Robert Owen, the son of a saddler and ironmonger from Newtown in Wales, was born on 14th May, 1771. Robert was an intelligent boy who did very well at his local school, but at the age of ten, his father sent him to work in a large drapers in Stamford, Lincolnshire.
After spending three years in Stamford, Robert moved to a drapers in London. This job lasted until 1787 and now aged sixteen, Robert found work at a large wholesale and retail drapery business in Manchester.
It was while Owen was working in Manchester that 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. In 1792 the partnership with Jones came to an end and Owen found work as a manager of Peter Drinkwater's large spinning factory in Manchester.
As manager of Drinkwater's factory, 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. The two men became close friends and in 1799 Robert married Dale's daughter, Caroline.
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. 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.
David Dale had originally built a large number of houses close to his factories in New Lanark. By the time Owen arrived, 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.
The journalist, George Holyoake, became a great supporter of Owen's work in New Lanark: "At New Lanark he virtually or indirectly supplied to his workpeople, with splendid munificence and practical judgment, all the conditions which gave dignity to labour.... Co-operation as a form of social amelioration and of profit existed in an intermittent way before New Lanark; but it was the advantages of the stores Owen incited that was the beginning of working-class co-operation. His followers intended the store to be a means of raising the industrious class, but many think of it now merely as a means of serving themselves. Still, the nobler portion are true to the earlier ideal of dividing profits in store and workshop, of rendering the members self-helping, intelligent, honest, and generous, and abating, if not superseding competition and meanness."
When Owen arrived at New Lanark children from as young as five were working for thirteen hours a day in the textile mills. 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.
Owen's partners were concerned that these reforms would reduce profits. Unable to convince them of the wisdom of these reforms, Owen decided to borrow money from Archibald Campbell, a local banker, in order to buy their share of the business. Later, Owen sold shares in the business to men who agreed with the way he ran his factory.
Robert Owen hoped that the way he treated children at his New Lanark would encourage other factory owners to follow his example. It was therefore important for him to publicize his activities. He wrote several books including The Formation of Character (1813) and A New View of Society (1814). In 1815 Robert Owen sent detailed proposals to Parliament about his ideas on factory reform. This resulted in Owen appearing before Robert Peel and his House of Commons committee in April, 1816.
Robert Owen toured the country making speeches on his experiments at New Lanark. He also publishing his speeches as pamphlets and sent free copies to influential people in Britain. In one two month period he spent £4,000 publicizing his activities. In his speeches, Owen argued that he was creating a "new moral world, a world from which the bitterness of divisive sectarian religion would be banished". His criticisms of the Church of England upset many people, including reformers such as William Wilberforce and William Cobbett.
Disappointed with the response he received in Britain, Owen decided in 1825 to establish a new community in America based on the socialist ideas that he had developed over the years. Owen purchased an area of Indiana for £30,000 and called the community he established there, New Harmony. One of Owen's sons, Robert Dale Owen became the leader of the new community in America.
By 1827 Owen had lost interest in his New Lanark textile mills and decided to sell the business. His four sons and one of his daughters, Jane, moved to New Harmony and made it their permanent home but Owen decided to stay in England where he spent the rest of his life helping different reform groups. This included supporting organisations attempting to obtain factory reform, adult suffrage and the development of successful trade unions. He expressed his views in his journals, The Crisis and The New Moral World.
George Holyoake became an Owenite Missionary. In his autobiography, Sixty Years of an Agitator's Life (1892) Holyoake explained why Owen was so important: "Just as Thomas Paine was the founder of political ideas among the people of England, Robert Owen was also the founder of social ideas among them. He who first conceives a new idea has merit and distinction; but he is the founder of it who puts it into the minds of men by proving its practicability. Mr. Owen did this at New Lanark, and convinced numerous persons that the improvement of society was possible by wise material means. There were social ideas in England before the days of Owen, as there were political ideas before the days of Paine; but Owen gave social ideas form and force. His passion was the organization of labour, and to cover the land with self-supporting cities of industry, in which well-devised material condition should render ethical life possible, in which labour should be, as far as possible, done by machinery, and education, recreation, and competence should be enjoyed by all. Instead of communities working for the world, they should work for themselves, and keep in their own hands the fruit of their labour; and commerce should be an exchange of surplus wealth, and not a necessity of existence. All this Owen believed to be practicable."
Ralph Miliband has argued: "Owen was battling against the evils he saw around him and offering his 'new view of society', he was asserting a political doctrine which ran counter to the experience of those for whom his social message had real meaning. His insistence upon the futility of political agitation, his belief in the need to rely upon the enlightened benevolence of the governing orders, and his advocacy of a union between rich and poor made it impossible for him to play a central part in the movement of protest which followed the end of the wars. Above all, Owen's distrust of the 'industrialised poor' and his inveterate conviction that their independent action must inevitably lead to anarchy and chaos denied him the support of those leaders of labour who... came to believe that the political organization of the people was the key to social progress."
Owen also played an important role in establishing the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union in 1834 and the Association of All Classes and All Nations in 1835. Owen also attempted to form a new community at East Tytherly in Hampshire. However, like New Harmony in America, this experiment came to an end after disputes between members of the community. Although disillusioned with the failure of these communities and most of his political campaigns, Robert Owen continued to work for his "new moral order" until his death on 17th November, 1858.