“Man is a creature of circumstances”, said social reformer Robert Owen. New Lanark: In Search of Utopia, C.A. Hope’s third book in the New Lanark trilogy, traces Robert Owen’s own circumstances through the story and legacy of the famous Lanark mills.
The novel is inspired by the revolutionary reforms adopted by Owen after taking over from his father-in-law, David Dale, as manager of the cotton mills in New Lanark.
It is a fictionalised account of Owen’s struggle to implement his social reforms by creating an Institute for Social Formation along with his attempts to form similar co-operative communities across the UK.
As well as bringing Owen’s legacy to life, the book helps place his reforms in a historical context. By focusing on the lives of Owen and his family as well as of those of regular mill workers, the novel also highlights the impact of the revolution in France after Napoleon, and the Anglo American War of 1812.
Ms Hope also shows how his revolutionary approach went on to influence the works of key political thinkers. Robert Owen was a firm believer that the character of man “is without single exception, always formed for him”. His philosophy was also influenced by the work of fellow social reformer Jeremy Bentham who, in 1814, became Owen’s partner by investing in New Lanark.
John Stuart Mill, one of the leading political philosophers of the 19th century, also makes an appearance, when his father pays a visit to New Lanark to see Owen’s social reforms. Mill was 12 at the time.
The novel describes a number of revolutionary measures undertaken by Owen in New Lanark, including vaccinations against small pox. As part of his efforts to create “a new system”, Owen opens a store for people in the village, a public kitchen, an eating and exercise room, a school, a lecture room and a church. He also talks about creating new currencies, called labour notes. The positive impact of his reforms is gradually challenging the villagers’ reluctance to change.
But Owen’s atheism remains a source of discontent for many of his partners, who eventually use it as an excuse to put an end to his reforms. He criticised those bullying in the name of religion and argued in favour of mutual understanding and respect. He believed that if a child’s character is formed to seek understanding there would be no conflict, and doubted that religion could fulfil that role.
Robert Owen’s lobbying activities played an important role in passing a bill on factory conditions. His plans for villages of unity and mutual co-operation gain the attention of some important figures at the time, including the British Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool.
While critics both in the book and in real life argue Owen’s approach was paternalistic, the narrator defends his method by arguing everyone worked for the good of the community rather than for fear, with residents electing village committees themselves.
Due to Owen’s fight for changing the working conditions for mill workers, Parliament got involved in the management of the factory conditions for the first time. The Factory Reform Act was passed into law, but was watered down, to Owen’s huge disappointment.
The novel reveals his struggle to please investors and at the same time abide by his principles.
Ms Hope, whose primary source for the novel was a book by Robert Owen’s son, Robert Dale Owen, thinks his story can teach an important lesson.
“I cannot help but feel, if Owen’s New View of Society had been grasped and implemented 200 years ago, we would not have the fear and atrocities we are witnessing today,” she says.
- The official launch of New Lanark: In Search of Utopia took place on 17 November 2015 at Scotmid Co-operative, marking exactly 157 years since Robert Owen died in 1858. A second launch took place at New Lanark on 19 November. A kindle version is available at high street book shops and it can also be bought online from the New Lanark shop.