Robert Owen was a social reformer and one of the founders of socialism and the cooperative movement.
From apprentice draper to mill owner
The sixth of seven children of an ironmonger and postmaster at Newtown in Wales, was a self-educated man, leaving home at age ten for London and then to Stamford where he was apprenticed to a draper.
In 1785, after a brief move to London, he joined a cotton textile manufacturer in Manchester. With a borrowed capital of £100 Owen began making spinning ‘mules’ and setting them to work was soon making a net profit of £300 a year.
At the age of 20 he was manager of a large spinning mill employing 500 workers, and by 1797 a partner.
On a business visit to Glasgow he met Anne Caroline Dale, daughter of David Dale, owner of the great spinning mill at New Lanark, which Dale had built with Arkwright in 1780. They married, and Owen and his partners bought the New Lanark mill.
New Lanark mill – a model community
In 1800 he moved to Scotland to take over management there, and began to put into practice the ideas which made him known all over Europe as a practical reformer. He banned employment of young children in his factories, provided schooling, began schemes for old age and sickness insurance. He converted New Lanark into a model community which drew pilgrims, even from Russia.
His main principle was that ‘man’s character is made for and not by him’. This was contrary to the orthodox thinking, which was that the masses were poor because they were congenitally idle and lacking in self-control, so their poverty was a just consequence of their sins and a part of the divine order of the world.
On the contrary he thought that as people were better housed, fed, clothed and given cultural and educational opportunities, rather than being treated as malcontents, so their character, by and large, would be transformed.
Owens followers were known as Owenites. For a time statesmen and members of the Royal family were among his supporters, but religious opposition and the need for the ruling class to retain their privileges prevented his reforms being implemented. He believed that ‘all the religions of the world are false’.
He campaigned for a form of socialism, and later an ethical movement which he called Rational Religion, which attracted 100,000 members. There was not a reform of the time (peace, trade unions, feminism, prisons, education, marriage, etc.) that was not included in his ideal, and he spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on trying to establish utopian communities here and in America.
He is known for helping to found the first British trade union, and as the father of the cooperative movement. His follower George Holyoake incorporated his ideas into ‘secularism’.
Owen is buried in St Mary’s Church Newtown where he is buried. He is memorialised with a bust on the front of Leicester’s Secular Hall, and statues in Newtown, Manchester and Kensal Green Cemetery, London.
The Robert Owen Museum is on the ground floor of the Town Council building in the centre of Newtown, Wales.