Owen was a Welsh socialist and social reformer. He is considered
the father of the cooperative movement.
Owen was born in Newtown, a small market town in Powys, Wales,
where his father had a small business as a saddler and iron-monger,
his mother came from one of the prosperous farming families ,
there young Owen received all his school education, which terminated
at the age of nine. After serving in a draper's shop for some
years he settled in Manchester.
Success in Manchester (1790)
He very rapidly gained success. When only nineteen years of age
he became manager of a cotton mill employing five hundred people,
and by his administrative intelligence and energy soon made it
one of the best establishments of the kind in Great Britain. In
this factory, Owen used the first bags of American sea-island
cotton ever imported into the country; it was the first sea-island
cotton from the Southern States.
also made remarkable improvement in the quality of the cotton
spun; and indeed there is no reason to doubt that at this early
age he was the first cotton-spinner in England, a position entirely
due to his own capacity and knowledge of the trade. In 1794 or
1795 he became manager and one of the partners of the Chorlton
Twist Company at Manchester.
in New Lanark (1800)
During a visit to Glasgow he fell in love with Caroline Dale,
the daughter of the New Lanark mills proprietor David Dale. Owen
induced his partners to purchase New Lanark; and after his marriage
with Miss Caroline Dale in September 1799, he set up home there,
as manager and part owner of the mills (January 1800). Encouraged
by his great success in the management of cotton factories in
Manchester, he had already formed the intention of conducting
New Lanark on higher principles than the current commercial ones.
factory of New Lanark had been started in 1784 by Dale and Richard
Arkwright, the water-power afforded by the falls of the Clyde
providing the great attraction. About two thousand people had
associations with the mills, five hundred of whom were children,
brought, most of them, at the age of five or six from the poorhouses
and charities of Edinburgh and Glasgow.
children especially had been well treated by Dale, but the general
condition of the people was very unsatisfactory. Many of them
were the lowest of the population, the respectable country people
refusing to submit to the long hours and demoralizing drudgery
of the factories; theft, drunkenness, and other vices were common;
education and sanitation were alike neglected; most families lived
only in one room.
population, thus committed to his care, Owen now set himself to
elevate and ameliorate. He greatly improved their houses, and
by the unsparing and benevolent exertion of his personal influence
trained them to habits of order, cleanliness and thrift. The homes
were inspected and thus the conditions improved through pride,
social competition for the benefit of all was the order of the
employers operated the "Truck" system where payment
to the workers were in part or totally by Tokens. These tokens
had no value outside the factory owners "Truck Shop".
The owners were able to supply shoddy goods to the "Truck
Shop" and still charge top prices. This abuse was stopped
when Parliament made it an offence not to pay employees in coin
of the realm exchangable anywhere.
opened a store, where the people could buy goods of the soundest
quality at little more than cost price; and placed the sale of
drink under the strictest supervision. Robert Owen gave quality
and passed on the savings that the bulk purchase of goods gave
him to the workers. These principles became the basis for the
Co-Operative shops in Britain that continue to trade today.
greatest success, however, was in the education of the young,
to which he devoted special attention. He was the founder of infant
schools in Great Britain; and, though he was anticipated by reformers
on the continent of Europe, he seems to have been led to institute
them by his own views of what education ought to be, and without
hint from abroad.
all these plans Owen obtained the most gratifying success. Though
at first regarded with suspicion as a stranger, he soon won the
confidence of his people. The mills continued to have great commercial
success, but some of Owen's schemes involved considerable expense,
which displeased his partners. Tired at last of the restrictions
imposed on him by men who wished to conduct the business on the
ordinary principles, Owen formed a new firm, who, content with
5% of return for their capital, were ready to give freer scope
to his philanthropy (1813). In this firm Jeremy Bentham and the
well-known Quaker, William Allen, were partners. In the same year
Owen first appeared as an author of essays, in which he expounded
the principles on which his system of educational philanthropy
had originally been a follower of the classical liberal and utilitarian
Jeremy Bentham. However, during the time Owen became more and
more socialist, whereas Bentham thought that free markets (in
particular, the rights for workers to move and choose their employers)
would free the workers from the excess power of the capitalists.
an early age he had lost all belief in the prevailing forms of
religion, and had thought out a creed for himself, which he considered
an entirely new and original discovery. The chief points in this
philosophy were that man's character is made not by him but for
him; that it has been formed by circumstances over which he had
no control ; that he is not a proper subject either of praise
or blame - these principles leading up to the practical conclusion
that the great secret in the right formation of man's character
is to place him under the proper influences - physical, moral
and social - from his earliest years.
principles - of the irresponsibility of man and of the effect
of early influences - form the keynote of Owen's whole system
of education and social amelioration. As we have said, they are
embodied in his first work, A New View of Society, or Essays on
the Principle of the Formation of the Human Character, the first
of these essays (there are four in all) appearing in 1813. Owen's
new views theoretically belong to a very old system of philosophy,
and his originality is to be found only in his benevolent application
the next few years Owen's work at New Lanark continued to have
a national and even a European significance. His schemes for the
education of his workpeople attained to something like completion
on the opening of the institution at New Lanark in 1816. He was
a zealous supporter of the factory legislation resulting in the
Factory Act of 1819, which, however, greatly disappointed him.
He had interviews and communications with the leading members
of government, including the premier, Lord Liverpool, and with
many of the rulers and leading statesmen of Europe.
principles were also adopted by Robert Owen in raising the standard
of goods produced. Above each machinists workplace a cube with
different colour faces was installed. Depending on the quality
of the work and the amount produced a different colour was used.
The worker then had some indication to others of his work's quality
etc. The employee had an interest in working to his best. Though
not in itself a great incentive the conditions at New Lanark for
the workers and their families were idylic for the time.
Lanark itself became a much-frequented place of pilgrimage for
social reformers, statesmen, and royal personages, including Nicholas,
afterwards emperor of Russia. According to the unanimous testimony
of all who visited it, the results achieved by Owen appeared singularly
good. The manners of the children, brought up under his system,
were beautifully graceful, genial and unconstrained; health, plenty,
and contentment prevailed; drunkenness was almost unknown, and
illegitimacy occurred extremely rarely. The most perfect good
feeling subsisted between Owen and his workpeople, and all the
operations of the mill proceeded with the utmost smoothness and
regularity; and the business was a great commercial success.
for alleviating poverty through Socialism (1817)
Hitherto Owen's work had been that of a philanthropist, whose
great distinction was the originality and unwearying unselfishness
of his methods. His first departure in socialism took place in
1817, and was embodied in a report communicated to the committee
of the House of Commons on the Poor law.
general misery and stagnation of trade consequent on the termination
of the Napoleonic Wars was engrossing the attention of the country.
After clearly tracing the special causes connected with the wars
which had led to such a deplorable state of things, Owen pointed
out that the permanent cause of distress was to be found in the
competition of human labor with machinery, and that the only effective
remedy was the united action of men, and the subordination of
proposals for the treatment of poverty were based on these principles.
He recommended that communities of about twelve hundred persons
each should be settled on quantities of land from 1000 to 1500
acres (4 to 6 km²), all living in one large building in the
form of a square, with public kitchen and mess-rooms. Each family
should have its own private apartments, and the entire care of
the children till the age of three, after which they should be
brought up by the community, their parents having access to them
at meals and all other proper times.
communities might be established by individuals, by parishes,
by counties, or by the state; in every case there should be effective
supervision by duly qualified persons. Work, and the enjoyment
of its results, should be in common. The size of his community
was no doubt partly suggested by his village of New Lanark; and
he soon proceeded to advocate such a scheme as the best form for
the re-organization of society in general.
its fully developed form - and it cannot be said to have changed
much during Owen's lifetime - it was as follows. He considered
an association of from 500 to 3000 as the fit number for a good
working community. While mainly agricultural, it should possess
all the best machinery, should offer every variety of employment,
and should, as far as possible, be self-contained. "As these
townships" (as he also called them) "should increase
in number, unions of them federatively united shall be formed
in circles of tens, hundreds and thousands", till they should
embrace the whole world in a common interest.
Revolution in the Mind and Practice of the Human Race, Owen asserts
and reasserts that character is formed by a combination of Nature
or God and the circumstances of the individual's experience. Owen
provides little real prescriptive content beyond the need for
all societies to recognize and implement his insights.
Experiment in America (1825)
At last, in 1825, such an experiment was attempted under the direction
of his disciple, Abram Combe, at Orbiston near Glasgow; and in
the next year Owen himself commenced another at New Harmony, Indiana,
U.S.A. After a trial of about two years both failed completely.
Neither of them was a pauper experiment; but it must be said that
the members were of the most motley description, many worthy people
of the highest aims being mixed with vagrants, adventurers, and
crotchety, wrongheaded enthusiasts.
Warren, who was one of the participants in the New Harmony Society,
asserted that community was doomed to failure due to a lack of
individual sovereignty and private property. He says of the community:
"We had a world in miniature. --we had enacted the French
revolution over again with despairing hearts instead of corpses
as a result. ...It appeared that it was nature's own inherent
law of diversity that had conqured us ...our "united interests"
were directly at war with the individualities of persons and circumstances
and the instinct of self-preservation..." (Periodical Letter
II 1856) Warren's observations on the reasons for the community's
failure lead to the development of American individualist anarchism,
of which he was its original theorist.
After a long period of friction with William Allen and some of
his other partners, Owen resigned all connection with New Lanark
in 1828. On his return from America he made London the centre
of his activity. Most of his means having been sunk in the New
Harmony experiment, he was no longer a flourishing capitalist,
but the head of a vigorous propaganda, in which socialism and
of the most interesting features of the movement at this period
was the establishment in 1832 of an equitable labour exchange
system, in which exchange was effected by means of labour notes,
the usual means of exchange and the usual middlemen being alike
superseded. The London exchange lasted until 1833 and a Birmingham
branch operated for only a few months until July 1833.
word "socialism" first became current in the discussions
of the "Association of all Classes of all Nations",
formed by Owen in 1835. During these years also his secularistic
teaching gained such influence among the working classes as to
give occasion for the statement in the Westminster Review (1839)
that his principles were the actual creed of a great portion of
them. His views on marriage were certainly lax enough to give
ground for offence.
this period some more communistic experiments were made, of which
the most important were that at Ralahine, in County Clare, Ireland,
and that at Tytherly in Hampshire. The former (1831) proved a
remarkable success for three and a half years, till the proprietor,
having ruined himself by gambling, had to sell out. Tytherly,
begun in 1839, failed absolutely.
1846 the only permanent result of Owen's agitation, so zealously
carried on by public meetings, pamphlets, periodicals, and occasional
treatises, remained the co-operative movement, and for the time
even that seemed to have utterly collapsed. In his later years
Owen became a firm believer in spiritualism. He died at his native
town on 17 November 1858.
Robert and Caroline Owen's first child died in infancy, but they
had seven surviving children, four sons and three daughters: Robert
Dale (born 1801), William (1802), Anne Caroline (1805), Jane Dale
(1805), David Dale (1807), Richard Dale (1809) and Mary (1810).
four sons, Robert Dale, William, David Dale and Richard, all became
citizens of the United States. Anne Caroline and Mary (together
with their mother, Caroline) died in the 1830s, after which Jane,
the remaining daughter, joined her brothers in America, where
she married Robert Fauntleroy.
Dale Owen, the eldest (1801-1877), was for long an able exponent
in his adopted country of his father's doctrines. In 1836-1839
and 1851-1852 he served as a member of the Indiana House of Representatives
and in 1844-1847 was a Representative in Congress, where he drafted
the bill for the founding of the Smithsonian Institution. He was
elected a member of the Indiana Constitutional Convention in 1850,
and was instrumental in securing to widows and married women control
of their property, and the adoption of a common free school system.
later succeeded in passing a state law giving greater freedom
in divorce. From 1853 to 1858 he was United States minister at
Naples. He was a strong believer in spiritualism and was the author
of two well-known books on the subject: Footfalls on the Boundary
of Another World (1859) and The Debatable Land Between this World
and the Next (1872).
third son, David Dale Owen (1807-1860), was in 1839 appointed
a United States geologist, and made extensive surveys of the north-west,
which were published by order of Congress.
youngest son, Richard Owen (1810-1890), became a professor of
natural science at Nashville University.