Owen, Robert., 1777-1858

Birth 1777
Death 1858

Biographical notes:

Robert Owen (1771-1858) was born at Newtown, Wales to a working family, his father being employed as the local postmaster. From an early age Owen was encouraged to read and debate, and using this knowledge he was able to mentor the younger children at his school. Aged just 10 he left school and was apprenticed to a Mr James McGuffog, a linen draper from Stamford, Lincolnshire, and, according to his Autobiography, he was independent from his parents from this point onwards.

By 1784 Owen had moved to London and was employed at Flint and Palmers, a busy store on London Bridge where prices were both fixed and cheap. However, after just a year Owen moved on to Manchester to begin work for a Mr Sattersfield, whose ran a business whose custom was mainly drawn from the upper middle class clients. This move proved crucial to the development of Owen's experiences and ideas. In 1785 Manchester was the epicenter of the Industrial Revolution, and also a hot bed of intellectual and philanthropic discourse and Owen was often present at the meetings of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society where he was able to expand his knowledge on a number of subjects.

In 1789 Owen set up a spinning business with a man named Jones, with capital borrowed from an elder brother of Owen's. They were an unlikely pairing; Jones having no knowledge of business and Owen having none of machinery, and in 1790 the partnership was dissolved. However, both continued spinning with their share of the machinery and by 1791 Owen had turned a profit.

Owen was clearly a man not lacking in confidence, and on hearing of an opportunity arising in 1791 to manage a fine-spinning mill owned by a rich merchant named Drinkwater, Owen decided to apply. Drinkwater agreed, hiring Owen at a salary of £300 a year with Owen soon proving successful; by 1793 the mill had doubled the fineness of its cotton and also become one of the first mills to use "American Sea Island" cotton from the United States.

Owen left in 1794 and became a partner of a new venture named the Chorlton Twist Company. Whilst in Glasgow on business trip for this company, Owen met Miss Caroline Dale who was the daughter of David Dale, owner of New Lanark Mills. Miss Dale offered to show Owen her father's mill, an offer Owen was happy to accept. Owen was highly impressed with the mills, writing in his Autobiography, "I should prefer this [place] in which to try an experiment [in an ideal community] I have long contemplated".

In 1789 David Dale agreed to both the engagement of his daughter Caroline to Owen, and to sell his New Lanark mills for £60,000 (Owen's valuation) to Owen and partners of the Chorlton Twist Company. Owen took over the management of the New Lanark mills in 1790, aiming to create a model factory and community. The provision of education was considered by Owen as a vital if the lives of his workers were to be improved and in 1809 he proposed the building of schools, playgrounds and lecture halls at Lanark. Additionally, Owen made the radical suggestion that all children under the age of ten should not work, but these proposals did not sit to well with his partners who were of the opinion that business exists to make profit, and baulked against any investment in intangibles such as education. Arguments followed, and eventually a new set of partners was found which included Jeremy Bentham and several wealthy Quakers, all of whom were more acceptable to Owen educational proposals.

During his time at New Lanark Owen was essentially testing his theories, which he subsequently called the "New View of Society". The premise was relatively simple, a man's character was formed by the environment in which he existed, therefore if this environment was built on co-operation, forbearance and understanding the result would be harmony, well-being and ultimately the attainment of the ideal universe. Society was to be planned not on oppression but on mutual co-operation.

In 1824 Owen was pushed out of New Lanark by his partners largely as a result of his atheism. This led Owen to purchase land in Posey County, Indiana, USA, in 1825 on which he would establish a community called New Harmony. Owen advertised for tradesmen of all kinds to join him in his venture, and set sail for America along with his sons (his wife and daughters remaining in Scotland). After just 3 years the community had failed and Owen returned to Britain.

On his return to England in 1829 Owen found that his ideas had achieved popularity with the masses. It was a time when the working classes were attempting to assert themselves and in Owen's ideas saw opportunities to improve their circumstances. Owen appreciated the collective strength of the working classes, but had little time for their small schemes and instead set about trying to organize them in line with his own plans. In 1831 he was present when the First Co-operative Congress was held Manchester, at which delegates from co-operative societies gathered to resolve the best way of furthering the co-operative movement; in 1832 he help found the National Equitable Labour Exchange in London, which was established with the purpose of providing the producer co-operatives with an outlet to trade the goods they produced at a price which equated to their value expressed in labour notes. A further exchange was established in London, and a provincial one in Birmingham, but by 1834 they had failed.

In 1834 Owen became the Grand Master of the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, and within just a few weeks over half a million members were said to have enrolled causing alarm to spread amongst the propertied classes. However, the Grand National power was fleeting having been rendered ineffective following its failure to overturn the sentence passed on the six Tolpuddle labourers for being members of a Union.

Despite his recent setbacks Owen was not a man to quit, and in May 1835 he founded the Association of All Classes of All Nations and in 1837 at the Manchester Congress the National Community Friendly Society. From 1839 the two societies were united and formed into the Universal Community Society of Rational Religionists, which aimed to establish a community run on Owen"s ideals. To this end missionaries were appointed to visit the branches of the Society to encourage them to subscribe money to a Community Fund. Eventually enough money was raised to secure property at East Tytherley, Hampshire which was named Harmony (or Queenwood). The community at Harmony began in 1839 and at first progressed well. However, problems with administration and finance, and a lack of agreement at the purpose of the community soon beset the project and by 1845 the experiment was coming to an end.

Owen lived out the last years of his life at Sevenoaks in Kent. With both his eyesight and hearing failing, he relied on close associate James Rigby to carry out tasks in his behalf in London and Rigby would write to Owen on a weekly basis and send him newspapers and journals to keep him updated on world events.

Owen died in 1858 in Newtown, Wales having been an inspiration to many.

From the guide to the Robert Owen Collection, 1805-1858, (National Co-operative Archive)


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