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Robert Owen and factory legislation

Robert Owen has been called the 'father of English Socialism'. He was the founder of the Co-operative movement and believed in worker control although he was a high capitalist himself. He was the product of self-help; a paternalist. A very practical man, he concentrated on the means to the end. He believed that if the working man ever was to achieve equality, then the man must change first - in attitude. Also, the working man had to know of, believe in and be equipped to fight for the cause, according to Owen. This is very much the self-help ethic.

Owen advocated social changes because he was trying to create a changed working man. He reasoned that since character was moulded by circumstances, then improved circumstances would lead to goodness. The environment at New Lanark, where he tried out his ideas, reflected this philosophy. However, Owen was an authoritarian and much too heavy-handed; his workers at New Lanark were made to adopt new living, working, sanitary, educational and other standards. He received no criticism from below, and he simply bought out critical partners. The result of this was that Owen became dogmatic. He was more devoted to his ideals than to any human being and had a greater love for mankind in the mass than for any individual. Owen forgot, at times, that 'mankind' was made up of individuals and so he failed.

New Lanark had a population of 2,000 people, 500 of whom were young children from the poorhouses and charities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. The children had been well treated by David Dale but Owen found the condition of the people unsatisfactory. Owen refused to take any more pauper children and he began to improve the houses and machinery. Crime and vice bred by demoralising conditions were common; there was little education and less sanitation; housing conditions were intolerable. Owen set out to test his ideas on education and the environment by attempting to set up a model factory and model village. Under his new regime, conditions in the factory were clean and children and women worked relatively short hours: a 12 hour day including 1½ hours for meals. He employed no children under 10 years old. He provided decent houses, sanitation, shops and so on for the workers. He gave rewards for cleanliness and good behaviour and mainly by his own personal influence, encouraged the people in habits of order, cleanliness, and thrift. The Gentleman's Magazine commented that

the [children] live with their parents in neat comfortable habitation, receiving wages for their labour... The regulations here to preserve health of body and mind, present a striking contrast to those of most large manufactories in this kingdom.

Initially, the workmen obstructed his plans but he won their confidence by opening a shop in which goods of sound quality could be bought at little more than cost price and at which the sale of alcohol was placed under strict supervision. He became more popular duing the American embargo in 1806 when he stopped the mills for four months but paid the workmen their full wages, amounting to more than £7,000. After that, he was able to introduce other measures to reduce the amount of drink and pilfering that went on in New Lanark.

Owen was consulted by the rich and famous and he came to see himself as a prophet. Owen's influence and example were important in factory reform. He influenced Sir Robert Peel (senior) into presenting the 1802 and 1819 Factory Acts to parliament. He called a meeting of manufacturers at Glasgow in 1815 and proposed a petition for removing the tax on imported cotton that was carried unanimously. He then proposed resolutions approving a measure for limiting the hours of children's labour in mills. No one would second them, but Owen went to London to set out his proposals to the government which Peel undertook to bring before the House of Commons as a Bill. Peel approved the appointment of a committee to investigate the question of the employment of children in mills but the Glasgow manufacturers tried to discredit Owen by laying charges to the effect that he had used seditious language in his address on the institution for the formation of character. Sidmouth had already seen the address and dismissed the charge as ridiculous. Owen attended the committee at every meeting for two sessions because he wanted his New Lanark mills to be the model for the standardisation of factory life: 12 hours a day with 11½ hours for meals. He was disgusted by the concessions made by Peel to the manufacturers and handed over his work to Nathaniel Gould and Richard Oastler.

The Factory Act of 1819 was the result of this agitation. Owen had proposed that no child under ten should be employed in any factory; that no child under eighteen should be worked for more than ten and a half hours; and that some schooling should be given, and a system of inspection provided. The legislation that came into effect dealt only with cotton mills; it said that no children under 9 were to be employed; children between the ages of 9 and 16 years were limited to 12 hours' work per day and that JPs were to enforce the Act. It fell far short of Owen's vision but was a first step towards reforming factories and limiting the working hours of children.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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