In the savage world that was the Britain of the Industrial Revolution, when Blake’s dark satanic mills were a reality, and not just a sentimental romantic conclusion to the last night of the Proms, one figure stands out — Robert Owen. Born 200 years ago on 17 May, Owen had a career that would have been phenomenal in any age, but that he should have had this in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries makes his story even more remarkable.
Owen was born in Newtown, Montgomeryshire, the fourth surviving child of a saddlemaker and ironmonger. Very little is known of his early family life, and this is not surprising for he left home at the age of ten. We do, however, know that he attended a school run by a Mr. Thickness where he excelled at “games, dancing and lessons”, so much so that at the age of seven Mr. Thickness “applied to my father for permission that I should become his assistant and usher, as from that time I was called while I remained in school”.
Owen left school at the age of nine and engaged himself to a Newtown neighbour who kept a “superior shop” for the sale of haberdashery and drapery, and after a year’s apprenticeship he felt ready to seek his fortune elsewhere. In 1781, with his parent’s goodwill and a present of forty shillings from the people of Newtown in his pocket, Owen set out for London. Later he began to read extensively, searching, he said, for the “true religion”, with the result that he was forced to reject all religions:
My reason taught me that I could not have made one of my own qualities, — that they were forced upon me by nature; — that my language, religion and habits were forced upon me by society; and that I was entirely the child of Nature and Society; — that Nature gave the qualities, and Society directed them. Thus was I forced, through seeing the error of their foundation, to abandon all belief in every religion which had been taught to Man. But my religious feelings were immediately replaced by the spirit of universal charity.
After returning to London, where he stayed for another year, Owen moved to Manchester which was to be his home, more or less continuously for the next fourteen years, and was to see the start of his industrial career.
He went to work as a manager of a cotton factory employing 500 men, women and children: “When I arrived at the mill”, Owen tells us, “I found myself at once in the midst of 500 men, women and children, who were busily occupied with machinery, much of which I had never seen before.” Besides being expected to superintend those 500 at work, he found that he was responsible for buying their raw material, for increasing production, and for keeping the accounts, in fact everything except the marketing of the finished product. So over-awed was he at first that “I did not give one direct order about anything”, he said. However, after six weeks of watching, listening and carefully studying the working of the machines his old confidence returned and “I felt myself so much the master of my position as to be ready to give direction in any department.”
At this time Owen married Caroline, the eldest daughter of David Dale, the owner of the New Lanark Mills. Owen eventually became the manager of these mills and devoted the next twenty years to reorganising the community of two thousand workers on strikingly original lines. To fully appreciate his efforts at this time one must understand the sufferings of the workers in the early nineteenth century; hours were long, pay at starvation level, and housing grim beyond belief. But the evil that stands out above all was the treatment of small children, treatment which called forth the jibe from American slave owners that their slaves were better off than the children in the cotton mills of Lancashire.
Owen not only favoured a limitation of the working day in theory, but actually introduced the ten hour day in his factory. As Marx points out, this was laughed at as a communistic Utopia, so were his “Combination of children’s education with productive labour”. The first Utopia was soon to become a Factory Act, and the second figures as an official phrase in all Factory Acts. Combined with this reduction of working hours, Owen improved housing, opened a shop in which good quality goods were sold at relatively low prices, and started schools and day-nurseries. He was not concerned to use education to inculcate beliefs or theories, nor with happenings conceived in an abstract way, but sought to educate children as human beings capable of applying their reason to nature and society and of enjoying all aspects of life. In New Lanark these ideas were translated into practice. Though at first restricted by his partners, who intended to build up a profitable enterprise, Owen had put an end to the practice of employing pauper children and had withdrawn all children under ten from work. Later he was able to limit the hours of adults to twelve and then to proceed with his plans for education and improvement of home life and surroundings of the younger generation.
Such was the fame of the New Lanark Mills that hundreds of visitors went to the factory, and as Engels said:
As long as he was simply a philanthropist he was rewarded with nothing but wealth, applause, honour and glory. He was the most popular man in Europe. Not only men of his own class, but statesmen and princes listened to him approvingly. But when he stepped forth with his communistic theories, then that was quite another matter.
Throughout the 1820’s Owen turned to the formation of co-operative villages, some of which were already being run on Owenite lines in Scotland, Ireland and Hampshire. He himself set up such a community in America, but the project failed, with four-fifths of his entire fortune being lost in the venture. Following the failure of the co-operative villages he entered into the trade union field, and his road to the New Moral World he now saw through the organisation of the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union, which within a few weeks of its formation in 1834 had enrolled more than one million members. This too collapsed in 1834, following the deportation of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and Owen continuously fought for their return to England.
His other work was within the field of Co-operative Societies, something which he came to support — he was not a founder, as many today would suggest. Co-operatives flourished at this time, but by then Owen was old and concerned more with lecturing than administration. Indeed Marx rather bitingly observed that even as early as the 1870’s the Co-op’s were being used as a cloak for reactionary humbug. Furthermore, as G. D. H. Cole points out in his biography of Owen
. . . although Co-operators pay tribute to him as the founder of their system, it is more than doubtful whether Owen, if he could revisit the earth, would recognise his progeny, or take more than a passing interest in its growth.
How then should we regard Owen in this bicentennial years of his birth? First and foremost he must be judged within the context of his time. He was an early advocate in this country of town planning and of a green belt; in education he was quick to demand, and to set up, nursery schools; and to recognise the function of play in education and to suggest that teachers should be trained, if necessary by the state. He told his fellow employers, in an age of a scramble for profits and pared costs which we call the Industrial Revolution, that the human machines they used in their factories would repay careful treatment and upkeep as much as did the inanimate machines, and he appreciated the need for economic planning. Long before Henry Ford was born, Owen preached “the economy of high wages” to a master class which had yet to realise the possibilities of a home-market among the lowly paid. He declared, ninety years before Beatrice Webb produced her Minority Report on the Poor Laws, that relief of destitution ought to be a charge on the resources of a state, and in an age when people were still being hanged or deported for petty theft he denounced the retributive theory of punishment. Such acclaim may seem surprising when one considers that so many of his projects failed, but it should be remembered that Owen did not intend his ideas to be a universal panacea for all social ills, but only a first step towards a far more radical transformation of society.