A new BBC2 series about nineteenth century social reformers visited Robert Owen’s model community New Lanark in Scotland this week, covering the work of the famous forefather of social enterprise.
The three part ‘Age of the Do-Gooders’ series, which is presented by the political satirist Ian Hislop, explores the ideas and legacy of the “engineers of modernity who believed that modernity needed morals”.
Episode one, ‘Britain’s Moral Makeover’, set the scene of nineteenth century life, starting by considering what motivated public figures such as William Wilberforce to take on the ills of society.
Aided by animations and a wide range of interviewees, from archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams to author AN Wilson, Hislop explained that Owen wanted to change human character and believed that “human beings are in charge of their own destiny”.
Owen believed that the whole of society could be reordered, and he got the chance to put his thinking into practice at New Lanark, building what Hislop described as a “new Jerusalem among the great Satanic mills”. Hislop reminded viewers that Owen’s business was “highly profitable but run on completely different lines to the rest of the industrial revolution”, and the community attracted tens of thousands of tourists in Owen’s day.
Hislop discussed the so-called ‘bug hunters’, inspectors visiting workers’ houses who were unpopular at first, and how Owen overcame resistance to his ideas. The programme also showed one of Owen’s silent monitors, a humane way of monitoring workers, which Hislop called a “cutting edge management tool” and the original “360 degree assessment”.
Filmed in a classroom at New Lanark, where Owen set up one of the first schools for infants, Hislop also explained that: “The foundation of his new society had to be its children.”
The key subjects in Owen’s classroom were “getting on with each other, sharing, and being kind”, with lots of music and dancing. This was, acknowledged Hislop, “many years ahead of Owen’s time and, in many ways, years ahead of ours”.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Owen was practically an atheist. Criticism of Owen at the time, from fellow factory owners as well as other sections of society, accused him of being too radical, as well as paternalistic and autocratic.
The programme also discussed other pioneering reformers, highlighting the way their ideas are relevant today: George Dawson, who initiated a civic gospel in Birmingham encouraging people to look after each other; Thomas Wakley, founder of medical journal The Lancet; Charles Trevelyan who attempted to create a meritocracy in the civil service; and Octavia Hill, who pioneered social housing and attempted to encourage people to help themselves rather than creating a ‘dependency culture’.
‘Britain’s Moral Makeover’ will be available to watch online on the BBC’s iplayer until Monday 20 December at www.bbc.co.uk/i/wh73v.