Until 1785 the deep gorge of the River Clyde to the south-west of Lanark was best known for the scenic beauty of its waterfalls. In that year the area was purchased by two men who would transform the valley, harnessing Lowland Scotland's most powerful stretch of river to develop the largest cotton mills in Scotland. At their peak these mills employed some 2,500 people.
In 1786 David Dale took sole control of what became New Lanark. By the early 1790s he had four mills in full operation. For his workforce he turned first to children. Out of a total workforce in 1793 of some 1,150, over 800 were children, many from the orphanages of Edinburgh and Glasgow. Their working day began at 6.00am and continued until 7.00pm.
This sounds pretty unpleasant. But by the standards of the day David Dale was a remarkably enlightened employer. Food and accommodation were good, children were required to attend school for two hours each day (after their 13 hours in the mill) and workers generally fared much better than others in Scotland at the time.
Dale expanded his workforce further by recruiting Highlanders who had been removed from their land during the clearances, offering them an option other than emigration. To house them he built much of the rest of New Lanark, starting with Caithness Row (a name reflecting the origin of many of the first residents) and then the Rows at the other end of the village.
In 1798 New Lanark was visited for the first time by Robert Owen, a 27 year old Welshman. He had met Dale's daughter Caroline by chance in Glasgow and she suggested the visit. Within a year Robert Owen was negotiating with David Dale to purchase New Lanark. He married Caroline Dale on 30 September 1799, and took over New Lanark on 1 January 1800 for £60,000.
Owen's first moves were to increase the working day from 13 to 14 hours and to tighten discipline, dismissing anyone found drunk three times. Output and productivity increased, as did profits. He was seen by the workforce as a harsh outsider.
Opinions of him only softened when Owen kept the workers on full pay during a trade dispute with the USA in 1806 that temporarily stopped the flow of cotton. This was actually no more than David Dale had done when his first mill had burned down in 1788. It was also prudent: replacing the workers when the trade resumed would have been very difficult. But many saw it as the start of a change in Owen's approach to his workforce.
Over the following years Robert Owen gradually began to implement a series of ideas that at their time were revolutionary. In 1809 children were moved from dormitories in Mill 4 to the purpose-built Nursery Buildings. The village store was opened by Owen in 1813.
This used the principles of shared benefit and bulk purchasing to lower the prices paid by the workers and increase the quality of goods available to them. And he developed grand plans to build on the educational provision put in place by David Dale.
Robert Owen's ideas led to conflict with his partners, and in 1813 he was obliged to bid against them to take full control of New Lanark, this time for £114,100. Only now he had found partners keen to help implement his ideas, and on 1 January 1814 Owen began the second phase of his control of New Lanark.
He built an Institution for the Formation of Character (now the Visitor Centre) in 1816, and a year later he built his School for Children next door. Child labour was phased out to be replaced by a system of infant education. The Village Store went from strength to strength, with its profits being recycled to pay for the schooling. Owen also established a Sick Fund for workers.
In 1824 Owen sold his interests in New Lanark to his largely Quaker partners, who carried on much as he had intended. Owen himself sailed for America, where he had purchased a Utopian community called New Harmony. It was to prove less successful than New Lanark and he returned much poorer in 1829.
Opinions differ about Robert Owen. Had he all along intended what amounted to a social revolution at New Lanark? Or was he a supremely effective capitalist who just happened to be the first to realise the importance of the wellbeing of his workers to the profitability of his company?
In truth, Owen's motives matter less than his achievements. He was more than a century ahead of his time, implementing revolutionary ideas in the fields of childcare, education, healthcare, cooperatives and the trades union movement: ideas that would change the world forever.