Owen, Robert., 1777-1858

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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)

Archival Resources
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referencedIn James Rigby Correspondence Collection, 1848-1858 National Co-operative Archive
creatorOf Robert Owen Collection, 1805-1858 National Co-operative Archive
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associatedWith Ashurst, William Henry., 1792-1855 person
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associatedWith Brook Farm Association for Industry and Education corporateBody
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associatedWith Brougham, Henry Peter., 1788-1868 1st Baron Brougham and Vaux British statesman person
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associatedWith Cobbett, William., 1763-1835 person
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associatedWith Colburn, Henry., 1784? -1855 person
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associatedWith Combe, Abram. social reformer, 1775-1827 person
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associatedWith Connard, George., fl1840 person
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associatedWith Daguerre, Louis., 1787-1851 person
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associatedWith Gardner, H F. Spiritualist lecturer, fl. 1856 person
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associatedWith Lamb, Frederick. 3rd Viscount Melbourne Diplomat person
associatedWith Lamb, William., 1779-1848 2nd Viscount Melbourne statesman person
associatedWith Lamb, William. 2nd Viscount Melbourne Politician person
associatedWith Lancashire Regeneration Society corporateBody
associatedWith Larken, Edmund Roberts., 1809-1895 person
associatedWith Lautenschlager, Carl person
associatedWith Lawless, Valantine Brown., 1773-1853 2nd Baron Cloncurry Irish politician person
associatedWith Lawless, Valentine. 2nd Baron Cloncurry Politician person
associatedWith Lawless, Valentine Brown., 1773-1853 2nd Baron Cloncurry person
associatedWith Lawless, Valentine Browne., 1773-1853 2nd Baron Cloncurry politician and landowner person
associatedWith Lawson, John Joseph. Printer person
associatedWith Lecand, J. V. person
associatedWith Lechevalier, Jules person
associatedWith Ledward, Gordon person
associatedWith Leeds Infant School Society corporateBody
associatedWith Leeds Redemption Society corporateBody
associatedWith Legg, William. Reverend Congregational minister person
associatedWith Leonhardt, German Charles Baron person
associatedWith Leopold 1. King of Belgium person
associatedWith Leopold I, 1790-1865 person
associatedWith Levy, Lewis person
associatedWith Lewis, George Cornewall. 2nd Baronet Politician person
associatedWith Lewsche, Jane person
associatedWith Library of Congress corporateBody
associatedWith Lindenau, Bernhard August. von, 1780-1854 person
associatedWith Lindsay, James person
associatedWith Literary and Scientific Institution corporateBody
associatedWith Literary Institute corporateBody
associatedWith Literary Union corporateBody
associatedWith Liverpool Mechanics Institute corporateBody
associatedWith Liverpool Medical Institution corporateBody
associatedWith Liverpool Rational School Society corporateBody
associatedWith Liverpool Street Institution corporateBody
associatedWith Livingstone, James person
associatedWith Loanes, Robert person
associatedWith Lodges of Industrious Females corporateBody
associatedWith London and Limerick Steam Ship Company corporateBody
associatedWith London Mechanics Institute corporateBody
associatedWith London Mercurary corporateBody
associatedWith London Mercury corporateBody
associatedWith London Society for the Protection of Young Females corporateBody
associatedWith London Working Men's Association corporateBody
associatedWith Lonergan, James person
associatedWith Lord, A. B. person
associatedWith Loudon, John Claudius. Botanist, Architect, Publisher person
associatedWith Louis-Philippe. King Monarch person
associatedWith Lourdennot, A.. Editor person
associatedWith Lovett, William., 1800-1877 person
associatedWith Lowe, James person
associatedWith Lucas, Herbert. Barrister person
associatedWith Ludlow, David person
associatedWith Ludwig I. King of Bavaria Monarch person
associatedWith Luigi, Carlo Maria Giuseppe of Bourbon-Two Sicilies., 1824-1897 person
associatedWith Lunn, Edward person
associatedWith Macauley, Thomas Babington., 1800-1859 1st Baron Macauley historian and politician person
associatedWith Macdaniel, Osborne. utopian socialist person
associatedWith Maceroni, Francis., 1788-1846 person
associatedWith MacGregor, John., 1797-1857 person
associatedWith MacLure, William., 1763-1840 person
associatedWith Manchester Association corporateBody
associatedWith Manchester Association for Promoting Co-operative Knowledge corporateBody
associatedWith Manchester Owenian Cooperative Society corporateBody
associatedWith Mandley, George. ( fl 1850s) person
associatedWith Marrast, Armand., 1801-1852 person
associatedWith Marshall, George person
associatedWith Martineau, Harriet., 1802-1876 person
associatedWith Martineau, James., 1805-1900 person
associatedWith Maubert, William. ( fl 1830s) person
associatedWith Mazzani, Guiseppe., 1805-1872 person
associatedWith Mazzini, Guiseppe., 1805-1872 person
associatedWith McCormac, John. ( fl 1830s) person
associatedWith McGowan, Anne. ( fl 1850s) person
associatedWith Mechanics and Working Men's Party corporateBody
associatedWith Meehan, John Silva., 1829-1861 person
associatedWith Mercantile Library Association corporateBody
associatedWith Messrs. S. G. Warburg and Co corporateBody
associatedWith Metternich, Klemens Wenzel. von, 1773-1859 person
associatedWith Milam, Benjamin Rush. soldier person
associatedWith Millennial Society corporateBody
associatedWith Molesworth, William. Sir, 1810-1855 8th Baronet person
associatedWith Montaldo, Ignacio. ( fl 1850s) maths professor person
associatedWith Montgomerie, Archibald., 1812-1861 13th Earl of Eglington politician person
associatedWith Montgomerie, Archibald., 1812-1861 13th Earl of Eglinton person
associatedWith Morgan, John Minter., 1782-1854 person
associatedWith Morison, Alexander person
associatedWith Morison, James., 1770-1840 person
associatedWith Morse, Samuel Finley Breese., 1791-1872 person
associatedWith Motier, Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert. du, 1757-1834 person
associatedWith Motier, Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier., 1757-1834 person
associatedWith Mudie, George., b1788 person
associatedWith Napoleon III, 180-1873 person
associatedWith Napoleon III, 1808-1873 person
associatedWith Nash, Eliezer. Goldsmith, 1834-1878 person
associatedWith National Assembly of France corporateBody
associatedWith National Association for the Promotion of Social Science corporateBody
associatedWith National Colonization Society, 1830 corporateBody
associatedWith National Community Friendly Society corporateBody
associatedWith National Equitable Labour Exchange corporateBody
associatedWith National Regeneration Society corporateBody
associatedWith National Sunday League corporateBody
associatedWith National Union of The Working Classes corporateBody
associatedWith Nautical Almanac corporateBody
associatedWith Neale, Edward Vansittart ., 1810-1892 person
associatedWith Neale, Edward Vansittart. barrister person
associatedWith Neal, William person
associatedWith Neil, Robert person
associatedWith Newall, Walter person
associatedWith New England Fourier Society corporateBody
associatedWith New Lanark Company corporateBody
associatedWith New York Tribune corporateBody
associatedWith Nicholas I Emperor of Russia ., 1825-1855 person
associatedWith Noble, Noah., 1794-1844 person
associatedWith North West of England United Co-operative Company corporateBody
associatedWith Oastler, Richard., 1789-1861 person
associatedWith O'Brien, James (Bronterre)., 1804-1864 person
associatedWith O'Brien, James Bronterre., 1805-1864 person
associatedWith O'Connor, Feargus., 1796? -1855 person
associatedWith Offord, Daniel., 1845-1911 person
associatedWith Offord, William. ( fl 1850s) person
associatedWith Owen, Anne., d 1830 person
associatedWith Owen, David Dale., 1807-1860 person
associatedWith Owen, Richard., 1810-1890 person
associatedWith Pages, M. Garnier person
associatedWith Paine, Thomas., 1737-1809 person
associatedWith Palmer, John Horsley., 1779-1858 person
associatedWith Pare, William., 1804-1873 person
associatedWith Pare, William., 1805-1873 person
associatedWith Parkington, John. Sir ( fl 1850s) person
associatedWith Paul, Alexander person
associatedWith Paul Anton III., 1786-1866 person
associatedWith Pearson, Charles person
associatedWith Peel, Sir Robert., 1788-1850 2nd Baronet Prime Minister person
associatedWith Pélissier, Aimable Jean Jacques., 1794-1864 person
associatedWith Pemberton, Robert ., 1788-1879 person
associatedWith Pemberton, Robert. ( fl 1850s) author person
associatedWith Pestalozzi, Johann Heinrich., 1746-1827 person
associatedWith Peters, William Smalling., 1779-1853 person
associatedWith Philanthropic Society of Coopers corporateBody
associatedWith Phillpotts, Henry., 1778-1869 person
associatedWith Phills, Constantine Henry., 1797-1863 1st Marquess of Normanby statesman person
associatedWith Phipps, Constantine Henry., 1797-1863 1st Marquess of Normanby statesman person
associatedWith Phipps, Sir. Charles Beaumont, 1801-1866 person
associatedWith Pickersgill, Henry William ., 1872-1875 person
associatedWith Pierce, Franklin., 1804-1869 person
associatedWith Place, Francis., 1771-1854 person
associatedWith Poinsett, Joel Roberts person
associatedWith Potter, Thomas., 1774-1845 person
associatedWith Powell, Lazarus Whitehead., 1812-1867 19th Governor of Kentucky person
associatedWith Price, Henry. Captain person
associatedWith Price, James person
associatedWith Price, William person
associatedWith Prince George., 1819-1904 2nd Duke of Cambridge person
associatedWith Radcliffe, Henry person
associatedWith Ramsden, J. C.. ( fl 1830s) politician person
associatedWith Ramsey, Fox. Maule -, 1801-1874 11th Earl of Dalhousie politician person
associatedWith Randolph, Pascal Beverly., 1825-1875 person
associatedWith Randolph, Paschal Beverly., 1825-1875 person
associatedWith Rapp, Frederick Reichert., 1775-1834 person
associatedWith Rapp, Johann Georg., 1757-1847 person
associatedWith Rathbone, William., 1787-1868 person
associatedWith Rational Society corporateBody
associatedWith Reciprocal Trading Chamber and Mutual Assistance Society corporateBody
associatedWith Redford, George., 1785-1860 person
associatedWith Regeneration Society corporateBody
associatedWith Richmond, Alexander Bailey., fl 1809-1834 person
associatedWith Rigby, James person
associatedWith Rigby, James., 1797-1862 person
associatedWith Rigby, James., 1806-1862 person
associatedWith Robert, Atkinson person
associatedWith Robinson, Frederick John., 1782-1859 1st Earl of Ripon statesman person
associatedWith Robinson, George Richard., 1781-1850 person
associatedWith Robinson, Samuel person
associatedWith Rocafuerte, Vincente., 1783-1847 person
associatedWith Roebuck, John Arthur., 1802-1879 person
associatedWith Romanov, Nicholas Pavlovich., 1796-1855 person
associatedWith Rose, Ernestine., 1810-1892 person
associatedWith Rothschild, Amschel Mayer., 1773-1865 person
associatedWith Rothschild, Lionel Nathan. de, 1808-1879 person
associatedWith Rothschild, Salomon Mayer. von, 1774-1855 person
associatedWith Royal British Bank corporateBody
associatedWith Royal Irish Rail Road Carriage Company. corporateBody
associatedWith Ruskin, John., 1819-1900 person
associatedWith Russell, John., 1792-1878 1st Earl Russell statesman person
associatedWith Ryall, Malthus person
associatedWith Ryder, Robert. ( fl 1850s) person
associatedWith Ryves, Lavinia Jannetta Horton., 1797-1871 person
associatedWith Sadler, Michael Thomas., 1780-1835 person
associatedWith Saint-Simon, Henri de., 1760-1825 person
associatedWith Salford Co-operative School corporateBody
associatedWith Salt, Titus. Sir, 1803-1876 person
associatedWith Saull, William Devonshire., 1784-1855 person
associatedWith Saxe-Coburg-Gotha family. family
associatedWith Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, Victoria., 1786-1861 person
associatedWith Scott, John., 1751-1838 person
associatedWith Shorter, Thomas., 1823-1899 person
associatedWith Simpson, Thomas. ( fl 1830s) Secretary of Potters Union person
associatedWith Smith, Erasmus., 1611-1691 person
associatedWith Smith, John., 1767-1842 person
associatedWith Smith, John Abel., ? 1802-1871 person
associatedWith Smith, Joseph person
associatedWith Smith, Sir William Sidney. Admiral, 1764-1840 person
associatedWith Smithsonian Institution corporateBody
associatedWith Social Co-operative Community corporateBody
associatedWith Social Institution corporateBody
associatedWith Social Reform League corporateBody
associatedWith Social Science League corporateBody
associatedWith Société universelle de Civilisation corporateBody
associatedWith Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals corporateBody
associatedWith Society Francaise de Statistique Universelle corporateBody
associatedWith Society of Free Enquirers corporateBody
associatedWith Society of Friends of Foreigners in Distress corporateBody
associatedWith Somerville, William., 1802-1873 1st Baron Athlumney 1st Baron Meredyth Politician person
associatedWith Spirit of the Age Newspaper Association corporateBody
associatedWith Steer, John . barrister person
associatedWith Stevens, Woodhouse person
associatedWith Stewart, James Haldale., 1778-1854 person
associatedWith Stewart, James Haldane., 1778-1854 person
associatedWith Stocks, William. ( fl1830s) chief constable of Hudderfield person
associatedWith Stowe, Harriet Beecher., 1811-1896 person
associatedWith St Pancras Parochial Committee corporateBody
associatedWith Stuart, Charles., 1779-1845 1st Baron Stuart de Rothesay diplomat person
associatedWith Stuart, Dudley. Lord politician, ( 11 January 1803 - 17 November 1854) person
associatedWith Tait, Archibald., 1811-1882 person
associatedWith Tait, Archibald Campbell., 1811-1892 person
associatedWith Tallmadge, Nathaniel Pitcher., 1795-1864 person
associatedWith Taylor, Clark person
associatedWith Taylor, Herbert., 1775-1839 person
associatedWith Taylor, Robert., 1784-1844 person
associatedWith Taylor, Thomas person
associatedWith Taylor, William person
associatedWith Temple, Henry John., 1784-1865 3rd Viscount Palmerston person
associatedWith Temple, Henry John., 1784-1865 3rd Viscount Palmerston statesman person
associatedWith Temple, Henry John., 1784-1865 4th Viscount Palmerston, statesman person
associatedWith Tennent, James Emerson., 1804-1869 person
associatedWith The Community Fund Society corporateBody
associatedWith The Co-operative and Economical Society corporateBody
associatedWith The Friendly Society of Operative Traders corporateBody
associatedWith The Irish Engineering Company corporateBody
associatedWith The Ladies' Guild corporateBody
associatedWith The Lancet corporateBody
associatedWith The Leader corporateBody
associatedWith The Liverpool Hall of Science Co-operative Building corporateBody
associatedWith The Liverpool Mechanics Institution corporateBody
associatedWith The National Community Friendly Society corporateBody
associatedWith The New Benefit Society corporateBody
associatedWith The Philalethean Society corporateBody
associatedWith The Philalethean Society of Edinburgh corporateBody
associatedWith The Philanthropic Society corporateBody
associatedWith The Rational Society corporateBody
associatedWith The Royal Dublin Society corporateBody
associatedWith The Royal Institute of Great Britain corporateBody
associatedWith The Working Co-operative Printers corporateBody
associatedWith The Working Printers Association corporateBody
associatedWith Thomas, Barnes., 1785-1841 person
associatedWith Thomas, David. bookseller person
associatedWith Thomas, Francis person
associatedWith Thompson, James person
associatedWith Thompson, Joseph person
associatedWith Thompson, Thomas Perronet., 1783-1869 person
associatedWith Thompson, William., 1775-1833 person
associatedWith Thomson, Charles Poulett., 1799-1841 1st Baron Sydenham politician person
associatedWith Thornton, Henry person
associatedWith Tight, Benjamin A. person
associatedWith Tight, Charlotte person
associatedWith Tooke, William person
associatedWith Tookey, Editor, Christian Spiritualist person
associatedWith Torrington, Francis., 1786-1868 person
associatedWith Travis, Henry person
associatedWith Travis, Henry., 1807-1884 person
associatedWith Travis, Henry., d 1875 person
associatedWith Treadgold, William person
associatedWith Trevelyan, W. C. person
associatedWith Trist, Nicholas., 1800-1874 person
associatedWith Tritton, Henry. Banker person
associatedWith Truelove, Edward., 1804-1899 person
associatedWith Truelove, Edward., 1809-1899 person
associatedWith Turner, James. tailor person
associatedWith Turner, John person
associatedWith Turner, J. R. person
associatedWith Tytherley corporateBody