|The Robert Owen Museum. Photo by "Indigo Goat" Some rights reserved|
"My intention was not merely to be a manager of cotton mills, but to change the conditions of the people who were surrounded by circumstances having an injurious influence upon the character of the entire population .... The community was a very wretched society and vice and immorality prevailed to a monstrous extent."
Many of the potential customers of the Chorlton Twist Company lived to the north of Manchester, and Robert Owen often travelled as far north as Glasgow to seek orders. On one of these visits he met Caroline Dale (whom he later married), the daughter of David Dale, the important Glasgow businessman and owner of large cotton mills at New Lanark. In 1799 Owen and his partners bought the New Lanark mills and shortly afterwards he moved to New Lanark with his young wife. From the very beginning, Robert Owen resolved to modernise the mill and improve both the working and social conditions of his workers.
At this time, the mill employed between 1,500 and 2,000 people, including 500 children. These children had been removed from parish workhouses and employed as apprentices. The mill owners were responsible for feeding, clothing, housing and educating their apprentices, but very few carried out their responsibilities adequately. As a result the children were small and pale, their growth stunted by bad conditions, and usually illiterate. Safety standards were virtually non-existent and many children were killed or maimed by accidents at work.
In the majority of factories the working conditions were appalling. The workers had to endure long hours in dark poorly ventilated mills for very low wages. Low moral standards and drunkenness were common among the workers. Only a few men, like Robert Owen, realised that these problems were a direct result of poverty and bad conditions.
The New Lanark mills were probably better than most, but nevertheless the conditions were still dreadful by modern standards. They provided an ideal place for Robert Owen to carry out an experiment in social reform. Although his intentions were good, he had to win the trust of his workers. He finally succeeded after continuing to pay his workers for four months when cotton production stopped at the mills during the 1806 American embargo on cotton exports. From this time he enjoyed their confidence and eventually won their loyalty and affection.