ON January 1, 1800, Robert Owen started a new job. He did so not in the normal manner of other people, during his days and during ours. Owen was going to alter the course of human history. And he knew it.

On that day, Owen took over the management of the cotton mills standing on the banks of the River Clyde at New Lanark. Born in Wales in 1771, he had already made his mark there and elsewhere as a textile manufacturer, philanthropist and social reformer.

It was not just a matter of theory – he strove to improve factory working conditions, promote experimental socialistic communities and, for a distant future, seek a collective approach to child rearing, including government control of education.

Wales was too small for Owen (below) and he had already worked in several places in England. On a visit to Scotland in 1799, he met and fell in love with Ann Dale, daughter of David Dale, a prominent Glaswegian businessman and the owner of New Lanark. After their marriage at the end of the year, the Owens set up home nearby.

The National:

New Lanark had been founded in 1786 by a partnership between Dale and Richard Arkwright, the Lancastrian inventor and entrepreneur in the cotton industry. Dale supplied the necessary capital investment. Known for his benevolence, he wanted to treat everybody well – something unusual in the early stages of capitalism.

Even so, most of New Lanark’s families lived in one room and every day they all faced the long hours and demoralising drudgery of the mills.

And this was Scotland, a nation with its own sins, so that some of the recruits to New Lanark sullied their lives with theft, drunkenness and other vices.

Dale finally sold the mills, lands and village for £60,000, payable over 20 years, to a partnership that included Owen, the mill manager in waiting. This young idealist hoped to run New Lanark on higher principles than the commercial ones followed by Dale and Arkwright. However, it still had to be cost effective.

In fact, it turned into one of Britain’s most profitable enterprises. It employed 2000 workers, 500 of them children brought to the mill from the poorhouses and charities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. Some victims of Highland Clearances were taken on too. All were offered better education and sanitation than they had ever known before.

To Owen the change of ownership also gave a chance to broaden his philanthropy, with better workers’ rights, compulsory training and limits on child labour. New Lanark had a nursery block, or infant school, where the tiniest tots were trained for their future lives.

In its day, this was all so novel that New Lanark became a tourist attraction. But some visitors did question Owen’s motives. The poet Robert Southey commented: “In reality he deceives himself. He is part owner and sole director of a large establishment, differing only in accidents than in essence from a plantation.” As for the workers, “while they remain in it they are as much under his absolute management as so many [black] slaves.”

In retort, Owen was articulate enough to be his own propagandist. In 1813, he published a book, A New View of Society, showing he was not just a businessman but also the champion of an entire social philosophy. It could transform individual lives in an industrial country such as the UK was becoming, with Scotland to the fore.

Owen wrote that: “The present arrangement of society is the most anti-social, impolitic, and irrational that can be devised; that under its influence all the superior and valuable qualities of the human race are repressed from infancy, and that the most unnatural means are used to bring out the most injurious propensities.”

For Owen the answer was simple. People such as him, or at least agreeing with him, should be put in charge of the workforce. He paid special attention to the needs of the 500 or so children living in the village (one of the tenement blocks is named Nursery Buildings) as they were being prepared, uncomplaining, for a life of labour in his mills.

Owen had originally believed that free markets, in particular the right of workers to move around and choose their employers, would release them from the excessive power of capitalists. Later he came to the conclusion that human character was formed by conditions over which individuals had no control. They therefore could not be praised or blamed for their behaviour or situation in life.

But they could be controlled. Owen turned to teaching that the correct formation of people’s characters called for placing them from their earliest years under proper environmental influences – physical, moral and social.

The system switched its focus from the individual to the leaders of society directing welfare through a programme of utopian socialism. In this form Owen’s ideas won a place, though far from a complete one, in the UK’s industrial revolution and urban planning.

Owen still had to work hard to persuade the backers of New Lanark that all this was just a part of his job and of their responsibilities. He managed to fight off occasional attempts at boardroom revolutions. The mills did make profits but some of the bosses wondered if they needed costs that rose quite so high.

There was consolation in the fact that New Lanark, now a Unesco World Heritage Site, became celebrated all over Europe, with visits from many politicians, reformers and even royalty.

They were astonished to find in one place a clean, healthy industrial environment with a content, vibrant workforce and a prosperous, viable business.

Owen was able to show off excellent housing and amenities, together with accounts proving the profitability of the mills. To him profit did not require an industrial enterprise to treat its workers badly, as was often assumed in his time (or indeed now).

Yet Owen did not stay the course at New Lanark. He grew more interested in the possibilities for his ideas in the US. In 1824, he put most of his fortune into an experimental socialistic community at New Harmony, Indiana, which would be designated the Preliminary Society.

In other words it would set a new model for mankind destined to last far into the future. Actually it lasted two years.

Among other difficulties, New Harmony had not in the meantime solved the problem of reliance in some states on slavery. Its constitution stated: “Persons of all ages and descriptions, except people of colour, may become members of the Preliminary Society”.

Life again turned out to be a bit more complicated than Owen assumed.