Sunday, 24 September 2017

Understanding Ancestor Occupations

The weekend is open for the tour participants to visit the part of Scotland where their ancestors lived, to sight-see or just to relax after a busy week of research.

I drove to New Lanark to visit the old cotton mills and the village designed to support the workers. New Lanark was innovative for its time, thanks in large part to the mill owner, Robert Owen. Owen was interested in the well-being of his employees and worked to make sure they had provisions that other employers didn't consider.

 The mill is down an incredibly long hill from the car park and the visitor centre isn't easy to find as it is in the middle of the mill buildings rather than at the start. Once there, however, there is a terrific wee ride through the life of one Annie MacLeod, a 10 year old mill worker. Annie has nothing but praise for Mr Owen and the way he treats his workers. She describes the school room, the nursery, and the work that she and the other children do in the mills. She is pleased to only be working ten and a half hours a day, six days a week.

From the ride, there are a number of other buildings that can be visited including the works floor. Here the machines run to clean and spin the cotton. The sound can be deafening and it isn't hard to imagine that hearing loss would be a normal effect on the workers having to endure the noise day in and day out for nearly 12 hours at a time.

Another innovative idea for Owen was that he withheld 1/60 of each workers wages and put the money into a sick bank to allow them free health care when they required it. As well, each child in school had regular health exams at no cost to the families.

The school that Robert Owen built is still standing today. The rooms are large and airy with lots of natural light. Music was part of the curriculum.

Owen provided housing for his employees. The homes consisted of two rooms, a living area with a kitchen as well as a separate sleeping room. There was a shared lavatory at the top of the landing of the stairwells.

Owen was concerned about the character of his workers and as such, built an "Institute for the Formation of Character" that was the focal point of the villagers during their free time. It became a community centre and offered evening classes for anyone aged 10 - 20 years of age who might otherwise be working and unable to attend school during the day.

The workers were paid in a local currency and tokens that could be used at the village store. The quality of the goods at the village store was superior to the stores outside of the village and the prices were much cheaper as well.

The mill was powered by the Clyde, some of the water from which had been diverted to the mill.

Visiting social history museums is the best way to learn about the lives your ancestors lived and to be able to experience some of what they experienced on a daily basis. It allows you to understand their lives and to have a deeper sense of who they were as people.