1817 – Factory School


As a mill owner, Robert Owen was a conspicuously caring employer in an age of indifference to the welfare of 'factory children'. The school he set up next to his New Lanark mills was far ahead of its time. The interior was light and spacious and there was generous provision of visual aids. The school even had a special room for dancing. 'We heard some little boys read in a very superior manner,' one visitor to New Lanark recalled. Why would it have been unusual in 1817 to find literate factory children?

Until well into the 19th century, illiteracy was rarely viewed as a disadvantage, least of all by the poor themselves. Little academic accomplishment was needed to work an 18-hour shift in a factory or coal mine. Mill owners often had custody of the children in their employment but not until 1802 were they legally obliged to provide them with a rudimentary education. Few schools had facilities that even remotely compared with those established by Robert Owen adjacent to his woollen mills at New Lanark on the Clyde. Owen became one of the great pioneers of primary education. Dancing, singing and an appreciation of Nature were greatly valued in his school; Owen had little time for religion and there was no church in this 'company town'. Although the 3 'Rs' were important to him, as were geography and history, Owen did not wish to see the younger children overly 'annoyed' with books. Infants were encouraged to learn by discovery, playing together under discreet supervision, while lessons were conducted outdoors as often as possible. Punishment was outlawed in Owen's 'rational approach' and the children were governed 'not by severity, but by kindness'. Even today, some might find these attitudes uncomfortably progressive; in 1817 (the heyday of the horrifying 'Yorkshire schools' described in Nicholas Nickleby) they must have seemed insanely liberal. The school accommodated New Lanark children from about three years old (though some were younger still) until they were 10 or 12, when they began work in the mills. They progressed between the eight classes through achievement, rather than by age. The pupil-teacher ratio was exceptional even by today's standards: in a typical year there were 12 teachers and 194 children in the elementary school and 7 teachers in charge of 80 children in the infant school. The mills, houses and school at New Lanark still exist. Restored by New Lanark Conservation, they have become Scotland's single most important industrial monument.

1810 - Sunday School

1848 - National School