The Industrial Revolution began in Britain. Although exactly how and what started it all is difficult to determine, the country was able to bumble through rapid major technological advancements, abandoning the countryside to work in factories in new cities, and eventually banding together to produce a youthful gang of loveable pickpockets telling us to “Consider Yourself.”
If Oliver Twist went to New Lanark (one of the largest cotton mills in the country), his life wouldn’t have been as dramatic and poignant, but it would be no less inspiring. He would have been taken in by this man:
The first daycare centre and co-operative store in the world was in New Lanark. There were no beatings, no verbal abuse, no squalid living conditions for the steam-powered mill’s employees and residents (it was also a village). Not only was there healthcare available, but children were educated and taught not only maths, science, literature and history but also music and dance.
And yet there was commercial profit. It survived the steady decline of the cotton industry during the Napoleonic Wars. There was so much profit, that people from all over the continent went to this place to satisfy their curiosity about this “model town” that defies the stereotype of cruel factory-owners in the bad city. Enough profit for Owen to be able to buy back the factory when his partners, outraged that he wanted to open a school for children, put the whole thing in auction with the bidding starting at £60k.
Owen bought his partners out at a little over £100k. In early 19th century Britain, this might as well have been a gazillion pounds. Wouldn’t you know it, it seems a happy worker really is a productive worker. The employees were so happy when they heard the news that when Owen returned, they went into a fit of jubilation and unhitched his carriage horses, pulling the equipage along themselves.
Everyone in New Lanark loved this guy. He had a long, happy marriage, his children grew up to be geologists, professors and even a representative of Indiana responsible for the bill that paved the way for the foundation of the Smithsonian Institute–and all of them were against slavery.
Undoubtedly, Robert Owen was a good man, of good character who believed the world can be a better place. Based on how his children lived their lives, we can assume he was also genuine–he lived what he preached:
“What ideas individuals may attach to the term “Millennium” I know not; but I know that society may be formed so as to exist without crime, without poverty, with health greatly improved, with little, if any misery, and with intelligence and happiness increased a hundredfold: and no obstacle whatsoever intervenes at this moment except ignorance to prevent such a state of society from becoming universal”. – Robert Owen, 1816 speech.
So, why is it that this utopian village is not what comes to mind when we think of cotton mills?
To be honest, all those things–education for the poor, healthcare, decent working conditions, savings, living wage…well, those are all well and good. But where the heck is the village pub?
Alcohol was frowned upon at New Lanark. And the absence of the village pub to me symbolizes the problem with New Lanark. The ones who make the decision about laws and statutes are not the adoring employees. And for someone who isn’t worrying about whether or not he gets to eat, or someone who assumes he will be provided education, who doesn’t worry about how he will buy his clothes, New Lanark would have seemed incredibly, totally boring.
And so was Robert Owen.
He was a pioneer. And his heart was in the right place, but man, did he just go on and on and on about the damn poor people and education and labour laws… that quote from him posted above? It wasn’t an address to the House of Commons. He said that to New Lanark residents. On New Year’s Day. In a speech so long there had to be a musical intermission between the parts. He had the support of Quakers, philosophers and economists (including Jeremy Bentham)–but these were people who were already of the same opinion as Owen.
They wouldn’t recognize a joke if it bit them in the arse and said “Knock Knock.”
The fact that people paid attention was a sign of the changing times, and not of Owen’s irresistible charm. There was a recent Revolution in France. America gained independence. There were riots in the streets.
If Oliver Twist grew up in New Lanark, he would have had a better life than he could expect otherwise. But would there be a musical based on his story? Would anyone watch?
I probably will. But only if there’s free beer.