Obituary: Dr James Arnold, former teacher who worked tirelessly to restore Robert Owen’s New Lanark

Dr James Edward Arnold MBE FRSA, champion of industrial heritage. Born: 16 March, 1945 in Glasgow. Died: 19 February, 2019 in New Lanark, aged 73

Industrial heritage champion James Arnold has died at the age of 73
Industrial heritage champion James Arnold has died at the age of 73

Working for the Ford Motor Company and witnessing the launch of the iconic Ford Capri may have seemed like a dream job for a young man with a lifelong interest in cars.

But for principled Jim Arnold the allure of a future within the global corporation faded when he realised he was uncomfortable with the impact a distant board’s decisions, such as plant closures, could have on the lives of ordinary, working people.

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Resolving to leave the world famous Detroit-based company, he turned his aspirations to teaching, a move that would ultimately see him change course again to embrace a world far removed from corporate wealth – that of industrial heritage and the regeneration of a community that had championed the end of child labour, promoted better working conditions and immeasurably improved in the lives of factory workers.

It was while working at a Buckinghamshire college of further education that Arnold, whose own roots were in coal mining, spotted a job advert for a manager of an ambitious project to reinvent the historic but decaying mill village of New Lanark. He applied, got the post and went on to take the community to Unesco World Heritage site status, earning recognition as the elder statesman of industrial heritage in the process.

Born during the Second World War, he was the son of Royal Navy stoker Edward Arnold and his wife Mary, and arrived when his father, who served on the Arctic Convoys, was at sea. In peacetime his father resumed his job in mining and the family moved from Glasgow to Kirkconnel, Dumfriesshire, where their son was educated at Kelloholm Primary School. His secondary schooling took place in Coventry where the family, which now included Arnold’s two sisters, migrated to in the mid-1950s. Arnold, who was academically bright, attended Caludon Castle Comprehensive where he also shone on the sports field and captained the rugby team.

By this time his father was working in Coventry’s booming car industry and, growing up in what was known as the British Detroit, Arnold’s interest in cars developed. At one point he too had envisaged a career in car manufacturing but was persuaded to go to university and went up to York, achieving first class honours in modern history.

From there he did enter the motor industry, joining Ford as a planning and market analyst in the Advance Vehicle Design department, a post that took him to Cyprus for the launch of the Ford Capri in 1969.

After deciding the industry was not for him, he went back to his studies, gaining a teaching qualification at the University of London and going on to become head of history and politics at Ryde School on the Isle of Wight. There he maintained his interest in cars, buying a red 1957 MGA which he enjoyed working on until very recently.

By the early 1970s he was living in High Wycombe, and working at a college of further education, when he successfully answered the newspaper advert placed by Lanark County Council. He returned to Scotland in 1974 to begin the challenge of restoring New Lanark, which was then under threat of demolition.

On arrival, when he finally found someone who could unlock the Counting House which was to be his office, he discovered there was neither electricity nor telephone – an indication of how tough the job was going to be. Arnold, known as Jim, lived in one of the village’s restored 18th century millworkers’ houses and worked tirelessly to revive the community at a time when rescuing industrial heritage was not always fashionable.

The village had been established by Scots visionary David Dale and then vastly improved by his son-in-law Robert Owen who, after becoming a partner and manager of the site’s large cotton mills, downstream from the Falls of Clyde, decided to embark on a “Great Experiment” and create a model environment. He upgraded the factory and village, built a school where children could learn instead of work and established a village store.

After leaving for America, Owen sold New Lanark. Later owned by a ropework company, some renovations were carried out in the 1960s, but it was sold to an aluminium extraction company in 1970 and the following year complete demolition was considered. However, Historic Scotland designated all the buildings Category A and the New Lanark Conservation Trust was formed in 1974 with the aim of restoring and revitalising the community as a living, working village.

With Arnold at the helm, masterminding the transformation and serving as director of the Trust, it has become internationally recognised and one of Scotland’s top visitor attractions. In recognition of his work he was made an MBE in 1989 and in 2003 received the Silver Thistle, a personal award for outstanding contribution to Scottish tourism, and an honorary doctorate by the University of York.

Meanwhile Robert Owen’s pioneering work at New Lanark and his involvement in utopian socialism led to an international conference at the village in 1988 and the establishment of a UK-based Utopian Studies. Arnold and his colleague Lorna Davidson later became founding members of the Utopian Studies Society of Europe, of which he was honorary treasurer. Arnold was also secretary of the New Lanark Housing Association and managing director of both the Lanark Mill Hotel and New Lanark Trading Ltd.

In addition he was a governor of Bell College of Higher Education in Hamilton, chairman of the Association of Independent Industrial Museums and Heritage Sites in Scotland, a board member of the Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions, a committee member of the Lanarkshire branch of the Scottish Co-operative Society, a past member of the Strathclyde European Partnership’s consultative panel for the West of Scotland, and on the Scottish Tourist Board (VisitScotland) Visitor Attractions Grading Committee.

Arnold, whose marriage to his wife Rose was dissolved, had suffered heart problems latterly and died suddenly at home in New Lanark, prompting a tide of tributes from around the world.