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Who inspired Ebenezer Howard and the Garden City Movement?

The  Garden City Movement was a brilliant British approach to urban planning, founded in 1898 by Sir Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928).  But what were the inspirations that promoted Ebenezer Howard's views on modern town planning?

The deep gorge of the River Clyde near Lanark in Southern Scot­land had spectacular linn-water­falls. Two men, Glas­g­ow financier David Dale (1739–1806) and Eng­lish cot­ton spinning industrialist Richard Arkwright, loved the land and took cont­rol of New Lanark in 1786. By the 1790s the men had 4 mills in full operation, powered by Scotland’s River Clyde.

New Lanark on the River Clyde

Of the total 1790s work­force, two thirds were children, many from Edinburgh and Glasgow orph­an­ages. The children’s working day started at 6 am and fin­ish­ed at 7 pm. Yet by 1793 standards, David Dale was an en­lightened employer. Food and acc­ommodation were good, children attended school for two hours each day after work, and workers fared better than other Scots did.

Dale expanded his workforce by recruiting Highlanders re­moved from their land during the Clearances. To house them, he built housing rows at both ends of the village. Again he was considered an enlightened employer; the education and welfare of his workers were important to him.

Welshman Robert Owen 1771–1858 visited New Lanark for the first time in 1798. He had met Dale's daughter Caroline in Gl­asgow and within a year, Robert Owen was negotiating to purch­ase New Lanark. He mar­ried Caroline in 1799, and took over New Lanark in Jan 1800.

Owen immediately started to tighten discipline, dismissing drunk workers. Output and productivity of textile production increased. When Dale sold New Lanark Mills to his new son-in-law Robert Owen in 1799, few believed that this would become the most import­ant experiment in human happiness yet instituted.

Owen's school

Based on Dale’s alt­ruism, Owen created a revolutionary model for ind­us­trial communities. Owen kept the workers on full pay during a 1806 trade dis­pute with the USA that temporarily stopped the flow of cot­ton. In 1809 the children were moved from dormitories in Mill 4 to the purpose-built Nursery Buildings. A village store was opened by Owen in 1813. And he developed grand plans to build on Dale’s educational plans.

Owen specified radical social reform in A New View of Society: Es­says on the Formation of the Human Cha­r­acter 1813, a protest against the condition of the British poor. The idea that “harsh conditions in factories were damaging to workers” led to conflict with Owen’s partners. In 1813 he took control of New Lanark and found new Quaker partners (eg John Walker), keen to help implement his ideas. 

The reformer built an Institution for the Formation of Character (now the Vis­itor Centre) in 1816, and then built a School for Chil­d­ren next door. The Village Store grew, with its profits being re­cycled to pay for education. Owen also established a Sick Fund for Workers. Leisure and recreation were important - concerts, dances and pleasant landscaped areas were very popular.

Owen's publicity attracted European politicians and thinkers, and his factories were visited by European policy-makers. Owen was invited to give testimony to the British Parliament select committee on factory working conditions and the Poor Law, but was disappointed with the response. He felt that the Factory Act of 1819 was woefully inadequate.

Had Owen always planned a social revolution at New Lanark? Or was he a capitalist who happened to realise the impor­t­ance of his workers’ wellbeing to the profit­ab­il­ity of his company? Was Robert Owen management enlightened or pat­er­n­­alistic? It doesn’t matter; he was implementing revolut­ion­ary ideas, 80 years ahead of his time.

Housing rows

In 1824 Owen sold his inter­ests in New Lanark largely to Charles and Henry Walker, sons of John Walk­er. Owen himself sailed for Am­er­ica, where he purchased a Utopian community called New Harmony, Indiana. Sadly it failed and he returned home in 1829.

In 1881 New Lanark was sold to Henry Birkmyre of the Gourock rope-making co. Burkmyre sought to maintain the underlying social patt­erns, merely divers­ifying the activity at New Lan­ark - products now included deck chair cov­ers, military canvas, circus big tops, ropes and fishing nets.

Working families were brought from Ireland and the Isle of Man to add their skills to the locals.  Soon it was normal for homes to contain two rooms (instead of one), kit­chen sinks and cold water taps. Even the old communal outside toil­ets were replaced with inside toilets. And from 1898, one electric bulb was been supplied free to each home. Ebenezer Howard read of every development with enthusiasm.

New Lanark Mills

So....the village was founded in 1785, the cotton mills being powered by water-wheels. It was Robert Owen who was the Utopian idealist founder of New Lanark, the man who implemented a model utopian community. Planning and architecture had to be integ­rated, with a humane concern by emp­loyers for the well-being of the workers. The village was established to show that the evils of poverty, social dis­advantage and ignorance could be over­come through universal ed­uc­ation, factory reform, discipline, good housing and health care. On behalf of Ebenezer Howard and his colleagues, I salute Robert Owen and David Dale.


A Housing Association was formed in 1963 to refurbish homes in Caithness Row and Nursery Buildings, stopping only when a rope co­m­pany closed the mills and lost the final 350 jobs in 1968. In 1970 the site was sold to a company who extracted aluminium from scrap metal: but few jobs were created and the village fell apart.

In 1974 the New Lanark Conservation Trust started restorations, based on full historic records. By then Ow­en's School was derelict and partly roofless. Great changes were made to Mill 1, which was fully rebuilt and converted into the New Lanark Mill Hotel. It offers good ac­c­ommod­ation, rest­aur­ant, bars, con­ference centre, wedding & banqueting fac­il­ities. Wee Row was converted into a 60 bed Youth Hostel. And the other housing was converted into 45 Housing Ass­oc­iation tenancies and 20 owner-occupied houses. New Lanark was recognised with World Heritage Status in 2001; 500,000 visitors arrive each year!


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