Owen, aged about 50,
by William Henry Brooke
|Died||17 November 1858 (aged 87)|
Newtown, Montgomeryshire, Wales
|Occupation||co-operator; social reformer, textile mill co-owner; philanthropic capitalist|
|Ann (or Anne) Caroline Dale|
|Children||Jackson Dale (b. 1799)|
Robert Dale (b. 1801)
William (b. 1802)
Ann (or Anne) Caroline (b. 1805)
Jane Dale (b. 1805)
David Dale (b. 1807)
Richard Dale (b. 1809)
Mary (b. 1810)
|Parent(s)||Robert Owen and Anne (Williams) Owen|
Robert Owen (; 14 May 1771 - 17 November 1858), a Welsh textile manufacturer, philanthropist and social reformer, was one founder of utopian socialism and the cooperative movement. He is known for efforts to improve factory working conditions for his workers and promote experimental socialistic communities. In the early 1800s, he became wealthy as an investor and eventual manager of a large textile mill at New Lanark, Scotland. He had initially trained as a draper in Stamford, Lincolnshire, and worked in London before relocating aged 18 to Manchester and becoming a textile manufacturer. In 1824, Owen travelled to America and invested most of his fortune in an experimental socialistic community at New Harmony, Indiana, a preliminary model for Owen's Utopian society. It lasted about two years; other Owenite Utopian communities met similar fates. In 1828, Owen returned to settle in London, where he continued to champion the working class, led the development of cooperatives and the trade union movement, and supported the passage of child labour laws and free co-educational schools.
Robert Owen was born in Newtown, a small market town in Montgomeryshire, Wales, on 14 May 1771, to Anne (Williams) and Robert Owen. His father was a saddler, ironmonger and local postmaster; his mother was the daughter of a Newtown farming family. Young Robert was the sixth of the family's seven children, two of whom died at a young age. His surviving siblings were William, Anne, John and Richard.
Owen received little formal education, but he was an avid reader. He left school at the age of ten to be apprenticed to a Stamford, Lincolnshire, draper for four years. He also worked in London drapery shops in his teens. At about the age of 18, Owen moved to Manchester, where he spent the next twelve years of his life, employed initially at Satterfield's Drapery in Saint Ann's Square.
While in Manchester, Owen borrowed £100 from his brother William, so as to enter into a partnership to make spinning mules, a new invention for spinning cotton thread, but exchanged his business share within a few months for six spinning mules that he worked in rented factory space. In 1792, when Owen was about 21 years old, mill-owner Peter Drinkwater made him manager of the Piccadilly Mill at Manchester. However, after two years with Drinkwater, Owen voluntarily gave up a contracted promise of partnership, left the company, and went into partnership with other entrepreneurs to establish and later manage the Chorlton Twist Mills in Chorlton-on-Medlock.
By the early 1790s, Owen's entrepreneurial spirit, management skills and progressive moral views were emerging. In 1793, he was elected a member of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, where the ideas of the Enlightenment were discussed. He also became a committee member of the Manchester Board of Health, instigated principally by Thomas Percival to press for improvements in the health and working conditions of factory workers.
On a visit to Scotland, Owen met and fell in love with Ann (or Anne) Caroline Dale, daughter of David Dale, a Glasgow philanthropist and the proprietor of the large New Lanark Mills. After their marriage on 30 September 1799, the Owens set up home in New Lanark, but later moved to Braxfield, Scotland.
Robert and Caroline Owen had eight children, the first of whom died in infancy. Their seven survivors were four sons and three daughters: Robert Dale (1801-1877), William (1802-1842), Ann (or Anne) Caroline (1805-1831), Jane Dale (1805-1861), David Dale (1807-1860), Richard Dale (1809-1890) and Mary (1810-1832). Owen's four sons, Robert Dale, William, David Dale and Richard, and his daughter Jane Dale, followed their father to the United States, becoming US citizens and permanent residents in New Harmony, Indiana. Owen's wife Caroline and two of their daughters, Anne Caroline and Mary, remained in Britain, where they died in the 1830s.
In July 1799 Owen and his partners bought the New Lanark mill from David Dale, and Owen became its manager in January 1800. Encouraged by his management success in Manchester, Owen hoped to conduct the New Lanark mill on higher principles than purely commercial ones. It had been established in 1785 by David Dale and Richard Arkwright. Its water power provided by the falls of the River Clyde turned its cotton-spinning operation into one of Britain's largest. About 2,000 individuals were involved, 500 of them children brought to the mill at the age of five or six from the poorhouses and charities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. Dale, known for his benevolence, treated the children well, but the general condition of New Lanark residents was unsatisfactory, despite efforts by Dale and his son-in-law Owen to improve their workers' lives.
Many of the workers were from the lowest social levels: theft, drunkenness and other vices were common and education and sanitation neglected. Most families lived in one room. More respected people rejected the long hours and demoralising drudgery of the mills.
Until a series of Truck Acts (1831-1887) required employers to pay their employees in common currency, many operated a truck system, paying workers wholly or in part with tokens that had no monetary value outside the mill owner's "truck shop", which charged high prices for shoddy goods. Unlike others, Owen's truck store offered goods at prices only slightly above their wholesale cost, passing on the savings from bulk purchases to his customers and placing alcohol sales under strict supervision. These principles became the basis for Britain's Co-operative shops, some of which continue trading in altered forms to this day.
Owen tested his social and economic ideas at New Lanark, where he won his workers' confidence and continued to have success through the improved efficiency at the mill. The community also earned an international reputation. Social reformers, statesmen and royalty, including the future Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, visited New Lanark to study its methods. The opinions of many such visitors were favourable.
Owen's biggest success was in support of youth education and early child care. As a pioneer in Britain, notably Scotland, Owen provided an alternative to the "normal authoritarian approach to child education". The manners of children brought up under his system were more graceful, genial and unconstrained; health, plenty and contentment prevailed; drunkenness was almost unknown and illegitimacy extremely rare. Owen's relations with his workers remained excellent and operations at the mill proceeded in a smooth, regular and commercially successful way.
However, some of Owen's schemes displeased his partners, forcing him to arrange for other investors to buy his share of the business in 1813, for the equivalent of US$800,000. The new investors, who included Jeremy Bentham and the well-known Quaker William Allen, were content to accept a £5,000 return on their capital. The ownership change also provided Owen with a chance to broaden his philanthropy, advocating improvements in workers' rights and child labour laws, and free education for children.
In 1813 Owen authored and published A New View of Society, or Essays on the Principle of the Formation of the Human Character, the first of four essays he wrote to explain the principles behind his philosophy of socialistic reform. Owen had originally been a follower of the classical liberal, utilitarian Jeremy Bentham, who believed that free markets, in particular the right of workers to move and choose their employers, would release workers from the excessive power of capitalists. However, Owen developed his own, pro-socialist outlook. In addition, Owen as a deist, criticised organised religion, including the Church of England, and developed a belief system of his own.
Owen felt that human character is formed by conditions over which individuals have no control. Thus individuals could not be praised or blamed for their behaviour or situation in life. This principle led Owen to conclude that the correct formation of people's characters called for placing them under proper environmental influences - physical, moral and social - from their earliest years. These notions of inherent irresponsibility in humans and the effect of early influences on an individual's character formed the basis of Owen's system of education and social reform.
Relying on his own observations, experiences and thoughts, Owen saw his view of human nature as original and "the most basic and necessary constituent in an evolving science of society". His philosophy was influenced by Sir Isaac Newton's views on natural law, and his views resembled those of Plato, Denis Diderot, Claude Adrien Helvétius, William Godwin, John Locke, James Mill, and Jeremy Bentham, among others. Owen did not have the direct influence of Enlightenment philosophers.
Owen's work at New Lanark continued to have significance in Britain and continental Europe. He was a "pioneer in factory reform, the father of distributive cooperation, and the founder of nursery schools." His schemes for educating his workers included opening an Institute for the Formation of Character at New Lanark in 1818. This and other programmes at New Lanark provided free education from infancy to adulthood. In addition, he zealously supported factory legislation that culminated in the Cotton Mills and Factories Act of 1819. Owen also had interviews and communications with leading members of the British government, including its premier, Robert Banks Jenkinson, Lord Liverpool. He also met many of the rulers and leading statesmen of Europe.
Owen adopted new principles to raise the standard of goods his workers produced. A cube with faces painted in different colours was installed above each machinist's workplace. The colour of the face showed to all who saw it the quality and quantity of goods the worker completed. The intention was to encourage workers to do their best. Although it was no great incentive in itself, conditions at New Lanark for workers and their families were idyllic for the time.
Owen raised the demand for an eight-hour day in 1810 and set about instituting the policy at New Lanark. By 1817 he had formulated the goal of an eight-hour working day with the slogan "eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest".
Owen embraced socialism in 1817, a turning point in his life, and began pursuing what he described as a "New View of Society". He outlined his position in a report to the committee of the House of Commons on the country's Poor Laws. In addition, as misery and trade stagnation after the Napoleonic Wars captured national attention, the government invited Owen to offer advice on what to do to alleviate the industrial concerns. Although Owen attributed the immediate misery to the wars, he argued that the underlying cause was competition of human labour with machinery, and recommended setting up self-sufficient communities.
Owen proposed that communities of some 1,200 people should settle on land from 1,000 to 1,500 acres (405 to 607 ha), all living in one building with a public kitchen and dining halls. (The proposed size is likely to have been influenced by the size of the village of New Lanark.) Owen also proposed that each family have its own private apartments and the responsibility for the care of its children up to the age of three. Thereafter children would be raised by the community, but their parents would have access to them at mealtimes and on other occasions. Owen further suggested that such communities be established by individuals, parishes, counties, or other governmental units. In each case there would be effective supervision by qualified persons. Work and enjoyment of its results should be experienced communally. Owen believed his idea would be the best way to reorganise society in general, and called his vision the "New Moral World".
Owen's utopian model changed little in his lifetime. His developed model envisaged an association of 500-3,000 people as the optimum for a working community. While mainly agricultural, it would possess the best machinery, offer varied employment, and as far as possible be self-contained. Owen went on to explain that as such communities proliferated, "unions of them federatively united shall be formed in circle of tens, hundreds and thousands", linked by common interest.
Owen always tried to spread his ideas to wider communities. First, he started publishing his ideas in newspapers. Owen then sent such newspapers widely to parliamentarians, politicians and other important people. These articles spurred the first negative reactions to his ideas.
Opponents thought that Owen's plans would result in an uncontrollable increase in population and poverty. The other main criticism was that Owen's plan and the common use of everything would essentially make the country one large workshop.William Hone claimed that Owen saw people as unravelled plants from their roots, and that he wanted to plant them in rectangles. Another commentator accused Owen of wanting to imprison people in workshops like barracks and eradicate their personal independence.
Owen's opponents had begun to regard him as an enemy of religion. His influence in ruling circles, which he had hoped would help him to accomplish his "plan", started diminishing and rumours of his lack of religious conviction spread. Owen believed that without a change in the character of individuals and the environment in which they live, they would remain hostile to those around them. As long as such a social order continued, the positive aspects of Christianity could never be put into practice. Owen also considered it necessary to give people more freedom in order to improve the situation of the poor and working classes. Unless people were better educated, unless they gained more useful information and had permanent employment, they were a danger to the security of the state when given more freedom than the British Constitution did at the time. Without making any changes in the national institutions, he believed that even reorganizing the working classes would bring great benefits. So he opposed the views of radicals seeking to change in the public mentality by expanding voting rights.
Other notable critics of Owen include Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who viewed his work as a precursor to their own. Their criticism had several major points but focused on differentiating their ideas for a socialist state from Owen's utopian societies. The first major argument was that Owen's plan, to create a model socialist utopia to coexist with contemporary society and prove its superiority over time, was insufficient to create a new society. They argued that a socialist utopia could only be achieved by revolution, because the bourgeois society would be able to deflect and block peaceful attempts. Marx and Engels' next critique was that Owen's society was not realistic to human nature. Owen believed that once people's basic needs are fulfilled, they would not desire anything more and be content. Marx and Engels argued that this went against human nature and people would not ever be happy with complete equality in a static society, and so their design for a socialist society calls for continued economic growth under a new system to avoid this. Lastly, they argued that Owen's process of developing his society was too abstract and not grounded in any data or real-world observations. This approach was viewed by Marx and Engels as unscientific and they believed it made the ideas less marketable and the plan less likely to succeed if actually enacted. Instead they developed their ideas for revolution by using a more scientific analysis of existing societies.
To test the viability of his ideas for self-sufficient working communities, Owen began experimenting in communal living in America in 1825. Among the most famous efforts was the one set up at New Harmony, Indiana. Of the 130 identifiable communitarian experiments in America before the American Civil War, at least 16 were Owenite or Owenite-influenced. New Harmony was Owen's earliest and most ambitious of these.
Owen and his son William sailed to America in October 1824 to establish an experimental community in Indiana. In January 1825 Owen used a portion of his own funds to purchase an existing town of 180 buildings and several thousand acres of land along the Wabash River in Indiana. George Rapp's Harmony Society, the religious group that owned the property and had founded the communal village of Harmony (or Harmonie) on the site in 1814, decided in 1824 to relocate to Pennsylvania. Owen renamed it New Harmony and made the village his preliminary model for a Utopian community.
Owen sought support for his socialist vision among American thinkers, reformers, intellectuals and public statesmen. On 25 February and 7 March 1825, Owen gave addresses in the U.S. House of Representatives to the U.S. Congress and others in the US government, outlining his vision for the Utopian community at New Harmony, and his socialist beliefs. The audience for his ideas included three former U.S. presidents - John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison) - as well as the outgoing US President James Monroe, and the President-elect, John Quincy Adams. His meetings were perhaps the first discussions of socialism in the Americas; they were certainly a big step towards discussion of it in the United States. Owenism, among the first socialist ideologies active in the United States, can be seen as an instigator of the later socialist movement.
Owen convinced William Maclure, a wealthy Scottish scientist and philanthropist living in Philadelphia to join him at New Harmony and become his financial partner. Maclure's involvement went on to attract scientists, educators and artists such as Thomas Say, Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, and Madame Marie Duclos Fretageot. These helped to turn the New Harmony community into a centre for educational reform, scientific research and artistic expression.
Although Owen sought to build a "Village of Unity and Mutual Cooperation" south of town, his grand plan was never fully realised, and Owen returned to Britain to continue his work. During his long absences from New Harmony, Owen left the experiment under the day-to-day management of his sons, Robert Dale Owen and William Owen, and his business partner, Maclure. However, New Harmony proved to be an economic failure, lasting about two years, although it had attracted over a thousand residents by the end of its first year. The socialistic society was dissolved in 1827, but many of its scientists, educators, artists and other inhabitants, including Owen's four sons, Robert Dale, William, David Dale, and Richard Dale Owen, and his daughter Jane Dale Owen Fauntleroy, remained at New Harmony after the experiment ended.
Other experiments in the United States included communal settlements at Blue Spring, near Bloomington, Indiana, at Yellow Springs, Ohio, and at Forestville Commonwealth at Earlton, New York, as well as other projects in New York, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. Nearly all of these had ended before New Harmony was dissolved in April 1827.
Owen's Utopian communities attracted a mix of people, many with the highest aims. They included vagrants, adventurers and other reform-minded enthusiasts. In the words of Owen's son David Dale Owen, they attracted "a heterogeneous collection of Radicals", "enthusiastic devotees to principle," and "honest latitudinarians, and lazy theorists," with "a sprinkling of unprincipled sharpers thrown in."
Josiah Warren, a participant at New Harmony, asserted that it was doomed to failure for lack of individual sovereignty and personal property. In describing the community, Warren explained: "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 conquered us... our 'united interests' were directly at war with the individualities of persons and circumstances and the instinct of self-preservation...." Warren's observations on the reasons for the community's failure led to the development of American individualist anarchism, of which he was its original theorist. Some historians have traced the demise of New Harmony to serial disagreements among its members.
Social experiments also began in Scotland in 1825, when Abram Combe, an Owenite, attempted a utopian experiment at Orbiston, near Glasgow, but this failed after about two years. In the 1830s, additional experiments in socialistic cooperatives were made in Ireland and Britain, the most important being at Ralahine, established in 1831 in County Clare, Ireland, and at Tytherley, begun in 1839 in Hampshire, England. The former proved a remarkable success for three-and-a-half years until the proprietor, having ruined himself by gambling, had to sell his interest. Tytherley, known as Harmony Hall or Queenwood College, was designed by the architect Joseph Hansom. This also failed. Another social experiment, Manea Colony in the Isle of Ely, Cambridgeshire, launched in the late 1830s by William Hodson, likewise an Owenite, but it failed in a couple of years and Hodson emigrated to the United States. The Manea Colony site has been excavated by Cambridge Archaeology Unit (CAU) based at the University of Cambridge.
Although Owen made further brief visits to the United States, London became his permanent home and the centre of his work in 1828. After extended friction with William Allen and some other business partners, Owen relinquished all connections with New Lanark. He is often quoted in a comment by Allen at the time, "All the world is queer save thee and me, and even thou art a little queer". Having invested most of his fortune in the failed New Harmony communal experiment, Owen was no longer a wealthy capitalist. However, he remained the head of a vigorous propaganda effort to promote industrial equality, free education for children and adequate living conditions in factory towns, while delivering lectures in Europe and publishing a weekly newspaper to gain support for his ideas.
In 1832 Owen opened the National Equitable Labour Exchange system, a time-based currency in which the exchange of goods was effected by means of labour notes; this system superseded the usual means of exchange and middlemen. The London exchange continued until 1833, a Birmingham branch operating for just a few months until July 1833. Owen also became involved in trade unionism, briefly leading the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union (GNCTU) before its collapse in 1834.
Socialism first became current in British terminology in discussions of the Association of all Classes of all Nations, which Owen formed in 1835 and served as its initial leader. Owen's secular views also gained enough influence among the working classes to cause the Westminster Review to comment in 1839 that his principles were the creed of many of them. However, by 1846, the only lasting result of Owen's agitation for social change, carried on through public meetings, pamphlets, periodicals, and occasional treatises, remained the Co-operative movement, and for a time even that seemed to have collapsed.
In 1817, Owen publicly claimed that all religions were false. In 1854, aged 83, Owen converted to spiritualism after a series of sittings with Maria B. Hayden, an American medium credited with introducing spiritualism to England. He made a public profession of his new faith in his publication The Rational Quarterly Review and in a pamphlet titled The future of the Human race; or great glorious and future revolution to be effected through the agency of departed spirits of good and superior men and women.
Owen claimed to have had medium contact with spirits of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and others. He explained that the purpose of these was to change "the present, false, disunited and miserable state of human existence, for a true, united and happy state... to prepare the world for universal peace, and to infuse into all the spirit of charity, forbearance and love."
Spiritualists claimed after Owen's death that his spirit had dictated to the medium Emma Hardinge Britten in 1871 the "Seven Principles of Spiritualism", used by their National Union as "the basis of its religious philosophy".
Although he had spent most of his life in England and Scotland, Owen returned to his native village of Newtown at the end of his life. He died there on 17 November 1858 and was buried there on 21 November. He died penniless apart from an annual income drawn from a trust established by his sons in 1844.
Owen was a reformer, philanthropist, community builder, and spiritualist who spent his life seeking to improve the lives of others. An advocate of the working class, he improved working conditions for factory workers, which he demonstrated at New Lanark, Scotland, became a leader in trade unionism, promoted social equality through his experimental Utopian communities, and supported the passage of child labour laws and free education for children. In these reforms he was ahead of his time. He envisioned a communal society that others could consider and apply as they wished. In Revolution in the Mind and Practice of the Human Race (1849), he went on to say that character is formed by a combination of Nature or God and the circumstances of the individual's experience. Citing beneficial results at New Lanark, Scotland, during 30 years of work there, Owen concluded that a person's "character is not made by, but for the individual," and that nature and society are responsible for each person's character and conduct.
Owen's agitation for social change, along with the work of the Owenites and of his own children, helped to bring lasting social reforms in women's and workers' rights, establish free public libraries and museums, child care and public, co-educational schools, and pre-Marxian communism, and develop the Co-operative and trade union movements. New Harmony, Indiana, and New Lanark, Scotland, two towns with which he is closely associated, remain as reminders of his efforts.
Owen's legacy of public service continued with his four sons, Robert Dale, William, David Dale, and Richard Dale, and his daughter, Jane, who followed him to America to live at New Harmony, Indiana: