biography, utopian socialism, New Harmony
[Robert Owen, New Lanark]
Rochdale, Co-operative movement, utopian socialist

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Robert Owen - biography
New Lanark mills

  Owen, Robert (1771-1858), was a British utopian socialist who is generally considered to have been the father of the Co-operative movement.

  He was born on May 14th, 1771, in Newtown, mid-Wales, and grew up as the youngest son of a family involved in iromongery and saddlery on a modest scale. In his early years an accident, involving the swallowing of a mouthful of scaldingly hot porridge, left him with a lifetime legacy of digestive delicacy and associated caution about what he ate. Owen attributed some beneficial effects from this accident in that it "gave him the habit of close observation and continual reflection".

  From a very early age Robert Owen was a great reader of books often sourced by borrowing from educated people in the town. His abilities were such that at age seven he was entrusted with a role as "usher" (assistant master) in the local school. He also excelled at sports and took an interest in music.

  At the age of nine he was apprenticed to a draper's shop, and he quickly gained knowledge of fabrics. At eleven years of age he moved to London and was employed in the drapery trade where he was obliged to put in an eighteen hour day, six days a week, with only short breaks for his meals. As he found these working conditions to be hard to cope with he asked his friends to look out for a new situation that would suit him and, as a result, found employment in a drapery in Manchester.

  Whilst in this employment a supplier to the business where he worked encouraged him to raise some capital with the view of going into a business partnership manufacturing models of the "new and curious" machines that had been devised to produce spun cotton. Although the business proved to be a modest success his partner, two years later, wished to move on with wealthier associates.

  At the termination of the machine building partnership Robert Owen, at the age of twenty, was left in possession of a fairly prosperous small scale business but followed up an opportunity through which he obtained the position of manager in a Manchester textile mill where there were five hundred people employed. As he proved successful in this position his employer gave him additional responsibility for the management of another large factory.

  Robert Owen had moved from Wales to London and Manchester with a limited amount of formal education and speaking a regional form of Welsh-English. His present position of increasing prominence in the booming industrial town of Manchester was such as to allow him entry to the Manchester "Lit. and Phil." (Literary and Philosophical Society) where he met many of Manchester's most prominent citizens. In 1795 he took up, as part owner, a new post that brought with it responsibilities for the buying of raw cotton and selling finished product as well as large scale factory management. The following year membership of the Manchester Board of Health gave him an insight into the sort of working conditions that were in place in many of Manchester's factories.

  Whilst travelling on company business Robert Owen met a young lady named Anne Caroline Dale who was the daughter of a prosperous cotton manufacturer, Mr. David Dale, whose business interests were based in New Lanark some thirty miles from Glasgow. David Dale was involved in an efficient business that was run on markedly humanitarian lines in terms of the standards of the day. Although Robert Owen wished to marry Anne Caroline Dale his first approach to her father was to gain his consent to Owen and his partner's purchasing of Dale's business interests rather than Owen's personal wish to marry Dale's daughter. In 1799 Robert Owen, at the age of twenty-seven, finalised the purchase of the Dale factory holdings in New Lanark, Scotland, and married Anne Caroline Dale soon thereafter.

  As the manager of the New Lanark mills which employed some two thousand people, (including some five hundred childen whose working life had begun at the age of five or six when they had left Edinburgh or Glasgow workhouses), Robert Owen introduced a yet more humane and progressive employment regime than that which had been in place under David Dale. No children younger than ten years old were employed and these were allowed relatively decent breaks for meals and some modestly worthwhile educational opportunities. As far as adult employees went he sought to introduce some new machinery, to improve the flow of work through the factory, and to quietly discourage pilfering and drunkenness.

  New Lanark gained international fame when Owen's experiments in enhancing his workers' environment resulted in increased productivity and profit. Robert Owen spent considerable amounts on improving housing conditions in New Lanark, arranging the public refuse system, and for the paving of its streets. He also arranged for a company store that sold goods of higher quality and at lower prices than the stores that had previously been available in the area. This store managed to make a profit that Owen diverted towards funding a school for the worker's children leading to the establishment of the first infant school in Great Britain through Owen's support for the educational efforts of James Buchanan.

  During these times Robert Owen had a number of business partners who believed that Owen's philanthropic approach was costing them money. There was a difference of opinion where those partners seemed to want to squeeze Owen out and sell the business on the open market. In the event a number of rich and philanthropically inclined people, (including Jeremy Bentham and William Allen), who knew and approved of Owen's relatively benevolent approach to business management, arranged to associate with Robert Owen in the buying out of the business with Owen continuing as manager.

  The same year (1813) that this new partnership was put in place Owen's A New View of Society or Essays on the Principle of the Formation of the Human Character was published. In this work Owen sets out the principles on which his system of educational philanthropy was based. An "Institute for the Formation of Character" was established at New Lanark that included opportunities for nursery, infant, and adult, education as well as community rooms and public halls. Owen believed in the advancement of humankind and, by improving the circumstances of life, expected that an innate human goodness would more readily be displayed.

  The social and economic experimentation that was taking place at New Lanark attracted the notice of many in Britain and more widely in Europe. Manufacturers thought they might find humane ways of improving their profits. Philanthropists thought that that here was an example of a progressive system of employment where the happier aspects of Humanity could be encouraged to develop. Many in society found hope in an example of working conditions that seemed to allow people to develop more fully and to be less likely to have to live in squalid urban settlements in the future.
  The New Lanark mills became a place of pilgrimage for social reformers, statemen and royal personages. Many of these were particularly encouraged by the generally contented character of the young people as they were turned out from the educational process in being there.

  Owen became somewhat involved in politics being narrowly defeated in an attempt to gain a seat in parliament and, in 1815, was the moving spirit behind an attempt to secure the passing of a progressive law regulating the employment of children and young persons. By 1817 Owen's ideas were moving towards what we would today regard as Socialism and Co-operative ownership - this was partly in response to the stagnation and unemployment associated with a marked fall off in trade at the close of the Napoleonic Wars. As a remedy for pauperism Owen devised a scheme for the establishment of a increasing number of fairly large scale (i.e. 1200 persons on 1500 acres/600 hectares) productive communities by individuals, parishes, counties or the state.

  Partly due to his being exposed as something of a free thinker in religious matters Owen came to see that there was little possibility of his getting such schemes off the ground in Europe and he decided to pursue his ideas in the Americas.

  Owen and his family moved to the United States in 1824 where his fame had preceded him and where he had an interview with the President of the United States. He was able to purchase 8100 hectares (20,000 acres) at Harmony, Indiana, that were then being offered for sale by a Rappite religiously motivated community that was in the process of re-locating and sought volunteers to associate themselves with a model communal village to be called New Harmony. The volunteers who were allowed to participate were, however, by no means all "industrious and well-disposed." There were also disputes about the structuring of the community and about religion all of these factors contributing to an abandonment of the communal principle before many months had passed. By 1828 Owen's ambitious experiment in utopian communal village life had to be regarded as a failure. Owen's involvement in the New Harmony project cost some four-fifths of his personal wealth by the time of his return to England in 1829.

  From 1828 Owen lost his partnership in the New Lanark mills due to increasing friction with some of the wealthy philanthropists who were co-owners. Owen was, in practical terms, a lesser force in events now that his reputation had been dented and his fortune had been depleted. Owen had adopted views that held that labour is the source of all wealth. The New Harmony failure allowed those who considered Owen's ideas to be eccentric , or even revolutionary, to be more open about voicing criticism.

  From 1833 Owen helped found the first British trade unions, including the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, which soon failed. Such early unionisation was widely supported by workers and but was resolutely opposed by employers, the government and the courts.

  The ideas of Robert Owen and the example of New Lanark led, after circa 1825, to the establishment of numerous enterprises based on Co-operative forms of ownership. These early Co-operatives often had as an objective the funding of productive communities as recommended by Owen. Although sufficient funds were not raised for such fundings it became accepted that Co-operative ventures could be practicable; the first really successful Co-operative venture being the Rochdale Pioneers Co-operative Society that was founded in 1844.

  Robert Owen died on November 17th, 1858, during a visit to his hometown of Newtown, Wales and was buried in a local church yard.
  The Co-operative Union placed a memorial tablet near his grave in 1902.

  Robert Owen's four sons all became American citizens.

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The preparation of these pages was influenced to some degree by a particular "Philosophy of History" as suggested by this quote from the famous Essay "History" by Ralph Waldo Emerson:-
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New Lanark mills