Robert Owen

14 May 1771
17 Nov 1858
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Robert Owen ( 14 May 1771 – 17 November 1858) was a Welsh social reformer and one of the founders of utopian socialism and the cooperative movement.

In 1824, Owen travelled to America to invest the bulk of his fortune in an experimental 1,000-member colony on the banks of Indiana’s Wabash River, called New Harmony. New Harmony was intended to be a Utopian society. Before travelling to America, he was an industrialist in Scotland.

Robert Owen was born in Newtown, a small market town in Montgomeryshire, Mid Wales, in 1771. He was the sixth of seven children. His father, also named Robert Owen, had a small business as a saddler and ironmonger. Owen’s mother came from a prosperous farming family called Williams.

There Owen received almost all his school education, which ended at the age of ten. In 1787, after serving in a draper’s shop for some years, he settled in London. He travelled to Manchester, and was employed at Satterfield’s Drapery in St Ann’s Square (a plaque currently marks the site).

By the time he was 21, he was a manager in Manchester at the Chorlton Twist Mills. His entrepreneurial spirit, management skill and progressive moral views were emerging by the early 1790s.

In 1793, he was elected as a member of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, where the ideas of reformers and philosophers of the Enlightenment were discussed.

He also became a committee member of the Manchester Board of Health which was instigated, principally by Thomas Percival, to promote improvements in the health and working conditions of factory workers.

During a visit to Glasgow, Owen fell in love with Caroline Dale, the daughter of the New Lanark mill’s proprietor David Dale. Owen convinced his partners to buy New Lanark, and after his marriage to Caroline[3] in September 1799, he made his home there.

He was a manager and part-owner of the mills (January 1810). Encouraged by his success in the management of cotton mills in Manchester, he hoped to conduct New Lanark on higher principles than purely commercial ones.

The mill of New Lanark had been started in 1785 by David Dale and Richard Arkwright. The water power provided by the falls of the River Clyde made it a great attraction. About 2,000 people had associations with the mills, 500 of whom were children brought at the age of five or six from the poorhouses and charities of Edinburgh and Glasgow.

The children were well treated by Dale, but the general condition of the people was unsatisfactory. Many of the workers were in the lowest levels of the population; theft, drunkenness, and other vices were common; education and sanitation were neglected; and most families lived in one room. The respectable country people refused to submit to the long hours and demoralising drudgery of the mills.

Many employers operated the truck system, and paid workers in part or totally by tokens. These tokens had no value outside the mill owner’s “truck shop”.

The owners could supply shoddy goods to the truck shop and charge top prices. This abuse was stopped by a series of “Truck Acts” (1831–1887), making it an offence not to pay employees in common currency. Owen opened a store where the people could buy goods of sound quality at little more than wholesale cost, and he placed the sale of alcohol under strict supervision.

He sold quality goods and passed on the savings from the bulk purchase of goods to the workers. These principles became the basis for the cooperative shops in Britain, which continue in an altered form to trade today.

Owen’s greatest success was in support of the young. He can be considered as the founder of infant child care in Britain, especially Scotland. Although his reform ideas resembled those of European innovators of the time, he was probably not influenced by such overseas approaches; his ideas on ideal education were his own.[ori

Robert Owen raised the demand for a ten-hour day in 1810, and instituted it in his socialist enterprise at New Lanark. By 1817 he had formulated the goal of the eight-hour day and coined the slogan: “Eight hours labour, Eight hours recreation, Eight hours rest”.

Robert Owen was initially a philanthropist, but embraced socialism in 1817, with a report to the committee of the House of Commons on the Poor Law.

The misery and trade stagnation after the Napoleonic Wars was capturing the attention of the country. Although tracing the immediate causes of misery to the wars, Owen argued that the underlying cause of distress was the competition of human labour with machinery, and that the only effective remedy was the united action of men and the subordination of machinery.

He proposed that communities of about 1,200 people should be settled on land from 1,000 to 1,500 acres (4 to 6 km2), all living in one large square building, with public kitchen and mess-rooms.
Each family should have its own private apartments and the entire care of the children till age three, after which they should be brought up by the community; their parents would have access to them at meals, however, and at all other proper times.

These 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 experienced communally. 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.

Owen’s model changed little during his life. His fully developed model was as follows. He considered an association of 500 to 3000 people 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”, until they included the whole world in a common interest.

In 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 evaluation of the subject but agrees with Socrates’ general overview.

In 1854, at the age of 83, and despite his previous antipathy to religion, Owen was converted to spiritualism after a series of “sittings” with the American medium Maria B. Hayden (credited with introducing spiritualism to England).

Owen made a public profession of his new faith in his publication The Rational quarterly review and later wrote a pamphlet entitled 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 mediumistic contact with the spirits of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and others, the purpose of whose communications 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.”

After Owen’s death spiritualists claimed that his spirit dictated the “Seven Principles of Spiritualism” to the medium Emma Hardinge Britten in 1871.

Robert and Caroline Owen’s first child died in infancy. 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).

Owen’s 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. Jane, the remaining daughter, joined her brothers in America, where she married Robert Henry Fauntleroy.

Robert 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. He 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).

Owen’s third son, David Dale Owen (1807–1860), was in 1839 appointed a United States geologist who made extensive surveys of the north-west, which were published by order of Congress.

The youngest son, Richard Dale Owen (1810–1890), was an American Civil War colonel and first president of Purdue University.

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