districts and places, that they might puzzle the holder of the wand, and obtain it from him. This was at once a good lesson for 150 – keeping attention of all alive during the lesson. The lookers-on were as much amused, and many as much instructed as the children, who thus at an early age became so efficient, that one of our Admirals, who had sailed round the world, said he could not answer many of the questions which some of these children not 6 years old readily replied to, giving the places most correctly.

Robert Owen aimed at giving children a good basic education, fitting the village youth for the world of work in the mills, but at the same time posing no threat to the existing order of society.

Dancing, music, drill

Yet in spite of all this, what most impressed the 20,000 odd visitors who came to gape at New Lanark between 1815 and 1825, was the importance of dancing, music and military exercise in the school curriculum. Dancing lessons were begun two years of age and visitors were astonished to see how ‘these children, standing up 70 couples at a time in the dancing room, and often surrounded by many strangers, would with the uttermost ease and natural grace go through all the dances of Europe, with so little direction from their master, that the strangers would be unconscious that there was a dancing-master in the room’. Dancing lessons were also given in the evening and Griscom saw 50 or 60 young people thus engaged. ‘Owen’, he noted, ‘ has discovered that dancing is one means of reforming vicious habits. He thinks it effects this by promoting cheerfulness and contentment and thus diverting attention from things that are vile and degrading’. The children were also taught to sing in harmony in choirs of 200 or more, performing settings of Scottish and other traditional songs, to the delight of Robert Owen and his visitors. Before the close of the evening school, all the pupils would gather in one room and sing a hymn, presumably religious rather than secular. It is not without its interest that singing and music later featured prominently in the social life of New Harmony, and that much of the New Lanark repertoire was carried across the Atlantic by William Owen and others, including Joseph Applegarth, another ardent Owenite who taught at New Lanark and participated in the organisation of the schools at New Harmony and Orbiston Comunity. In addition, both boys and girls were regularly drilled in the playground in front of the Institute ‘with precision equal, as many officers stated, to some regiments of the line.’ Contemporary accounts described these military exercises in glowing detail, though in the context of the time this was probably quite understandable and was less sinister than it might have appeared. Robert Owen nevertheless expounded on their value in several of his writings.

Happy children

Robert Owen was not without his critics, but few could quarrel with his system of education at New Lanark. He seems to have evolved a system based on a mixed bag of contemporary social and educational thought linked to benevolent paternalism, deriving from earlier experience in Manchester and of running New Lanark. His basic assumption that character could be formed under favourable conditions seemed to work in that context, and if we are not to discount the multitude of evidence about the New Lanark schools, he succeeded in creating a system which was able to produce conforming and apparently happy (or docile) children equipped with basic literacy and numeracy. Robert Owen’s community was certainly not unique in this regard for Archibald Buchanan in 1816 reported a thirst for knowledge and a high level of literacy among the cotton spinners of Catrine (Ayrshire) and other mills under his management. In many other industrial districts throughout Britain, the same observations could no doubt have been made.

However, New Lanark was different, at least according to Dr Henry Macnab, who in 1819 had been sent to report on the place by Robert Owen’s most regal supporter, the Duke of Kent. ‘The children and youth in this delightful colony’, wrote Macnab, ‘are superior in point of conduct and character to all the children and youth I have ever seen. I shall not attempt to give a faithful description of the beautiful fruits of the social affections displayed in the young, innocent and fascinating countenances of these happy children’. Robert Owen’s educational venture at New Lanark certainly helped to pioneer infant schools and the claims he made for his achievements were not far removed from reality. Yet education was only a single facet of a more powerful social gospel which already preached community building on the New Lanark model as a solution to contemporary evils in the wider world.

Further reading

Donnachie, I. (2000) Robert Owen. Owen of New Lanark and New Harmony, East Linton: Tuckwell Press. 290+xii pages. The first major biography of Robert Owen in over fifty years, and it provides a much-needed exploration of his thinking and life. There is substantial coverage of Robert Owen’s educational endeavours. (This piece is adapted from pages 156-171 of this book – but there is a lot more besides).

Owen, R. (1927) A New View of Society and other writings (ed. G. D. H. Cole), London: Dent. 298 + xx pages. Includes ‘New View’ plus, for example, addresses to the inhabitants of New Lanark and to the working classes; pieces on manufacturing and the employment of children; and schemes for the relief of the poor and the emancipation of mankind. In the archives: Robert Owen. An Address to the Inhabitants of New Lanark. This famous address on the significance of education for social change was delivered by Robert Owen on the opening of the Institute for the Formation of Character on January 1, 1816.

Owen, R. D. (1824) Outline of the System of Education at New Lanark, Glasgow.

Books on Robert Owen:

Altfest, K. C. (1977) Robert Owen as an Educator, Boston: Twayne.

Siraj-Blatchford, J. (1997) Robert Owen: Schooling the innocents, Ticknall: Educational Heretics Press.

Biographical material:

Cole, G. D. H. (1930) The Life of Robert Owen (revised edition), London: Macmillan.

Harrison, J. F. C. (1969) Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

McNab (1819) The New Views of Mr Owen of Lanark Impartially Examined, London

Morton, A. L. (1962) The Life and Ideas of Robert Owen, London: Lawrence and Wishart. 186 pages.

Owen, R. (1857) Life of Robert Owen by Himself, London.

Owen, R. D. (1874) Threading My Way. Twenty years of autobiography, London.

Podmore, F. (1923) Robert Owen. A biography, London: George, Allen and Unwin.

Pollard, S. and Salt, J. (eds.) (1971) Robert Owen: Prophet of the poor, London: Macmillan.


New Lanark, the object of a major conservation project since the 1970s, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Institute and School described here are fully restored, and a Regency-style classroom, laid out on Lancasterian lines, and with replica visual aids can be seen by visitors. You can visit the website at and see for yourself. There is the opportunity to take a 360 degree trip around the classroom (not to be missed:

See, also, the New Harmony website and the Robert Owen Memorial Museum.

How to cite this article: Donnachie, I. (2003) ‘Education in Robert Owen’s New Society: The New Lanark Institute and Schools’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education,

Ian Donnachie is Reader in History at The Open University and co-author with George Hewitt of Historic New Lanark, Edinburgh University Press, 1993, 1999, ISBN 0 7486 0420 0 [View details at Amazon or at]. He is also vice-chair of the Friends of New Lanark.

This article has been adapted by the author from Ian Donnachie, Robert Owen. Owen of New Lanark and New Harmony, Tuckwell Press, 2000, ISBN 1 86232 131 0, pp. 156-171. [View details at Amazon or at].

Acknowledgement: Robert Owen on his tombmifl68 flickr | ccbyncnd2 licence. Picture of New Lanark School from the JR James Collection, University of Sheffield flickr | ccbync2 licence

© Ian Donnachie 2000, 2003.