David Dale b1739 -d1806

(c) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

David Dale

Dale, Mr. David – was born 6th January 1739. He was a Scottish merchant and businessman, known for establishing the influential weaving community of New Lanark, in South Lanarkshire, Scotland and of course the mills at Blantyre. He is credited along with his son-in-law Robert Owen of being a founder of utopian socialism and a founding father of socialism. David Dale was born in Stewarton, Ayrshire. He was the son of a grocer (although some maintain he was the son of a herd boy) and was apprenticed to a Paisley weaver, subsequently working in Hamilton and Cambuslang.

He then began preparing for an entrepreneurial career, travelling round the country buying up homespun linen. He later became a clerk to a Glasgow mercer, subsequently setting up his own business in 1768 importing linen yarn from the Dutch Republic. He made an advantageous marriage to Anne Campbell, the daughter of John Campbell of Jura (John of the Bank), grandson of John Campbell, 1st Earl of Breadalbane and Holland of the massacre of Glencoe fame, and his wife, Mary who was the daughter of Archibald Campbell, 1st Marquess of Argyll. Jura was a Director of the Royal Bank of Scotland in Edinburgh and through him Dale became the Glasgow agent of that Bank in 1734, opening the Bank’s first Glasgow branch in the High Street. He had become a key part of the Burgher Gentry of Glasgow merchants.

In 1783, he had a brief partnership with inventor Sir Richard Arkwright, the cotton industrialist, to exploit Arkwright’s new technology. Arkwright may have assisted him finding some of the suitable mill sites on the Clyde. He met Arkwright at a dinner in Glasgow. Next day the pair went to the Falls of Clyde to see if the power of the Clyde could be harnessed to power a cotton mill. Their visit led to the building of New Lanark, with four mills and housing for workers. The mills operated very profitably. Later they became famous because of the social experiments conducted there by Robert Owen, who was Dale’s son in law. They closed in 1986. New Lanark has been designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

Stanley Mills had been built in 1784 by Richard Arkwright to harness the power of the Tay. Dale only became involved later and supposedly lost a lot of the money he invested in the mill. Stanley Mills continued in in business until 1989, latterly as a jute mill. The buildings are now restored. The partnership between Arkwright and Dale failed partly because Arkwright had not managed to secure full ownership of the design of the spinning frame. However, Dale continued to set up other cotton spinning factories. David Dale and Richard Arkwright dissolved their partnership over a bell hung at New Lanark, Arkwright didn’t like the position of it and Dale said if he didn’t like he could basically get lost, they had dinner at their hotel in Lanark that night and Dale bought Arkwright out.

Dale started constructing the cotton mills at Blantyre in 1778 and opened it in 1785, although he sold his interest in this mill shortly after, it continued in production until 1903. Dale went on to complete the New Lanark Mills by 1786.

One motivation for this (apart from profit) was the desire to provide alternative employment for destitute Highlanders who had been cleared from their crofts (perhaps from the estates of his Campbell of Jura relatives) as part of the Highland Clearances. Others thought he had taken a typical business opportunity when a shipload of would-be emigrants to America was stranded at Greenock. Dale left the Church of Scotland as one of the many Seceders of the 18th Century. He set up and became Pastor of a dissenting group of Christians – the Old Scotch Independents, a Congregational-type church. He was capable (according to his obituarist) of reading the Holy Scriptures in Hebrew and Greek. Some have attributed his activities at New Lanark to his religious outlook. This tradition of a philanthropic approach to business was expanded even further and with some sophistication at his factory by his son in law, Robert Owen, known as the founder of the concept of ‘Utopian Socialism’.

His daughter Caroline married Robert Owen – a Welsh entrepreneur of a similar background to Dale. Part of the marriage settlement included selling the New Lanark Mills, village and lands – for £60,000 repayable over 20 years – to a partnership including Owen. Catrine was a small village in Ayreshire until Dale and Claude Alexander built a cotton mill there in 1787. Spinningdale was a small mill built by Dale, in partnership with George Dempster, in around 1790. It was intended to relieve local unemployment but the highlanders employed in the mill kept going off to work on lambing, harvesting and cutting peat. When the mill burnt down in 1806 it was not rebuilt.

The situation of the mills emphasises the importance of waterpower. New Lanark and Blantyre were built by the Clyde, Stanley by the Tay, Catrine by the Ayre. Spinningdale harnessed a burn. With the exception of Spinningdale all the mills were inland and in remote locations. Raw cotton would have had to have been shipped to a Scottish port, unloaded and carted to the mills. Then the finished products who have to have been carted away, some back to ports for export. The shipping costs must have been enormous, but insignificant compared with the benefits of water-powered milling. At New Lanark and Catrine reservoirs were built to store water so that the mills could continue in operation even in summer. Long tunnels were cut through rock at New Lanark and Stanley to carry water to the mills.

The conditions in some cotton mills were appalling. Many employed child labour and treated the children very badly. There were high death rates. Dale cared about his workers and provided good accommodation and decent working conditions. New Lanark had particularly good housing, the first working class school in Scotland and The Institute for the Formation of Character.

His daughter Mary Dale married James Haldane Stewart, an Anglican clergyman related to the Stewarts of Appin. Dale retired to his country retreat a few miles from Glasgow – “Rosebank” in Cambuslang, though he died at his house in Charlotte Street on 17th March 1806. His funeral cortège was followed to St David’s Church (the Ramshorn Kirk) in Glasgow’ Ingram Street by some of the most prominent figures of the day. His grave in the southeast corner of the kirkyard has the simple inscription “David Dale, Merchant”. Dale’s grandson and namesake David Dale was created a baronet in 1895 (see Dale baronets). According to the Royal Bank of Scotland, David Dale’s portrait was featured on its £5 notes (from 1966) and £1 notes (from 1967). And, from 1967 Dale’s portrait was also used as the illustration on its savings stamps.

The people of Blantyre were thankful for Dale. Dale’s mills started the industrial revolution in Scotland.   They also introduced the factory system and changed the ways in which people lived and worked.

On social media:

Elizabeth Dobson Grieve His interest in the bank of Scotland came after my 8x great grandfathers time at the bank. He was the first treasurer of the bank before his death in 1700.

Jane Johnstone Dale and Owen, the instigators of education in Lanarkshire.


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  1. I am descended from David Dale’s Grandfather. I have an extensive Family Tree with over 1,250 relatives from all over the world. Happy to share with you for any info you may have.

    1. Andrew – i’d love to know what became of this line after David Dale died. Please do feel free to get in contact by email using the contact button on the website. Thanks. Paul

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