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Robert Owen (1771-1858)

Robert Owen was born on 14 May 1771 at Newtown, Montgomeryshire. He was son of Robert Owen and his wife Anne Williams and was the sixth of seven children born to the couple. Owen's father was a saddler and ironmonger and also worked as the village postmaster. When he was very young, Owen was sent to a day school and learned so quickly that when he was only seven years old he was made an ‘usher.’ He had a passion for reading, and books were lent to him by the clergyman, doctor and lawyer. He read the 'standard' literature of the day as well as history books, books of travel and biographies. Some Methodist ladies lent him a number of religious books which apparently convinced him that there was ‘something fundamentally wrong in all religions’. Later in his life, Owen read little other than newspapers and statistical books.

At the age of 9, Owen became an assistant in a small grocery and haberdashery shop. When he was 10 years old, he was allowed to join his eldest brother William, then a saddler, in London. After a short time in London Owen was apprenticed to a Scotsman called McGuffog, an ex-pedlar who had started a successful business selling the finer articles of female wear in Stamford, Northamptonshire. Owen became a good judge of different fabrics; his master was kind and considerate, and Owen was able to spend many hours before and after his day's work studying. It was during this time that Owen abandoned Christianity.

After four years at Stamford and a brief holiday he became assistant in a haberdasher's shop on London Bridge, where he received £25 a year plus board and lodging. In the busy season he had only five hours for sleep so he accepted an offer of £40 a year for a similar post with a Mr. Satterfield in Manchester where the cotton trade was developing rapidly. Owen became friends with a mechanic named Jones who wanted to make some of the new machinery for cotton spinning. Owen borrowed £100 from his brother and took a workshop with Jones where soon they were employing forty men. Owen kept the books and managed the men; the business did well and then a capitalist offered to buy him out. Owen accepted and set up his own business spinning yarn which he sold to the agent of some Glasgow manufacturers. He then went into business with two young Scotsmen (James McConnell and John Kennedy) in 1790 and soon was clearing £6 a week.

Mr. Drinkwater of Manchester advertised for a manager for a large business and Owen applied for the post. Although he was younger and demanded a larger salary than other applicants, Drinkwater appointed him. Owen was put in charge of a mill that employed five hundred people and was filled with machinery about which he knew almost nothing. Drinkwater left the business to him so Owen studied the arrangements carefully, and mastered them in six weeks. His management of the workmen was successful, and they were soon noted for their sobriety and good order. The knowledge of fabrics acquired at McGuffog's stood Owen in good stead and he increased the mill's output from 120 hanks to the pound to 300 hanks to the pound. Owen made use of the first American sea island cotton (a fine, long-staple fibre) ever imported into the country and made improvements in the quality of the cotton spun. Owen's skill greatly increased the profits of the business, although he was concerned that more attention seemed to be paid to the machinery than to the people working in the mills.

During the first year of his employment,Owen and Drinkwater came to a new agreement. Owen was to have £400 for the second year, £500 in the third, and a partnership, with a quarter of the profits, in the fourth. He was becoming known in Manchester and became a member of the ‘Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester.’ Drinkwater then wanted to withdraw from the partnership agreement but offered to keep Owen as the mill manager at any salary he chose to name. Owen promptly gave up the agreement but refused to remain as manager; he stayed for a year till Drinkwater could find a replacement then in 1794-5 Owen formed the Chorlton Twist Company in which two old and established firms took part. Owen managed the new mills that were built at Chorlton; he also made the purchases, which took him to Glasgow on regular occasions. There he met Anne Caroline Dale, daughter of David Dale, the proprietor of the New Lanark mills that he had started with Richard Arkwright in 1785. Anne Dale was determined to marry Owen, who offered to buy the New Lanark mills for £60,000 to be paid in twenty annual instalments. Dale liked Owen and consented to the marriage which took place on 30 September 1799. Owen then took over the management of the New Lanark mills on 1 January 1800 and decided to carry out the plans that he had developed whilst he was at Drinkwater's.

There were about 1,300 workmen and their families and between 400 and 500 pauper children at New Lanark. Owen refused to take any more pauper children and he began to improve the houses and machinery. Owen set up a model factory and model village and the workers at New Lanark were made to adopt new living, working, sanitary, educational and other standards. 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 New Lanark institutions became famous and Owen reckoned that between 1814 and 1824 there were about 2,000 visitors a year.From 1808 Owen and his family, together with Mrs. Owen's four sisters, lived at at Braxfield House. His acquaintances included many clergymen including Sutton - the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Wilberforce, Clarkson, and other anti-slavery campaigners; Malthus and the utilitarians Bentham, James Mill and Francis Place. At the time Owen's views were in favour of paternal government: Owen was never a democrat. He was opposed to Malthusian views and to the laissez-faire tendencies of the economists. Lord Liverpool received him and Lord Sidmouth had Owen's essays circulated by the government in order to obtain comments from others. John Quincey Adams, the United States minister in London, took copies for the United States; Owen was consulted by the ambassadors of Austria and Prussia and he said that Napoleon was converted at Elba by reading his essays, and would have applied their principles if the sovereigns of Europe had not interfered in 1815. The Grand Duke Nicholas (who became Czar Nicholas I of Russia) visited him at New Lanark, and offered to take two million of the ‘surplus population’ of England and establish a Russian New Lanark. Owen also became acquainted with the English royal family, particularly the Duke of Kent.

Owen came to see himself as a prophet and attributed his remarkable successes at New Lanark not to the combination of good business qualities and genuine benevolence and persistence, but to the abstract principle which he preached as a secret for reforming the world: he believed that since character is formed by circumstances, men are not responsible for their actions, and should be moulded into goodness instead of being punished.

His first public action was more practical, however: 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 a measure for limiting the hours of children's labour in mills and Sir Robert Peel (Senior) undertook to introduce a Bill founded upon them. A committee was set up to investigate the question of the employment of children in mills and the Factory Act of 1819 was the result of this agitation.

The distress of the post-war period (1816-20) led to the formation of a committee under Archbishop Sutton for which Owen prepared a report in which he suggested a system of education and of ‘villages of unity and co-operation’ as the only remedy for the problems facing working men. Sturges Bourne's committee on the poor law did not call Owen as a witness so he decided to publicise his views in the press. On 30 July, 9 and 10 August 1817 he published letters in the papers announcing a meeting for 14 August at the City of London Tavern. He circulated thirty thousand copies of these papers, besides other documents, at a cost of £4,000. A crowded, successful meeting was held on 14th, and adjourned to 21st. Owen had been challenged to give his religious views: he thought that religion was the greatest obstacle to progress and announced this to the meeting - at which Owen believed he was the most popular man of the day and that the government was ‘at his mercy’. It is worthy of note that after this declaration of atheism, he kept so many supporters among the respectable.

Owen had a philosophic conflict between an almost feudal paternalism and his revolutionary attitude towards character formation - and his attitude to religion: he was an atheist. He dismissed all religions as false, but this caused problems because:

From 1817 he devoted himself to spreading his ideas and to schemes intended to bring them about. In the autumn he went abroad, carrying introductions to great men, including one from the Duke of Kent to the Duke of Orleans. Travelling with Professor Pictet of Geneva, Owen went to Paris and was introduced to La Place, Alexander von Humboldt and other distinguished men. He then went to Switzerland where he saw Sismondi, visited Oberlin at Freiburg, Pestalozzi at Yverdun, and Fellenberg at Hofwyl. He visited Frankfort and went on to Aix-la-Chapelle to attend the congress of 1818. He saw many diplomats and presented papers to Czar Alexander I who treated him with contempt. After another visit to Switzerland Owen returned to England at the beginning of 1819 and stood as a parliamentary candidate for the Lanark burghs but was not elected.

Owen believed the common theories about over-production and the bad effects of all machinery in displacing labour, which is why he wanted to set up 'villages of co-operation': meanwhile, Owen withdrew from New Lanark where Allen objected to Owen's anti-religious principles and - as a Quaker - to the singing, dancing, and military drill. Various disputes arose and Owen was discontented with the management, finally withdrawing in 1829. He made a small settlement on his children, and considered himself at liberty to spend his money on his various projects.

In 1821 Owen started a periodical called The Economist which ran for a year and was followed by The Political Economist and Universal Philanthropist (1823) and The Advocate of the Working Classes (1827). He visited Ireland in 1823 and argued with professors at Maynooth; he held meetings at the Rotunda in Dublin on 18 March, 12 and 19 April 1823 which resulted in the formation of the Hibernian Philanthropic Society. There was strong opposition to Owen's ideas and these meetings sealed the fate of his social reform.

In 1824 Owen set off for America where he intended to establish a model community that would live by his ideals: the place was called New Harmony. Difficulties soon arose and the colonists gradually gave up their communism. In 1828 Owen finally broke off his connection with the place, having spent over £40,000 on the experiment. Owen's schemes had failed. He had laid great stress on the necessity of ‘forming character’ in infancy: he might have guessed that unprepared people would not have the necessary qualities for success in new undertakings.

Owen began to spread his ideas through lectures and by promoting various associations. A London Co-operative Society had been started in 1824 with rooms in Burton Street, Burton Crescent, where discussions were held. The Co-operative Magazine was started in January 1826; in 1830 it gave way to the British Co-operator, the Co-operative Miscellany and other journals that expounded Owen's theories. In 1832 he started the Labour Bazaar and then became involved in the Trade Union movement; Owen supported the Tolpuddle Martyrs who were convicted in 1834.

The New Moral World (1834-41) was a weekly journal published by Robert Owen and his disciples. It called itself the organ of the Association of all Classes of all Nations and at a later period the Gazette of the Universal Community Society of Rational Religionists. A Book of the New Moral World by Owen appeared in seven parts (1826-1844) and contains some of the fullest statements of his ideas. Owen's expectations became more rash and vague as his real influence declined although he was a travelling lecturer as late as 1838.

By 1840 Owen had been nearly forgotten by the general public: then he was presented to the queen by Lord Normanby, who was denounced by Bishop Philpotts in the House of Lords. Owen later became president of the short-lived community at Queenwood, Hampshire although he was not an active member. Between 1844 and 1847 he was in America, and after his return published Revolution in Mind and Practice (1849) and Letters to the Human Race (1850). He spent many of his later years with a family at Sevenoaks.

Owen continued his appeals to the public in various forms. In November 1850 he began to publish a weekly Journal which lasted till the end of 1852. He petitioned parliament in 1851 for a committee to examine his schemes and also circulated tracts that were translated into French and German for distribution among visitors to the Great Exhibition. He began to publish the Rational Quarterly in June 1853 which included letters to the Prince Consort and various ministers. He also proposed himself for election by any constituency which would elect him ‘free of all trouble and expense.’

In 1854 Owen was converted to spiritualism by a medium in America and began publishing the New Existence of Man upon Earth: it began with an outline of his early life. Eight parts appeared, containing documents concerning his Irish experience and his disputes with Allen. The publication also contains letters from Franklin, Jefferson, the Duke of Kent, and some posthumous dramas by Shakespeare [sic]. Owen's autobiography appeared in 1857-8.

In 1857 he convened a ‘Congress of the Advanced Minds of the World.’ He attended an educational conference held at Willis's Rooms in June 1857 under the presidency of the Prince Consort; he read a paper at the first meeting of the Social Science Association held at Birmingham in October 1857 and attended a meeting in Liverpool in October 1858. Though very feeble, he was placed on the platform and was introduced to the meeting by his old friend Brougham. He said a few words and then was carried to bed. After two weeks he asked to be taken to Newtown. He went there, made another journey to Liverpool and finally returned to Newtown where he died there in the hotel on 17 November 1858. He was buried in the grave of his parents in the ruins of St. Mary's following an Anglican service at the new church. Many of his old friends and persons interested in socialism and co-operation attended the funeral.

Owen was seen by the Whigs and the political economists as a bore: he seems to have been regarded as a social butt whose absurdity was forgiven for his good humour. He was a man of one idea that was only partially right, and enforced less by argument than by incessant and monotonous repetition. His great business capacities enabled him to make an important stand against some of the evils produced by the unprecedented extension of the factory system. He was not in sympathy with any political party. Cobbett, who shared some of his views, treats him with ridicule; Southey was alienated by his religious teaching although he approved of Owen's social aims. Although Bentham was his partner and Ricardo joined his committee, Owen's condemnation of laissez-faire and his denunciations of competition made him the opponent of the utilitarians.

In his later years his head seems to have been turned. His time in America showed a complete forgetfulness of all the businesslike precautions to which the success of New Lanark had been due. He had succeeded by training the young, and fancied that he could make a community by simply collecting an untrained mass of needy adventurers. His influence upon the growth of co-operation in its early years was enormous, and he sowed the seed of a harvest which has been reaped by his disciples. Robert Owen was an amiable man whose ruling passion was benevolence; he was exceedingly fond of children; he spent a fortune in promoting human welfare and he was able to conciliate his opponents.

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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