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Industrial Co-operation:



Practical Developments




Life and Work of Robert Owen 1771-1858.


THE story of Robert Owen’s early life has been graphically told by himself, and also by Lloyd Jones, one of his “social missionaries.”  He was the son of the local postmaster and saddler in Newtown, Montgomeryshire, a precocious boy, monitor at school at the age of seven, and before the age of ten a student of as many books as he could borrow in his native village.

Between the ages of nine and nineteen, he was engaged in retail business — first he was at a neighbour’s shop in Newtown, then with his brother, a saddler in High Holborn, London.  For three or four years he was assistant in a high-class drapery establishment in Stamford, and for some time was in a draper’s shop in the working-class neighbourhood of the Borough, near London Bridge.  Finally, at the age of eighteen, he gained experience of a middle-class business in St. Ann’s Square, Manchester.

At nineteen he began his career as a manufacturer, first in partnership, producing “mules” for cotton-spinning, then on his own account, making fine cotton yarn for muslins.  Soon he gave this up, though making 300 a year, to become manager of a spinning mill; and shortly after he became partner in an important spinning firm.  As a member of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society he was acquainted not only with such men as John Dalton, but with Dr. Percival, author of the Report on Factory Life which was the beginning of the agitation for the Factory Acts.

A business journey to Scotland in 1798 had two significant incidents — he made the acquaintance of Miss Dale, of Glasgow, his future wife; and visited New Lanark, a pretty village on the Clyde, with four spinning mills, the property of her father.  He recognised New Lanark as a place specially suitable for an experiment which he had long contemplated, and it was as a prospective purchaser of the property that he first presented himself to David Dale.  In 1799 he was married to Miss Dale and became manager of the mills of the New Lanark Twist Company (which consisted of himself and two of his Manchester partners).


For the motto of this period we cannot do better than take that prefixed later to the New Moral World:—

Any general character from the host to the worst, from the most ignorant to the most enlightened, may be given to any community, even to the world at large, by the application of proper means, which means are to a great extent at the command and under the control of those who have influence in the affairs of men.—Robert Owen.

Hence we shall notice during this time —

(a) Owen’s care for the education of the children;

(b) His care for the workers at New Lanark;

(c) His efforts to secure the same advantages for others by means of (1) Factory Reform, (2) Communities.

He found at New Lanark that “the population lived in idleness, in poverty, and in almost every kind of crime; consequently in debt, out of health, and in misery.”[1]  There were five hundred children employed, chiefly received from workhouses and charities in Edinburgh at six, seven, or eight years of age.  Though these children were comparatively well cared for in a properly managed boarding-house, they had to work from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.; so that when their “apprenticeship” was over about the age of fifteen, they were prematurely worn out, and seem as a rule to have drifted to Glasgow and Edinburgh to swell the lower ranks of labour, or fall victims to vice.

Owen recognised that, even from the point of view of economy, the worker — “the delicate, complex human mechanism” — should be treated with as much care as inanimate machinery.  He raised wages, reduced the working day from nineteen hours to ten, improved the housing accommodation, and provided wholesome food at a low cost.  Each man’s daily work was watched, and his progress recorded.  As a result, New Lanark soon stood in bright contrast with most cotton mills, “those receptacles, in too many instances, for living human skeletons, almost disrobed of intellect.”[2]  It was transformed in a few years into a spot with “the general appearance of industry, comfort, health, and happiness.”  The members of a deputation which was sent to New Lanark in 1819 by the township of Leeds were delighted with the appearance and conduct of the inhabitants — with the comfort and cleanliness of their dwellings — the neatness of the persons and apparel of the people
their sobriety, their cheerfulness, and their piety. [3]

For the children even more was done.  Instead of being wholly employed in the mills, they were trained in excellently equipped schools.  There was constant change of employment; singing, drill, and even dancing brightened their work and aided in their development; maps and pictures were used, but Owen did not believe in the use of books for children under ten.  Reading and writing were not ends in themselves, but “merely instruments, by which knowledge . . . may be imparted.”[4]  The children were never to be beaten, nor even to hear a harsh word; they were to be taught “the inseparable connection which exists between the interest and happiness of each individual and the interest and happiness of every other individual.”  There was an infant school for the younger children (we read of their learning dancing at two years of age!); while for those between eleven and twelve there was a second school, at which from one to six hours a day were spent in gardening.

Although the great success of Owen’s system was admitted by such men as Jeremy Bentham, Lord Brougham, the Duke of Kent, and many foreign visitors, yet he found difficulty in getting it adopted by others.  His fellow manufacturers accepted his aid in urging the Government to remit the import duty on cotton, but they stood aloof when he asked for measures to improve the conditions of employment in cotton-mills.  As a result of his efforts, however, the Factory Act of 1819 was passed, limiting the work of children in cotton-mills to twelve hours a day.

The firm had been twice re-organised during this period, but Owen remained at New Lanark till 1828, when, owing to the religious scruples of some of his London partners as to the instruction given in the schools, the partnership was dissolved, and Owen’s share in the work came to an end.


Owen’s early community work, though taking place during the time he was at New Lanark, may well be considered in connection with activity in London in 1821, detailed in The Economist, “a periodical paper, explanatory of the new system of society projected by Robert Owen, Esq.; and a plan of association for improving the condition of the working classes, during a continuance at their present employments.”

We have seen that Robert Owen had appealed to the Government to enforce his ideas on factory reform; similarly, it was to the governing classes that he looked for a wider application of his principles.  From time to time he wrote detailed accounts of his suggestion that communities on the plan so successful at New Lanark should be set up throughout the country.  In 1819, as we have seen, a deputation from a committee of Guardians of the Poor at Leeds visited the village and reported favourably.  Whilst regretting that the law did not permit of the adoption of the whole of Owen’s plans they recommended that his system should he adopted for the orphan children.  In the same year an influential committee was formed to investigate and report on his plan for industrial villages.  It included the Dukes of Kent, Sussex, Portland, and Bedford, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Wilberforce, and six other members of Parliament.  In 1820 Owen laid his scheme before “the Noblemen, Freeholders, Justices of the Peace, and Commissioners of Supply for the Shire of Lanark,” [5] coupling with it an argument in favour of spade husbandry so that employment might be found for men rather than for horses.  By 1822, 55,000 had been promised through the “British and Foreign Philanthropic Society” for conducting an experiment; but, knowing the necessity for large capital, Owen did not proceed with this inadequate amount.

Meanwhile, in 1819, he first appealed to the working classes, but chiefly, it would appear, to advise them how to proceed in the work which would, he still seemed to hope, be undertaken for them by the wealthy.  Working men, however, throughout the kingdom, were themselves becoming interested in his scheme, as shown by The Economist, published weekly throughout 1821, and by the formation of the society there described.  It will be seen in Chapter VII. that in the hands of this society of Londoners, the Owenite community scheme was reduced, first to the grouping together of several families in London, and then to the carrying on of a store very much on present lines.

A colony was founded at New Harmony, Indiana, in 1825; one at Orbiston, near Glasgow, 1826; and one in 1830 at Balahine, near Limerick.  These communities and various short-lived co-operative stores on a small scale were the chief visible results of this part of Owen’s work.  They will be treated of more fully in Chapter VII.


The events of these years must be passed over rapidly, for they fall within our first co-operative period and have been there already dealt with; whilst particulars of the Labour Exchange are given in Chapter VII.

After leaving New Lanark, Owen appealed more directly than before to the workers of the country.  He contributed to the ferment of ideas and projects, practical and utopian, which occupied the minds of the London working-classes at this time.  He was present at committees, conferences, and congresses, and took part in numerous societies and organisations.  He himself published a weekly paper, The Crisis, in which the progress of his various activities may be traced.

Some of the Co-operative Societies (of which there existed over 400 in 1832) [6] had already undertaken manufacture on a small scale, but found difficulty in getting rid of the goods not required by their members.  Exchange bazaars, or depots, were therefore advocated by “The British Association for promoting Co-operative Knowledge,” and one was opened in 1830 near Hatton Garden, London.

Owen took up this work on a large scale and promoted “The Equitable Labour Exchange,” which was opened in Gray’s Inn Road, London, September, 1832.  After a successful career of about a year this came to an untimely end.

In 1832 he presided at the third of the Co-operative-Socialistic Congresses of the time, held in London, at which important progress was made in organising work throughout the country by the appointment of “social missionaries.”

In 1834 a “Grand National Consolidated Trades Union” was formed, of which Owen was the moving spirit.  But although successful in enrolling hundreds of thousands of workers, this union died out of the failure of various strikes promoted by certain of the enrolled societies.  More successful was the “Society for National Regeneration,” which first demanded an eight hours day, and which promoted the agitation that led to the Ten Hours Act of 1847.

We now enter on the second period of “Community” work by Robert Owen, the last stage of his public career.  The New Moral World was a co-operative journal which succeeded The Crisis, appearing in November, 1834, as a weekly publication developing the principles of The Rational System of Society.  In it we find accounts of congresses, part of the remarkable series which from 1830 to 1846 represented the various forms taken by the progressive movement which had Owen’s teaching as its basis.  Here the story of the last attempt at an Owenite community, that of Queenwood, may be traced.

Something of the scope of the paper may be followed in its changing designations.  In 1835 it appeared as The New Moral World and Millennium, and in 1836 had a department called “The Herald of Community.”  Towards the end of the latter year it substituted “Manual of Science” for “Millennium.”  In 1838 it became The Gazette of the Universal Community Society of Rational Religionists, enrolled under Acts of Parliament.

The title shows that Owen still has faith that there is to be a new millennial order ushered in (and that at an early date) to replace the irrational competitive one.  He points out in “How to Attain the Millennium”[7] that the first step had been taken in the inventions and discoveries of the preceding century which constitute a new power “superabundant to provide for all the wants of man without human slavery or servitude.”  The second step is to be “the improvement of the character of the human race; in order to make all intelligent, charitable, and kind to each other.”  Of the remaining ten steps, the only one that need be mentioned is the sixth, “The destruction of the immoral and degrading system of buying cheap and selling dear for a money profit.”


The last thirteen years of his life were spent by Robert Owen in comparative retirement.  We are told by his friend and biographer, Lloyd Jones, that he was sympathetic with the work of the Christian Socialists, for whom he had to some extent prepared the way.  In extreme old age he joined the ranks of the Spiritualists, seeking among those of the generation which had passed away the sympathy for which he longed.

At last, in 1858, while trying to address a congress of the Social Science Association in Liverpool, he broke down, and retired to end his days at his birthplace, Newtown.  There he was buried in the grave of his parents, and there, in 1902, a memorial was erected to him by present-day co-operators, at the unveiling of which an address was given by the last survivor of his band of “social missionaries,” the veteran co-operator, George Jacob Holyoake.

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1. Economist, 1821, Vol. I., page 298.

2. Observations on the Cotton Trade, 1815. Life of Robert Owen, Vol. Ia., page 17.

3. Lloyd Jones, Life of Robert Owen, page 192.

4. Economist, 1821, Vol. I., page 137.

5. Report to the County of Lanark of a plan for relieving public distress and removing discontent, by Robert Owen.

6. Crisis, June 30th, 1832.

New Moral World, 1841, pages 6 and 11.