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Robert Owen, 1771-1858

owen.gif (23119 bytes)Robert Owen was born in Newtown, Montgomeryshire (Wales) on May 14, 1771, the sixth of seven children. His father was a sadler and ironmonger who also served as local postmaster; his mother came from one of the prosperous farming families of Newtown.

Owen attended the local school where he developed a strong passion for reading. At the age of ten he was sent to seek his fortune in London with his eldest brother, William. After a few weeks, Owen found a position in a large drapery business in Stamford (Lincolnshire) where he served as an apprentice. After three years he returned to London where he served under another draper. Then, in 1787 or 1788, he moved to Manchester in the employ of Mr. Satterfield, a wholesale and retail drapery merchant.

Owen now found himself in what would soon become the capital city of the English Industrial Revolution on the eve of that event as factories were built and textile manufacture expanded.. He was a serious, methodical young man who already possessed an extensive knowledge of the retail aspect of his chosen trade. In late 1790 he borrowed £100 from his brother William and set up independently with a mechanic named Jones as a manufacturer of the new spinning mules. After a few months he parted with Jones and started business on his own with three mules as a cotton spinner. During 1792, Owen applied for and was appointed manager of Peter Drinkwater's new spinning factory, the Piccadilly Mill, where he quickly achieved the reputation as a spinner of fine yarns, thanks to the application of steam power to the mule. One of Drinkwater's most important clients was Samuel Oldknow, maker of fine muslins. Drinkwater had intended Owen to become a partner in his new business by 1795, but a projected marriage alliance between Drinkwater's daughter and Oldknow caused the cancellation of the agreement with Owen. Hurt and unwilling to remain a mere manager, Owen left Piccadilly Mill in 1795.

Owen was approached by Samuel Marsland who intended to develop the Chorlton estate in Manchester, but instead he found partners in two young and inexperienced businessmen, Jonathan Scarth and Richard Moulson, who undertook to erect cotton mills on land bought from Marsland, and the three partners were assisted by Marsland. In 1796, the financial basis of the company was broadened with the inclusion of Thomas Atkinson, thus constituting the Chorlton Twist Company, which in 1799 negotiated the purchase of David Dale's New Lanark mills.

lanark.jpg (8631 bytes)The industrial community at New Lanark had been planned by Richard Arkwright and David Dale in 1783, to take advantage of the water power of the Falls of Clyde deep in the river valley below the burgh of Lanark, twenty-four miles upstream from of Glasgow. In 1800, there were four mills making New Lanark the largest cotton-spinning complex in Britain, and the population of the village (over 2000) was greater than that of Lanark itself. Dale was progressive both as a manufacturer and as an employer, being especially careful to safeguard the welfare of the children.

Owen first met Dale by chance through an introduction by the daughter of his friend, Robert Spear, to Dale's eldest daughter, Caroline. Owen was interested to learn that Dale wanted to sell New Lanark to someone who would continue his humane policy toward the children. Owen's willingness to do so was probably responsible for both Dale's agreeing to sell to the Chorlton Twist Company and also his consent to the marriage of Owen and Caroline in the fall of 1799.

New Lanark made Owen's reputation as a philanthropist. The village remained much as Dale had made it although more living space was created and higher standards of hygiene were enforced. The primary contribution of Owen at new Lanark was in public buildings which emphasized his concern for the welfare of his workers, specifically, the New Institution for the Formation of Character (1816), the Infant School (1817) and the Store.

Owen's partners did not share his enthusiasm for education and welfare: the major expenditure on social buildings came only after the formation of his third partnership in 1813. His ideas were shaped by the Enlightenment, his contact with progressive ideas in Manchester as a member of the Literary and Philosophical Society, and his  acquaintance with the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment. Owen's general theory was that character is formed by the effects of the environment upon the individual. Hence, education was of central importance to the creation of rational and humane character, and the duty of the educator was to provide the wholesome environment, both mental and physical, in which the child could develop. Physical punishment was prohibited and child labor was restricted. Man, being naturally good, could grow and flourish when evil was removed. Education, as one historian has put it, was to the "the steam engine of his new moral world."

At New Lanark, Owen was responsible for overall management and general policy. His employees did not at first enjoy his attempts to regulate and improve their lives and his paternalism was more rigorous than his frequently absent partner, Dale. As a successful manager of people and business, Owen displayed a skill well in advance of his day but his welfarism, which was not really that unique, had a practical side. His store helped to raise real wages and the infant school enabled mothers to return to work when their children reached the age of one year. As a financier, Owen's methods were sophisticated. He had relatively little capital of his own, yet his skilful management of partnerships enabled him to survive and become a wealthy man before leaving New Lanark in 1828.

At New Lanark, Owen involved himself in the public affairs of the day, the most important being education, factory reform, and the improvement of the Poor Laws. His first public speech was on education (1812) and was elaborated upon in his first published work, The First Essay on the Principle of the Formation of Character (1813). Together with three further essays (1813-1814), this comprised A New View of Society, which remains Owen's clearest declaration of principles.

Owen's explicit denunciation of religion evoked a mounting campaign against him which in later years damaged his public reputation and the work associated with his name. His last real opportunity to secure official approval for his scheme came in 1820 when he produced his Report to the County of Lanark in which his communitarian and educational theories were blended with David Ricardo's labor theory of value.

harmony.jpg (7611 bytes)By the late 1820s, Owen's roots in New Lanark were loosening. Owen now set about his mission to bring about the new moral world through his plan for well-regulated communities. England, Scotland and Ireland seemed indifferent, but the United States opened up new prospects and in 1824 Owen crossed the Atlantic and viewed the Rappite community at Harmony (Indiana), which was for sale. He bought it for£30,000 and in April 1825, initiated New Harmony. With Robert Dale left in charge of New Lanark and William Owen at New Harmony, their father traveled between the two, collecting his "boatload of knowledge," which reached the community in January 1826. The New Harmony community was not a success. By May 1827, there were ten different sub-communities on the estate, and a year later failure was apparent.

During his absence at New Harmony, the nature of Owen's support in England had begun to change. Working men were now listening to his message, democratic socialist ideas were being developed by men like William Thompson of Cork, and cooperative, labor exchange and trades union movements were becoming more popular. Owen became convinced that the world of competitive industrial capitalism had reached a stage of crisis and that the leaders of society would now turn to him in their hour of need. What Owen offered the working class Owenites was social salvation -- his creed was that of the secular millennium.

These views were expressed in his weekly periodical, The Crisis (1832-1834), and had a following particularly among the labor aristocrats of London who sought to exchange their products according to the labor theory of value at the Gray's Inn Road Labour Exchange, which Owen opened in 1832.

Breaking with these labor movements in 1834, Owen turned back to his plan for a community and founded a journal, The New Moral World (November, 1834) and an organization, the Association of All Classes of All Nations (May, 1835) to prepare public opinion for the millennium.

In the 1840s, Owen embarked on a new settlement at Queenwood Farm in Hampshire. There was insufficient capital and the community, projected to support 500 members, never attracted more than ninety communitarians. In 1841, Owen secured capital from a consortium of capitalist friends and built a luxurious mansion, Harmony Hall, to house a community "normal school" which would train Owenites in a correct communitarian environment. Owen quickly spent his funds and in July 1842 was removed from control. He resumed control in May 1843, but his concept of a "normal school" was not what many Owenites had hoped for, and in 1844 the annual Owenite Congress rebelled against his despotic control of community policy.

Owen moved on. His missions to Europe and North America never ceased and he retained a lively interest in current affairs, confidently expecting that governments would secure his services. In 1855 he called a series of public meetings to proclaim the millennium. A loyal nucleus of Owenites stood by his side, devoted to the man who, whatever else he had done, had given them a vision of a new moral world. In 1853 he became a spiritualist. On November 17, 1858 Owen died in the Bear Hotel, next door to the house in which he was born.

Owen's character was a paradox to his contemporaries. By temperament, he was conservative and authoritarian; by nature he was naive. He was convinced that man's character was made for him, rather than by him and that social change would only come from calm reasoning with the leaders of society. He never believed in the independent power of the working classes and he could never conceive that within capitalist society there might be more than one rationally agreed interest.

[The standard work on Owen and the Owenites is J. F. C. Harrison, Quest for the New Moral World: Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America (New York, 1969). Harrison's book contains an extensive bibliography and is well worth consulting. See also A. L. Morton, The Life and Ideas of Robert Owen (New York: International Publishers, 1962.]

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