he diversity and complexity of Robert Owen, the philosopher and philanthropist, the industrialist and social reformer, do not fall easily into an abridged format. Nor is it possible to capture on paper the sense of hero-worship at his mass meetings which emulated those of his Irish contemporary Daniel O’Connell. Owen’s life spanned all the changes brought about by the aftermath of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, living through an unsettled period of social unrest set amidst the machinery-versus-man debate of the rapidly developing industrial revolution.
Robert Owen from a lithograph published in Manchester about 1840, Podmore (1906 ed.) facing p. 494. [Click on the illustrations to enlarge them, and generally for more information about them.]
A simplified analysis leads to sub-division into four phases: his early life and self-training; his management of four mills at New Lanark, near Glasgow; his ill-conceived sojourn in America, where he lost his vast fortune; and his return to England and final years. He was so entrapped in his own theories, his ‘truth’, that he tried to implement them in different settings even when they were unsuitable and unwelcome. Biographies and critiques abound, of which only a short selection is listed. Opinions are very varied and some give conflicting views. Owen himself was also a prolific writer. His newspapers New Moral World, The Pioneer (which succeeded the Journal of the Builders’ Union) and The Crisis sit alongside his autobiography. Owen’s career hinged on his charismatic personality and boundless energy, aided by long-term supporters such as the Duke of Kent, Queen Victoria’s father, Sir Henry Brougham and his personal colleague James Rigby.
Born of a comparatively humble family in Newtown, Montgomeryshire, Owen had ambitions almost from birth. He was also an inveterate traveller. Moving to London, to Stamford in Lincolnshire and finally to Manchester, he became the self-taught manager of the Chorlton Twist Company. By the age of twenty he was already in charge of 500 workers. He developed considerable business skills and learnt the art of oratory at the prestigious Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society. His next move was to New Lanark, where he married the daughter of the mill owner and subsequently purchased his father-in-law’s business. A number of management upheavals took place and under a new regimen Jeremy Bentham, a member of the Manchester group, became one of his partners. Living conditions of the workers, many of whom were young children transferred from workhouses, underpinned his life-long mission, which included shorter working hours, education for all and the concept of "Formation of Character." Owen believed that lives were pre-determined by the environment and circumstance, thus he introduced nursery schools, where children were effectively separated from their families at a very early age so that they did not develop "bad" habits. School life was an incongruous mix of free play, learning by experience and a love of nature - books were seldom used and music and dance encouraged - yet these were within the framework of a strict routine. Adult life was similarly regimented. Living accommodation was inspected to ensure cleanliness, alcohol was frowned upon, and work performance was measured by "silent monitors," wooden blocks painted to denote good, bad or indifferent endeavour. However, he won favour when he paid full wages throughout the stoppage caused by a trade dispute with America. Frequently away from his base at New Lanark, Owen spent much time in London and on two occasions he stood for Parliament. He travelled across Europe, a significant outcome of which was his meeting with the Swiss educationalist, Pestalozzi. So impressed was he by the Pestalozzi philosophy, that he sent his two older sons to complete their education under his guidance. He also spent much time in Ireland, where the agricultural model at Ralahine became the basis for his final effort in Hampshire.
Based on his experience at New Lanark, which he transformed into a self-contained village with schools and shop, he formulated his "Plan," to create similar, elaborate self-sufficient communities, or experiments, a means through which he believed he could change the world. Cobbett described his design as a "parallelogram of paupers." Owen firmly believed that ignorance was the cause of crime and social unrest, and could be resolved through education, leading to a better and happier way of living. In 1819 he delivered a speech to an Archbishop’s Committee in London, outlining his Plan in great detail. Frustrated that he was not receiving the support he hoped to achieve, he delivered a further speech to a Select Committee on the Poor Laws, claiming that his elaborate Plan worked out at £4 per head, less than the daily rate in a workhouse. During the speech he condemned all forms of religion. This was his undoing, a faux pas he could never quite shake off, one which he was to repeat in America.
On his return from Europe, there was a falling out between Owen and his Quaker partner, William Allen, who had taken charge in Owen’s absence and made changes with which Owen did not agree. Having discovered that a pre-existing and commercially successful religious community had already been established in Indiana and was for sale, Owen concluded that America was best suited to further his ideas. The community was considerably larger and supposedly better than New Lanark and Owen did not hesitate to purchase it. However, the local community was not in sympathy with his ideals, and furthermore Owen inadvertently changed the nature of the establishment. At first he tried to mould New Harmony, as it was called, into another New Lanark. Whilst on a boat trip from Ohio to Indiana, he collected together a group of sophisticated and wealthy academics, yet New Harmony drained Owen of his resources as he persisted in his attempt to impose his former regimen on the unwilling inhabitants. Once again his travelling and absenteeism led to a takeover, this time by the Scottish geologist William Maclure. Maclure changed the direction of the community so that it became more a place of higher learning. This suited Owen’s sons, an extension of their Pestalozzi up-bringing. They both became American citizens with Robert Dale becoming a Congressmen and David Dale a founder of the Smithsonian Institute.
Drained financially, Owen had little choice but to return to England. He continued to lecture and pursue his entrenched theories. In his absence, others had taken up his ideas, in particular the Rochdale Pioneers and the Birmingham banker Thomas Attwood. Between them they led to the formation of the Co-operative Society and the Great Reform Bill of 1832. Whilst in Birmingham, Owen’s path crossed with that of the young architect Joseph Hansom. Hansom had just won the competition to design Birmingham Town Hall, and Attwood was one of his main financial backers. Birmingham, a hotbed of activists and radical thinkers, appealed to Owen. He latched onto Hansom who, in turn fell prey to Owen’s persuasive arguments and charismatic charm. On the one hand Hansom became instrumental in setting up meetings for Owen, being so involved that he abandoned the Town Hall to assist with workers who were on strike in Derby, and on the other building a Builders’ Operative Guildhall in Birmingham. Owen’s theories on monetary reform led to the introduction of Labour Notes based on recognition of hours worked, a break from gold currency. This was a brief period of Equitable Labour Exchanges, the rise of Trade Unions and the formation of the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union. The building profession was particularly affected, and therefore of concern to Hansom. Government was keeping a wary eye on these developments. It effectively brought the GNCTU to an abrupt end when they prosecuted and transported seven agricultural labourers in Dorset, the Tolpuddle Martyrs. An attempt by Owen to overturn the sentences was unsuccessful.
Harmony Hall, afterwards Queenwood. Podmore (1906 ed.) facing p. 542.
Hansom, whose association with Owen led him to be nicknamed ‘the Socialist architect’, was bankrupted during the final stages of erecting the Town Hall. He left Birmingham and re-established himself at Hinckley in Leicestershire. Meanwhile Owen continued to host public meetings and hold Co-operative Congresses. He was still convinced of the need for self-sufficient communities but, his final attempt, Harmony Hall in Hampshire, failed to progress. It was too far from his heart-land in Manchester, the chalky soil was not suitable for cultivation and, after strenuous efforts on the part of supporters (Owen not being in residence at this time), he tried to raise its profile by inviting Hansom to design a luxurious quasi-manor house (see above) in its midst. His objective was to establish a base from which he could entertain wealthy people of repute, people he hoped would donate to his project. In his autobiography, Owen talks of "the second coming of humanity," his version of the religious second-coming envisaged by George Rapp, the founder of New Harmony. To this end he decreed that the letters CM (Commencement of the Millennium) be sculpted over the main entrance. He had already touched on the concept of "millennium" whilst at New Lanark. Initially the Hall had been financed by the Association of All Classes and All Nations in Birmingham (later called Rational Religionists), but money ran out. It relied upon promises of donations which were not forthcoming and pre-supposed a surplus of produce which did not exist. Like New Harmony in America, Harmony Hall in Hampshire also floundered and he had to abandon it. It was taken over by George Edmondson, an educationalist with experience in agriculture who had employed Hansom in Lancashire. Harmony Hall was renamed Queenwood College. It became recognised as the centre for all leading British scientists of the nineteenth-century.
Left to right: (a) Owen's grave in Newtown, Podmore (1906 ed.) facing p. 628. (b) Relief medallion on the grave, by sculptor Albert Toft, Podmore (1906 ed.) facing p. 650. (c) Gilbert Bayes' statue of Owen in Newtown (photograph by M. J. Richardson).
Living on a small annuity provided by his sons, Owen moved to London. He continued to lecture and build Halls of Science, all of which suffered from lack of finance. Still attracting attention, but with his family still in America and lacking his former band of followers, Owen was now an isolated figure. He sought solace in the fashionable spiritualism movement. Overtaken by age and failing health, he returned to Newtown, where he died in 1858. A memorial commemorates him in the acclaimed Kensal Green Cemetery.
A pattern emerges in Owen’s life, schemes which outstretched their resources, relentless condemnation of the "old ways," and a wish to implement change on an unrealistically large scale. Despite Owen’s wish to bring about universal happiness, all three of his experimental communities were tainted with internal disputes. Furthermore, there are numerous inconsistencies which he failed to recognise, his evangelical approach which conflicted with his atheist views, his criticism of capitalism alongside his dependency upon wealthy donors, and the elevation of his children by means of private tutelage and thence to what was in effect a "finishing school." Nevertheless many positive outcomes resulted: the Co-operative shops on today’s high streets and free education for everyone, especially early-learners; and his Plan gave inspiration to later model villages, such as Saltaire and Port Sunlight. His aim was that no children should work under the age of ten, and several bills resulted from his campaigning, culminating in the ten-hour working day for adults in 1847.
Robert Owen Archives, Co-operative College, Manchester.
Booth, Arthur John. Robert Owen, the Founder of Socialism in England. London: Trübner & Co., 1869.
Cole, Margaret, et al. Robert Owen: Industrialist, Reformer, Visionary, 1771-1858. London: Robert Owen Bicentenary Association, 1971.
Donachie, Ian. Robert Owen: Owen of New Lanark and New Harmony. East Lothian: Tuckwell, 2000.
Garnett, Ronald George. Co-operation and the Owenite Socialist Communities in Britain 1825-39. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1972.
Holyoake, George J. "A Visit to Harmony Hall." The Movement (November, 1844).
McCabe, Joseph. Robert Owen, (London, 1820)
Podmore, Frank, Robert Owen, a biography. New Lanark, 1906: reprinted London: Allen and Unwin, 1923. [Original ed. available at the Internet Archive, from a copy in the Cornell University Library]
Royle, Edward. Robert Owen and the Commencement of the Millennium: A Study of the Harmony Community. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998.
Created 26 June 2020