Robert Owen, the son of Robert Owen a saddler and ironmonger from Newtown in Wales, was born on 14th May, 1771. At the age of ten, his father sent him to work in a large drapers in Stamford, Lincolnshire. In 1784 Owen joined a London retailer, working twelve hours daily for £25 a year, and then moved to a similar position at £40 a year under in Manchester.
During this period he heard about the success Richard Arkwright was having with his textile factory in Cromford. Robert was quick to see the potential of this way of manufacturing cloth and although he was only nineteen years old, borrowed £100 and set up a business as a manufacturer of spinning mules with John Jones, an engineer. He sold his share in the business in 1789 and soon afterwards went to manage a mill with 500 employees owned by Peter Drinkwater, who had first applied the Boulton and Watt engine to cotton spinning.
Owen applied himself rigorously, spending six weeks studying the factory, and proposing many refinements to the manufacturing process. This was highly successful and the company became well-known for the quality of the thread. Owen met a lot of businessmen involved in the textile industry. This included David Dale, the owner of Chorton Twist Company in New Lanark, Scotland, the largest cotton-spinning business in Britain.
With the financial support of several businessmen from Manchester, Owen purchased Dale's four textile factories in New Lanark for £60,000. Under Owen's control, the Chorton Twist Company expanded rapidly. However, Robert Owen was not only concerned with making money, he was also interested in creating a new type of community at New Lanark. He became highly critical of factory owners to employ young children.
Owen set out to make New Lanark an experiment in philanthropic management from the outset. Owen believed that a person's character is formed by the effects of their environment. Owen was convinced that if he created the right environment, he could produce rational, good and humane people. Owen argued that people were naturally good but they were corrupted by the harsh way they were treated. For example, Owen was a strong opponent of physical punishment in schools and factories and immediately banned its use in New Lanark.
Over 2,000 people lived in New Lanark village. One of the first decisions took when he became owner of New Lanark was to order the building of a school. Owen was convinced that education was crucially important in developing the type of person he wanted. He stopped employing children under ten and reduced their labour to ten hours a day. The young children went to the nursery and infant schools that Owen had built. Older children worked in the factory but also had to attend his secondary school for part of the day.
George Combe, an educator who was unsympathetic to Owen's views generally, visited New Lanark during this period. "We saw them romping and playing in great spirits. The noise was prodigious, but it was the full chorus of mirth and kindliness." Combe explained that Owen had ordered £500 worth of "transparent pictures representing objects interesting to the youthful mind" so that children could "form ideas at the same time that they learn words". Combe went on to argue that the greatest lessons Owen wished the children to learn were "that life may be enjoyed, and that each may make his own happiness consistent with that of all the others."
The practice of employing children in the mills, of six, seven and eight years of age, was discontinued... The children were taught reading, writing, and arithmetic, without expense to their parents. They may therefore be taught and well-trained before they engage in any regular employment.
When I first came to New Lanark I found the population similar to that of other manufacturing districts... there was... poverty, crime and misery... When men are in poverty they commit crimes.., instead of punishing or being angry with our fellow-men.., we ought to pity them and patiently to trace the causes... and endeavour to discover whether they may not be removed. This was the course which I adopted.
Question: At what age to take children into your mills?
Robert Owen: At ten and upwards.
Question: Why do you not employ children at an earlier age?
Robert Owen: Because I consider it to be injurious to the children, and not beneficial to the proprietors.
Question: What reasons have you to suppose it is injurious to the children to be employed at an earlier age?
Robert Owen: Seventeen years ago, a number of individuals, with myself, purchased the New Lanark establishment from Mr. Dale. I found that there were 500 children, who had been taken from poor-houses, chiefly in Edinburgh, and those children were generally from the age of five and six, to seven to eight. The hours at that time were thirteen. Although these children were well fed their limbs were very generally deformed, their growth was stunted, and although one of the best schoolmasters was engaged to instruct these children regularly every night, in general they made very slow progress, even in learning the common alphabet. I came to the conclusion that the children were injured by being taken into the mills at this early age, and employed for so many hours; therefore, as soon as I had it in my power, I adopted regulations to put an end to a system which appeared to me to be so injurious.
Question: Do you give instruction to any part of your population?
Robert Owen: Yes. To the children from three years old upwards, and to every other part of the population that choose to receive it.
Question: If you do not employ children under ten, what would you do with them?
Robert Owen: Instruct them, and give them exercise.
Question: Would not there be a danger of their acquiring, by that time, vicious habits, for want of regular occupation.
Robert Owen: My own experiences leads me to say, that I found quite the reverse, that their habits have been good in proportion to the extent of their instruction.
The local shops... sold goods at high prices... I arranged superior shops... to supply every article of food, clothing etc. which they required... I bought everything.., on a large scale... these goods were then supplied to the people at the cost price. The result of this change was to save them... a full twenty-five per cent.
Robert Owen, a young Welshman who in 1800 became the owner of a great cotton mill at New Lanark on Clydeside... He refused to employ any child under ten: he built good houses for his employees and schools for their children: he paid fair wages and reduced working hours... In later years Owen was to carry his ideas further, and to advocate the transfer of industry from private control to the community, thus winning the name of the "Father of Socialism".
The principal justification of Mr Owen's pretensions are that he has succeeded in changing, as he calls it, the moral habits of the persons under his employment in a manufactory at Lanark, in Scotland. For all the good he has done in that respect, he deserves the highest thanks. It is much to be wished, that all who live by the labour of the poor would pay as much attention to their wants and to their interests as Mr Owen did to those under his care at Lanark.
But it is very amusing to hear Mr Owen talk of re-moralizing the poor. Does he not think that the rich are a little more in want of re-moralizing; and particularly that class of them that has contributed to demoralize the poor, if they are demoralized, by supporting measures which have made them poor, and which now continue them poor and wretched?
Talk of the poor being demoralized! It is their would-be masters that create all the evils that afflict the poor, and all the depravity that pretended philanthropists pretend to regret.
In one point of view Mr Owen's scheme might be productive of some good. Let him abandon the labourer to his own protection; cease to oppress him, and the poor man would scorn to hold any fictitious dependence upon the rich. Give him a fair price for his labour, and do not take two-thirds of a depreciated remuneration back from him again in the shape of taxes. Lower the extravagance of the great. Tax those real luxuries, enormous fortunes obtained without merit. Reduce the herd of locusts that prey upon the honey of the hive, and think they do the bees a most essential service by robbing them. The working bee can always find a hive. Do not take from them what they can earn, to supply the wants of those who will earn nothing. Do this; and the poor will not want your splendid erections for the cultivation of misery and the subjugation of the mind.
Owen's philanthropy was owing to his principles. Whether wealth is acquired by chance or fraud - as a good deal of wealth is - or owing to inheritance without merit, or to greater capacity than other men have, it is alike the gift of destiny, and Mr. Owen held that those less fortunate should be assisted to improvement in their condition by the favourites of fate. Seeing that every man would be better than he is were his condition in life devised for his betterment, Owen's advice was not to hate men, but to change the system which makes them what they are or keeps them from moral advancement. For these reasons he was against all attempts at improvement by violence. Force was not reformation. In his mind reason and better social arrangements were the only remedy.
In consequence of the dire effects of this wretched system upon the whole of the human race, the population of Great Britain - the most advanced of modern nations in the acquirement of riches, power and happiness - has created and supports a theory and practice of government which is directly opposed to the real well-being and true interests of every individual member of the empire, whatever may be his station, rank or condition - whether subject or sovereign. And so enormous are the increasing errors of this system now become, that, to uphold it the government is compelled, day by day, to commit acts of the grossest cruelty and injustice, and to call such proceedings laws of justice and of Christian mercy. Under this system, the idle, the useless and the vicious govern the population of the world; whilst the useful and the truly virtuous, as far as such a system will permit men to be virtuous, are by them degraded and oppressed.
Next month I shall be 77 years of age; for sixty years I have fought this great cause despite calumnies of every kind. I have created children's homes and a system of education with no punishments. I have improved the conditions of workers in factories. I have revealed the science by which we may bestow on the human race a superior character, produce an abundance of wealth and procure its just and equitable distribution. I have provided the means by which an education may gradually be achieved - an education equal for all, and greatly superior to that which the most affluent have hitherto been able to procure. I have come to France, bringing these insights and experience acquired in many countries, to consolidate the victory newly won over a false and oppressive system that could never have lasted.
Robert Owen, a successful industrialist who made a fortune in cotton spinning, elaborated his plans for social reconstruction... His first followers were mainly radical philanthropists, but in the late 1820s Owenism attracted support among working men.
The trade union ferment of 1829-34 was dominated by Owenite theories, and for a few months in 1833-4 Owen was the acknowledged leader of the working classes. After the collapse of the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, the Owenites developed a national organization of agents and branches which carried on propaganda and social activities until about 1845. The institutions of Owenism, however, were never as influential as its social theories. Many working-class leaders, who criticized Owen and the Owenites in the 1830s, nevertheless acknowledged their debt to Owenite socialism. Owenism provided a kind of reservoir from which different groups and individuals drew ideas and inspiration which they then applied as they chose. Essentially Owenism was the main British variety of what Marx and Engels called utopian socialism.
Questions for Students
Question 1: Select information from the sources to explain Robert Owen's views on child labour.
Question 2: Describe Robert Owen's views on education.
Question 3: Why did Owen believe that the crime-rate would be lower in New Lanark than in other towns?
Question 4: Why was Robert Owen described as the "Father of Socialism"?
Question 5: What evidence is there in this unit that Robert Owen remained active in politics into his old-age.
A commentary on these questions can be found here.