Robert Owen

Robert Owen was a manufacturer and social reformer whose ideas on mutuality and co-operation were very influential on the working class movement in the first half of the C19th and helped inspire the Co-operative Movement in the 1840s.

Robert Owen is remembered in Manchester with a statue outside the Co-operative Bank on Corporation Street and a plaque in St Ann’s Square. He argued and worked for social reform and progress but he was not a revolutionary, believing in co-operation between the classes.

Robert was born in Newtown, Wales on 14 May 1771, the sixth child of a local saddler and ironmonger. He left school at the age of nine and spent a year as an assistant in a local haberdashers before being sent to London to join his brother as an apprentice to a draper. After finishing his apprenticeship he came to Manchester in 1787, where he worked as an assistant to a Mr Satterfield , who ran a drapery in St Ann’s Square. It was here that he met Ernest Jones, a young engineer, and went into partnership with him after borrowing £100 from his mother.

The partnership did not last long and Robert set up on his own account in Ancoats as a cotton spinner with three workers. He then took a job as manager of Bank Top Mill on London Road (near the present-day Piccadilly Station) and then started the Chorlton Twist Company with two other men. Robert was already more than just another ambitious businessman. In 1793, aged just 23, he was invited to join the prestigious Manchester Literary & Philosophical Society where he met leading Manchester men such as the chemist John Dalton and the social reformer Dr Percival, and presented a number of papers to the society. When the Manchester Board of Health was set up in 1796 he was invited to join as a representative of the cotton industry.

In 1799 Robert took a step which changed his life when he bought the New Lanark Mills (owned by his father-in-law David Dale) and moved to Scotland to run them. The mills employed 2000 people, including 500 children, many of whom were orphans from poor houses. He now had an opportunity to put his ideas on social reform into practice, introducing a minimum age of 10 for apprentices, improving the housing and sanitation and opening a shop whose profits were used to fund a free village school. He also attempted moral reform, imposing fines for drunkenness and introducing the “silent monitor” – coloured markers which were displayed by each person’s work places and indicated the quality of work; black for bad, blue for indifferent, yellow for good and white for excellent. In 1816 he opened his Institute for the Formation of Character, which, as well as providing education for the young, also ran evening classes and concerts. He said the following at the opening

“What ideas individuals may attach to the term ‘Millennium’ I know not; but I know that society may be formed so as to exist without crime, without poverty, with health greatly improved, with little, if any misery, and with intelligence and happiness increased a hundredfold; and no obstacle whatsoever intervenes at this moment except ignorance to prevent such a state of society from becoming universal.”

These experiments in factory reform attracted a good deal of attention, both at home and abroad, and there were many visitors to New Lanark. However his attempts to convince the government to legislate to reduce working hours and improve factory conditions failed. He published his ideas on educational and social reform, advocating a society run on harmonious co-operative lines and undertook lecture tours to publicise them.

“There is but one mode by which man can possess in perpetuity all the happiness which his nature is capable of enjoying, – that is by the union and co-operation of ALL for the benefit of EACH.
Union and co-operation in war obviously increase the power of the individual a thousand fold. Is there the shadow of a reason why they should not produce equal effects in peace; why the principle of co-operation should not give to men the same superior powers, and advantages, (and much greater) in the creation, preservation, distribution and enjoyment of wealth?” (1826)

Disillusioned by the lack of response from government, the church and other factory owners, in 1826 Robert left England for the United States, where he tried to establish a co-operative community in New Harmony, Indiana. Initially settlers flocked to join but, as often happens in such communities, divisions soon arose and in the summer of 1828 he returned to England and also finally severed all connections with New Lanark.

During his absence his ideas on Co-operation had taken hold and there had been a growth in the number of Co-operative societies being formed in Manchester and elsewhere, putting his ideas into practice, often much more radically.

In January 1830 Owen issued An Address to the Operative Manufacturers & Agricultural Labourers in Great Britain & Ireland, in which he told working people that they that they were being deliberately kept in poverty.

“To direct your skill and industry aright, you require education of a superior description to any that has yet been given to you; and, above all things, you should endeavour to obtain this knowledge,” he announced.

Robert started a newspaper in 1832 called The Crisis and opened the National Equitable Labour Exchange in London for the exchange of goods between co-operative societies, issuing Labour Notes valued in hours in exchange for merchandise.

Following the repeal of the Combination Acts in 1824, trade unions were now springing up, and Robert urged that they should unite into one organisation which would elect delegates from all towns and could eventually take over the running of society, although unlike trade union militants, he believed that there was still a place for employers. In Manchester in October 1833 delegates from the building trade, representing thousands of workers, met for a week in Reverend Scholfield’s chapel on Every Street, Ancoats. In February 1834 the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union was formed, and within week claimed half a million members.

Fearing revolution (as had happened recently in France in 1830), a worried government struck back, arresting six agricultural labourers from Tolpuddle in Dorset, and sentencing them to seven years transportation to Australia for contravening the Illegal Oaths act – they are now known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs. The GNCTU collapsed in the summer of 1834.

Robert’s other ventures included setting up The Association of Classes of All Nations in 1835 and in the 1840s establishing a new community at Queenwood farm in Hampshire, which like New Harmony ended in failure. Despite many setbacks he continued to speak and write about his ideas and toured Europe:

“Therefore, the interest of all, that every one, from birth, should be well educated, physically and mentally, that society may be improved in its character, – that everyone should be beneficially employed, physically and mentally, that the greatest amount of wealth may be created, and knowledge attained, – that everyone should be placed in the midst of those external circumstances that will produce the greatest number of pleasurable sensations, through the longest life, that man may be made truly intelligent, moral and happy, and be thus prepared to enter upon the coming Millennium” (1841)

In 1844 the Rochdale Co-operative Society was formed, laying the basis for the modern Co-operative movement which came to dominate working class consumption in many parts of England, especially the north, by the end of 19th century.

In 1857 Robert Owen published his autobiography, although this only goes up to 1823, and he died on 17th November 1858.

Article by Michael Herbert

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