A Fieldtrip to New Lanark

Guestpost by Lindsay Middleton

I have been in charge of organising the nineteenth-century reading group at the University of Glasgow since October 2018. Every month, students of all levels, staff and alumni come together over a pint to discuss social issues and critical ideas relating to Victorian literature; from food to periodization, and everything in between. The attendees are from multiple disciplines within the arts, some studying nineteenth-century textiles and others researching literature from other periods, yet we always find interesting and unexpected parallels between nineteenth-century material culture and what others are working on. As arts students, however, we are regularly confined to our offices or the pub for these kinds of discussions, and I thought it would be good to get some fresh air while taking advantage of some of the nineteenth-century resources that are within touching distance of the university. Having secured some community-building funding, then, I organised a field trip. On the third of June postgraduate students and staff from the University of Glasgow took a break from their normal Monday routine and left the office in favour of New Lanark World Heritage Site.

New Lanark’s History

New Lanark is an eighteenth-century cotton mill and village founded in 1785 by David Dale. Set in the beautifully verdant Clyde valley, it was significant to the Industrial Revolution not just in Scotland but in the whole of Britain and this was predominantly due to the millowner and educational reformer, Robert Owen. Taking over the mill from Dale (his stepfather) in 1799, Owen treated New Lanark as a social experiment, trying to turn it into a utopian village where workers’ wellbeing resulted in higher yields. He finished constructing his ‘New Institution for the Formation of Character’ in 1815, which introduced work incentives and workers’ rights that were until that point unseen in industrial environments. He educated children until they were at least ten, housed and fed his workers, gave them leisure time and formulated a performance-based grading system for his workers’ daily tasks. Owen faced opposition from the Church due to his criticism of organised religion, however, and eventually left New Lanark in 1825. He then journeyed to Indiana to begin a new project, New Harmony. Nevertheless, the reforms he introduced were so innovative that New Lanark was a spectacle in the eighteenth and nineteenth century – it was a regular stop for people on the Grand Tour, including William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy. Thanks to the World Heritage site now in place, it remains a spectacle today.

Our day at the Mill

Funding from the University of Glasgow allowed 16 of us to travel to New Lanark by bus for free.  Descending into the valley, you are at first struck by the attractive but industrial regularity of the stone buildings that constitute several mill buildings and the workers’ tenement housing, still a functioning village today. Given the rainy weather we were glad to get inside to begin our guided tour, though that relief was short-lived as we were shown around the water wheel, housing, mill and village store. Our guide talked us through Owens’s innovations, and the working mill – which now spins wool for high-end brands like Harris Tweed and the Warner Brother’s Harry Potter merchandise. This gave some impression of what life would have been like in Owen’s time (though we were reminded that there would have been over twenty spinning mules in the area where there was now only one. Noisy.).  I was particularly interested in the village store, with its pleasing plastic replicas of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century food. Owen introduced a currency to New Lanark village meaning that his workers were paid in tokens that they could spend in the store. Apparently this bought more than their wages would have in the nearby Lanark market. Whether this created a self-serving monopoly was unclear, but it did mean his workers had regular access to fresh, good-quality produce.

After the tour-guide had answered our questions, we were shown to the Annie Macleod experience: a ride in which you are transported back in time in your ‘pod’, as the ghost of mill-worker Annie Macleod recounts her childhood in 1820. This surreal display of light, sound and smells – yes, smells – added a level of whimsy to the day which none of us were expecting. An experience, to say the least. Over a lunch break that included some delicious ice cream made in New Lanark, we debriefed from the ride and were left to our own devices for the afternoon. With plenty remaining to explore, we took in Robert Owen’s famous school and classrooms, revisited the areas we had been shown on the tour, and perused the gift shop.

There is also a Scottish Wildlife Trust exhibition, which informs you about the bats, badgers, bees and birds that call the Clyde valley home. Then we got lucky, as the rain provided a window just long enough for us to do the 25-minute walk up to the impressive Corra Linn waterfall, one of four that make up the Falls of Clyde. The well-signposted boardwalk and stunning views are a wonderful way to take in the impressive and varied Scottish nature that both contrasts and facilitates the industrial New Lanark village, and we returned feeling invigorated.

Back Home

After a rainy bus ride home, we returned to the West End for a New Lanark-themed reading group and discussing an article by Lorna Davidson, ‘A Quest for Harmony: The Role of Music in Robert Owen’s New Lanark Community’ (2010).  This outlines the way Owen used music as a community-builder. The trip was enjoyed by all; it was fun, educational, and a great opportunity to take advantage of a wonderful Scottish resource and see knowledge exchange and heritage in action. With thanks to the College of Arts funding from the University of Glasgow, we were able to go on a field trip with other students across disciplines, which doesn’t often happen in the arts. New students have asked to be added to the reading group mailing list and so I am looking forward to continuing this postgraduate community building in Glasgow, bolstered by the opportunity to experience some eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Scottish history in the flesh, or in terms of Annie Macleod, in the hologram.

Lindsay Middleton is a SGSAH-funded PhD candidate in English Literature and History University of Glasgow and University of Aberdeen. Her project is entitled: ‘The Technical Recipe: a Formal Analysis of 19th Century Food Writing’.