David Dale (1739–1806) was a leading Scottish industrialist, merchant and philanthropist during the Scottish Enlightenment period at the end of the 18th century. He was a successful entrepreneur in a number of areas, most notably in the cotton-spinning industry and was the founder of the world famous cotton mills in New Lanark, where he provided social and educational conditions far in advance of anything available anywhere else in the UK. Scotland’s leading historian, Professor Sir Tom Devine, described Dale as ‘the greatest cotton magnate of his time in Scotland’.
New Lanark attracted visitors from all over the world. Dale’s daughter (Caroline) married Robert Owen in 1799 and by 1800, Dale had sold the mills to a group of businessmen led by Robert Owen. Owen (often described as Utopian Socialist) saw New Lanark as a testing ground for what he called his New Social System – an experiment in communitarian living, where education was the key to character formation. He managed New Lanark for nearly 25 years, and the community continued to attract visitors from across the globe.
David Dale was born in Stewarton, Ayrshire in 1739, son of William Dale, a general dealer in the village. His date of birth is normally given as 6 January but there is no officially recorded date of birth. However, parish records show that he was baptised on 14 January 1739. As a child, he worked with the cattle as a ‘herd laddie’ in very basic conditions. This was the period of run rigs and impoverished tenant farmers – all before the so-called Age of Improvement. Dale’s family was not wealthy, but he did not experience the absolute poverty and near starvation of many of those involved in tenant farming.
His father apprenticed him to a handloom weaver in Paisley and he then became an agent in Hamilton and, later, Cambuslang – putting out yarn to be woven and collecting the finished cloth. He arrived in Glasgow in around 1763 as a clerk to a silk merchant and began his own small business in the High Street, importing linen yarns from France and Holland.
The business grew rapidly and Dale became a wealthy merchant in the city. In 1777, at the age of 38, he married 24 year old Anne Caroline (Carolina) Campbell, whose late father had been the Chief Executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland. A wealthy merchant needed a suitable house and in 1783 Dale had a grand mansion built in Glasgow’s fashionable Charlotte Street. The couple were together for 14 years until the untimely death of Carolina. During that period, she bore him nine children, four of whom, including their only son, died in infancy. Their first born – also named Anne Caroline – later became Mrs Robert Owen.
The period 1783-1785 saw Dale’s career take off in a number of directions. By 1785 he was no longer a city merchant but a budding entrepreneur, banker and industrialist.
In 1783 he joined Edinburgh businessman Robert Scott Moncrieff in setting up the first Glasgow agency of the Royal Bank of Scotland – undoubtedly a business arrangement much assisted by his wife’s family connections. Within a few years, the Glasgow branch was doing business worth a staggering one million pounds. America was no longer a British colony and Glasgow merchants no longer depended on tobacco for their fortunes. Textiles, sugar and rum were the new tobacco. In 1783, there was an opportunity for Dale to extend his reputation and influence with the establishment of the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, the first of its type in Britain. Dale became a Director (later Deputy Chairman) and joined forces with the likes of James Oswald, James Dennistoun, John Glassford, Thomas Buchanan and many others – ex tobacco lords, sugar & rum merchants, textile merchants and entrepreneurs from the coal, chemical and brewing industries. Dale became an important figure in the commercial life of Glasgow and remained an influential figure in Chamber until his death.
According to one source, Dale by this time had become:
...the prosperous Glasgow merchant who, by virtue of pure force of character and intelligence, had fairly broken down that wall of distinction which once separated him from the great tobacco and sugar lords and could now wear his cocked hat jauntily, display his silver knee buckles showily and take the place of honour on the crown of the causeway with the proudest of them all.
Crucial to the Dale story is Richard Arkwright’s visit to Scotland in 1784 at the request of George Dempster, landowner and Perthshire M.P. Dempster was trying to provide employment for large number of people who were forced to emigrate from the Highlands to find work – a concern which Dale shared.
Arkwright, inventor of the spinning jenny, owner of the several successful cotton mills in England, acknowledged as the father of the cotton industry and one of the richest men in Britain, was persuaded to visit Lanark, with a view to establishing a cotton mill in the area.
David Dale and George Dempster accompanied Arkwright as they walked down the hill to where New Lanark is today. The site was considered to be suitable and a partnership was agreed between the three of them. Work began soon on what was to become arguably the most important cotton-spinning community in Europe.
Construction work began immediately and the mill buildings were based on Arkwright’s own mills in Cromford. Men and boys were sent from New Lanark to Cromford for initial training and the mills began spinning in early 1786, at which point both Dempster and Arkwright left the partnership, leaving Dale as the sole owner. By the 1790s there were nearly 1,400 people living and working in the community .
Business boomed and the village attracted thousands of visitors. Between 1795-1799, for example, over 3,000 visitors came to see what was happening in New Lanark. Many visitors were themselves businessmen & manufacturers (including one Robert Owen). Some were landed gentry and members of the aristocracy; some were politicians, lawyers, bankers, teachers, medics, academics, scientists and a few (William and Dorothy Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge) were to become famous ‘New Romantics’. A surprising number came from abroad – not just from European countries such as Spain, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Norway, but also from several U.S. states (New York, Kentucky, Virginia, Boston, Georgia, North Carolina). From further afield, some came from Barbados, Jamaica, Antigua, Grenada and Dominica and there were even a few from Africa and India (Sierra Leone, Bengal, Calcutta).
What were they coming to see? They were attracted by a very successful spinning business but New Lanark was more famous as a model factory community where business, philanthropy and education all came together for the first time anywhere in Britain. The community became as famous for its social & educational provision as it did for anything else – something which Robert Owen was later to capitalise upon.
The Apprentice Children
Much of the focus was on Dale’s treatment of his child employees – the so-called Apprentice or Pauper children. Unbelievable as it sounds today, it was common practice for large numbers of children to be employed in mills (and elsewhere) from the age of 6 or 7 to age 15 or thereabouts. In New Lanark, village children worked alongside some 300 Apprentice or Pauper children from the charity workhouses in Glasgow and Edinburgh. They were often (but not always) orphans, looked after by the parish, which was very keen to reduce costs by sending them out to work. The children were not paid but were given board & lodging in No.4 Mill. To begin with, they worked as reelers and pickers but later they worked at a range of jobs where they could learn skills which they could use when they left the mills. Some joined the army and navy; some became joiners or smiths and some were kept on in New Lanark. Employers like Dale were seen as charitable and benevolent because they offered the chance of employment, board and lodging and the acquisition of transferable skills.
The children worked from 6am until 7pm, with breaks for breakfast and dinner. They were given two sets of work clothes which were laundered regularly and a blue dress uniform for Sundays. Sleeping quarters were regularly cleaned and there is evidence to show that many of the pauper children enjoyed better conditions than some of the local children. Public Health campaigner, Dr James Currie was one of the many visitors. He noted that:
The utmost cleanliness, health and order pervaded the whole manufactory. The children looked cheerful and happy with rosy cheeks and chubby countenances, and I found a variety of excellent regulations established for health, morals and knowledge.
Much like Owen later on, Dale was convinced that a good education was essential for all involved. This was a new development in the evolution of factory communities. In England, owners like Arkwright offered Sunday schools but in New Lanark, there was a day school (every day) for under-sixes and an evening school (7-9pm) for older children. There was a formal curriculum which comprised the 3Rs, sewing, church music and religious study. At one stage, the school roll totalled more than 500 pupils and Dale was employing 16 trained teachers to teach more than eight classes. The pupils were grouped according to their ability and promoted to the next class after suitable tests. Teachers received a bonus for each pupil promoted.
All available evidence indicates that he provided conditions far superior to anything available in Britain at the time. As such, New Lanark became something of a magnet for visitors and tourists alike. Dale was very clear about the practical value of his efforts and summed up the situation perfectly:
…when it is considered that the greater part of the children who are in the boarding house consists of destitute orphans, children abandoned by their parents... and many who know not who were their parents... it gives me great pleasure to say, that by proper management and attention, much good instead of evil may be done at cotton mills. For I am warranted in affirming that many now have stout, healthy bodies and are of decent behaviour who in all probability would have been languishing with disease and pests to society had they not been employed at Lanark cotton mills.
Robert Owen visited on a number of occasions and by 1799 had married Dale’s daughter. Shortly thereafter, he took over the management of the mills and a new chapter began – but one which owed a huge debt to Dale’s creation – something which Owen seldom acknowledged.
While this would all have been quite enough for most people, Dale’s business interests continued to expand. He had a house in New Lanark but the day to day management was left to William Kelly, a skilled engineer and manager. The main offices of the business were in St Andrew’s Square, Glasgow and Dale continued to live in Charlotte Street in the city. (Later in life he added a country house, Rosebank, in Cambuslang, to his properties.) He divided his time between New Lanark, the Royal Bank and the offices in St Andrews Square. However, this is only half of the Dale story. He was an entrepreneur of the highest order and, while New Lanark was the biggest of his businesses, it was not the only one.
He was involved in a number of other cotton mills. Not long after spinning began in New Lanark, Dale built a new mill in Blantyre and once again, there was a school for the apprentices. He sold the venture to James Monteith in 1792. The mills are better known nowadays as the birthplace of missionary David Livingstone. In 1788, Dale went into partnership with Claud Alexander of Ballochmyle (former Paymaster for the East India Company) in a spinning mill in Catrine in Ayrshire. Dale was heavily involved in the design of these mills and within a few years, some 1,300 people were employed. Once again there were apprentice (but no pauper) children and a proper school was provided. He remained involved with the business until 1801 when the mills were sold to James Finlay. Dale’s interests spread far and wide. In partnership with a number of others, he opened a small mill in Spinningdale in Sutherland. This was more a charitable effort than anything else. The aim was to provide work and relieve famine, distress in the area and also to stem the tide of emigration from the Highlands. Dale remained involved long after all the others had left and continued to finance it until two years before his death. The mill burned down a year later.
In Glasgow, Dale’s business profile continued to grow. In Dalmarnock he set up a dyeworks where cloth was dyed with a new, colourfast dye called ‘Turkey Red’ (sometimes known in the city as 'Dale’s Red’). In the centre of town, in what is now Ingram Street, he built a warehouse and small manufactory which produced linen strips or tapes known as ‘incles’ or Scotch Tape. The company traded under the name Dale, Campbell, Reid & Dale. The second Dale here is David Dale’s nephew, also David, and known as David Dale Junior. Still in Glasgow, Dale invested a significant sum in the insurance business. He became a Director of the Glasgow Fire Insurance Company. Despite its name, the company sold life insurance and annuities and had offices in George Street and Wilson Street. Dale also owned a significant amount of land and property in and around the city. Records show at least 18 land and property transactions in his name. These included lands and tenements in the Ramshorn (Ingram Street) area, tenements in Shuttle Street, properties in Barrowfield and Ruchill and a major investment in land and property in the Parkhead area.
Philanthropy and Civic Duty
So far, this account of Dale’s life has shown him to be a very successful businessman but he was equally famous for his involvement with charitable projects throughout the city – not merely as a subscriber but as a Director or Manager. Without exception, newspaper reports of the time talk of his charity, his kindness, his benevolence and his good deeds and public works. Undoubtedly, much of this was inspired by his religious belief. He was a strongly evangelical Christian, a pastor in the Dissenting (Secessionist) Church, often to be found preaching on Sundays in meeting houses all over the city. He made his position clear in one of his sermons:
Riches are one great object. These frequently take to themselves wings and flyaway... they profit not in the day of wrath. And if these are obtained by oppressing the poor, or withholding from the needy what his wants demand from us, the consequence is awful... your riches are corrupted.
It seems his reputation for benevolence and charity was well deserved. He donated lots of money to small charitable ventures on a regular basis. These included the Howard Fund for prison reform, an injured servicemen’s charity, the Royal Northern Infirmary in Inverness, Perth Academy and the newly-formed Glasgow Humane Society, where he agreed to become a Director and undertake fundraising on their behalf. He was better known for some of his more public philanthropy and civic duties. He served as a Bailie and Magistrate in the city for two years – something which he found particularly time-consuming and onerous. Nevertheless, he earned a reputation in the press for his relatively lenient approach and became known as ‘The Benevolent Magistrate’. When it became clear that a new road was required between Clydesdale and England, he gave £700 towards the cost – a great deal of money. Spinningdale has already been mentioned but on several occasions he helped to feed those in need. For example, he provided meal to the poor in Stewarton at below cost price and he sent a ship to the U.S. to bring back grain which he distributed to the poor in Glasgow.
His desire to help those in need continued in his commitment to two very public institutions in Glasgow. He served for twenty years as a Director of the Town’s Hospital– the equivalent of a charity workhouse for the poor, orphans, elderly, sick and, until 1814, the mentally ill. Dale served on the institution’s Manufacturing Committee and took his duties very seriously.
The same can be said for his involvement with Glasgow Royal Infirmary. The Infirmary was intended ‘...for the reception of indigent persons under bodily distress in the west of Scotland’. Dale was involved in this project from its very beginning in 1788. He chaired the group which raised the funds, found the land and supervised the building work of this major city institution. He subscribed £200 of his own money and when the building finally opened in 1795, he was appointed as a manager, along with several of the city’s most prominent men. Once again, he was very committed to this cause and spent the rest of his life as a Manager or Director. He stood to gain nothing personally from this commitment. The Infirmary was for the poor. However, as a Manager and annual subscriber, he had the right to refer a number of his workers from New Lanark and between 1795 and 1803 he personally referred some 64 patients.
So far, so good. Dale was a successful businessman and a generous philanthropist. There is one issue in all of this which needs to be considered – and not just in the case of David Dale. The wealth of Glasgow’s merchants (and therefore of the city itself), whether it derived from tobacco, cotton, rum or sugar, depended on the labour of enslaved men, women and children. Until relatively recently, this was never discussed in much detail. Many of Glasgow’s powerful group of West India merchants, for example, had direct connections to plantations of one form or another and took little part in the burgeoning anti-slavery movement of the late 18th century. Indeed, some of them traded slaves for profit. What was Dale’s position on all of this?
Dale, slavery and the abolition Movement
The raw cotton which Dale, in common with all British mill owners, used for spinning in his mills came from three principal sources, i.e. the United States (e.g. Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana), South America (Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil and the West Indies (Trinidad, Bahamas, Jamaica etc.) – all places where slave labour was the norm. Cotton was traded in the U.K’s major cities, including Glasgow. Anyone who worked in the cotton industry, therefore, depended on the slave trade either directly or indirectly.
However, by the late 18th century, attitudes to slavery were beginning to change. The Abolition movement was growing and the slavery issue could not be ignored any longer.
Nationally, the Abolitionists were led by Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce in London and the London Society sent representatives across the country seeking support for anti-slavery petitions. Glasgow’s response was to set up The Glasgow Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in January 1791. David Dale was in the Chair. (It is also worth noting that, in the same year, Dale bought shares in the newly-formed Sierra Leone Company which sought to establish a colony of freed slaves.)
Chairing the Glasgow Society was a huge statement on Dale’s part – and a courageous one. He stood to lose power and influence among the city’s West India merchants and possibly other members of the Chamber of Commerce, but he did support the (albeit gradual) abolition of the slave trade. The Glasgow group’s first task was to publicise the London Society’s pamphlet, with a Preface about the new Glasgow Society. There were various meetings throughout 1791, all chaired by Dale and the Glasgow Society sent 100 guineas to the London campaign offices. The following year, the Glasgow Society met on a number of occasions in support of the various public petitions which were being drawn up in all the cities and towns in Scotland.
At a General Meeting of the Glasgow Society on 1 February 1792, with Dale in the Chair, the members resolved;
…that the traffic in the human species is founded on the grossest injustice, is attended with the utmost cruelty and barbarity to an innocent race of men and is productive of ruin and desolation of a country which the efforts of the well-directed industry of Great Britain might contribute to civilise.
On Commerce and the Enlightenment:
[the slave trade]…is directly repugnant to the primary laws of nature…and that its continuance, in this enlightened age, is disgraceful to the nation and utterly inconsistant (sic) with the profession of Christians.
It is surely to Dale’s credit that he took a public stand against slavery when so many in the city refused to do so. It was risky in that he did not want to alienate the people with whom he required to do business and he required to do business to keep hundreds of people in employment and to support many more people through his charitable work. Moral positions in the late 18th century were not always clear cut. Robert Burns, often see as the champion of equality, was just days away from leaving these shores to work as a bookkeeper (often a synonym for ‘overseer’) in a Jamaican plantation. In the U.S., Washington and Jefferson, the advocates of freedom and liberty for all, were both slave owners. Closer to home, David Hume, Scotland’s famous philosopher of the liberal Enlightenment, took a rather less liberal view of things when he wrote that ‘there never was a polished society but of the white race, to which all others are naturally inferior’ and that ‘…there never was a civilised nation of any other complexion than white’. Dale, like all the other mill owners, used slave cotton but, unlike all the others, did what he could to begin the process of abolishing the slave trade. Had more of his colleagues joined him, abolition might not have taken such a long time.
The End of the Beginning
When Dale died in March 1806, huge crowds of mourners lined the streets of Glasgow. Obituaries appeared in all the newspapers, including the London Times. The Glasgow Herald’s assessment of him was typical of the time. As well as acknowledging his achievements as a businessman, the paper noted that:
…his ear was never shut to the cry of distress; his private charities were boundless; and every public institution which had for its object the alleviation or prevention of human misery, in this world or in the world to come, received from him the most liberal support and encouragement.
But the story does not quite end there. Dale’s death saw the beginning of a new era in New Lanark under Owen. The great social experiment, the New Moral World, the New Social System – all Owen’s ideas – were tested in New Lanark. Pestalozzian education, nursery schooling, communitarian living – all were tried in New Lanark and the community’s fame grew even more. Owen, however, was always keen to emphasise his own achievements and deliberately underplayed and undervalued Dale’s achievements. There were also serious questions (still unanswered) about Owen’s role in the administration of the Dale estate. Dale’s daughters, for example, never received the money they should have from their father’s estate. That Owen became famous is not in doubt – and rightly so. What is equally clear is that, having been overshadowed by Owen for so long, Dale also deserves some recognition. The Royal Bank, the New Lanark Trust and the Friends of New Lanark are among the few organisations who have sought to rekindle interest in Dale over the years and there is a growing recognition in the academic world but there is some way to go before the general public become aware of his important role in Scottish history and it is to be hoped that Dale’s achievements in the 18th century are recognised as much as Owen’s in the 19th century.
Modern publications on Dale:
Modern publications on Owen:
- Claeys, G. (ed)(1993) The Selected Works of Robert Owen. Pickering & Chato.
- Davis, R. & O’Hagan, F. (2014) Robert Owen. Bloomsbury.
- Donnachie, I. & Hewitt, G. (2015) Historic New Lanark. 2nd edition. E.U.P.
- Donnachie, I. (2005). Robert Owen, Social Visionary. 2nd edition. Birlinn.
- Siméon, O. (2017). Robert Owen's Experiment at New Lanark. Palgrave Macmillan.
- Baines, E. (1835) History of the Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain. London: Fisher.
- Black, W.G. (1912) ‘David Dale’s House in Charlotte Street’, Transactions of the Regality
- Club (1889-1912), 4 vols. Vol 4 (1912):93-121. Glasgow: James Maclehose & Sons.
- Liddell, A. (1854) Memoir of David Dale. Blackie.
- Owen, R. (1857). Life of Robert Owen by Himself .Effingham Wilson.
- Podmore, F. (1906) Robert Owen – A Biography. Hutchinson & Co.
- Compared with Robert Owen, relatively little has been written about Dale, which is surprising, given the latter’s impact on the early industrial revolution in Scotland. However, there is one full biography of Dale: see McLaren, D. J. (2015). David Dale: A Life. Catrine: Stenlake Publishing Ltd.
- Devine, T.M. (1999). The Scottish Nation 1700-2000. Penguin. p. 115.
- There are many biographies of Owen. See, for example, Donnachie, I. (2015). Robert Owen, Social Visionary. 2nd edition. Edinburgh University Press; Podmore, F. (1906) Robert Owen – A Biography. London: Hutchinson & Co. See also Claeys, G. (1993) The Selected Works of Robert Owen. Pickering and Chatto. Owen’s autobiography (Life of Robert Owen by Himself), written in 1857, requires caution as his recollections were not always accurate.
- National Records of Scotland indicate 1 January but, in the absence of parish documentation, this is simply a computer default date.
- Black, W.G. (1912). "David Dale's House in Charlotte Street". Transactions of the Regality Club (1889-1912). Volume 4. James Maclehose & Sons. pp. 93–121.
- Stuart, R (1848). Views and notices of Glasgow in Former Times. Allan & Ferguson. p. 117.
- Munro, N (1928). The History of the Royal Bank of Scotland 1727-1927. Clark Ltd.
- Glasgow Chamber of Commerce Minutes. Glasgow City Archives.
- Stewart, G (1881). Curiosities of Glasgow as Exhibited Chiefly in the Business Career of its Old Commercial Aristocracy. J. Maclehose. p. 50.
- Baines, E (1835). History of the Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain. Fisher.
- New Lanark Visitors Book 1795-99. University of Glasgow Archives.
- Currie, W.W. (1831). Memoir of the Life, Writings and Correspondence of James Currie. Volume 1. Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown & Green. p. 161.
- McLaren, D.J. (2015). "David Dale to T.B. Bayley, July 1796". David Dale: A Life. Catrine: Stenlake Publishing Ltd. pp. Appendix 7.
- Register of Sasines, Burgh of Glasgow and Barony & Regality of Glasgow. Glasgow City Archives.
- Substance of a Discourse by David Dale, 8 January 1792. Glasgow University Library.
- Renwick, R, ed. (1913). Extracts from the records for the Burgh of Glasgow with Charters and other Documents. Vol. VIII.
- Glasgow Royal Infirmary Minute Book. Vol. 1. Greater Glasgow Health Board Archives.
- For a full discussion of Dale, slavery and Abolition, see McLaren, D.J. (2015) David Dale: A Life. Ch.12. Stenlake Publishing Ltd.
- The Caledonian Mercury, 9 February 1792
- The Caledonian Mercury, 9 February 1792
See References and Bibliography.