1902 Encyclopedia > Robert Owen

Robert Owen
Welsh social reformer and founder of English socialism

ROBERT OWEN (1771-1858), philanthropist, and founder of English socialism, was born at the village of Newtown, Montgomeryshire, in North Wales. His father had a small business in Newtown as saddler and ironmonger, and there young Owen received all his school education, which terminated at the age of nine. At ten he went to Stamford, where he served in a draper's shop for three or four years, and, after a short experience of work in a London shop, removed to Manchester. His success at Manchester was very rapid. When only nineteen years of age he became manager of a cotton mill, in which five hundred people were employed, and by his administrative intelligence, energy, industry, and steadiness soon made it one of the very best establishments of the kind in Great Britain. In this factory Owen used the first bags of American sea-island cotton ever imported into the country; it was the first cotton obtained from the Southern States of America. Owen also made remarkable improvement in the quality of the cotton spun; and indeed there is no reason to doubt that at this early age he was the first cotton-spinner in England, a position entirely due to his own capacity and knowledge of the trade, as he had found the mill in no well-ordered condition, and was left to organize it entirely on his own responsibility. Owen had become manager and one of the partners of the Chorlton Twist Company at Manchester, when he made his first acquaintance with the scene of his future philanthropic efforts at New Lanark. During a visit to Glasgow he had fallen in love with the daughter of the proprietor of the New Lanark mills, Mr Dale. Owen induced his partners to purchase New Lanark; and after his marriage with Miss Dale he settled there, as manager and part owner of the mills (1800). Encouraged by his great success in the management of cotton factories in Manchester, he had already formed the intention of conducting New Lanark on higher principles than the current commercial ones.

The factory of New Lanark had been started in 1784 by Dale and Arkwright, the water-power afforded by the falls of the Clyde being the great attraction. Connected with the mills were about two thousand people, five hundred of whom were children, brought, most of them, at the age of five or six from the poorhouses and charities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. The children especially had been well treated by Dale, but the general condition of the people was very unsatisfactory. Many of them were the. lowest of the population, the respectable country people refusing to submit to the long hours and demoralizing drudgery of the factories; theft, drunkenness, and other vices were common; education and sanitation were alike neglected ; most families lived only in one room. It was this population, thus committed to his care, which Owen now set himself to elevate and ameliorate. He greatly improved their houses, and by the unsparing and bene-volent exertion of his personal influence trained them to habits of order, cleanliness, and thrift. He opened a store, where the people could buy goods of the soundest quality at little more than cost price; and the sale of drink was placed under the strictest supervision. His greatest success, however, was in the education of the young, to which he devoted special attention. He was the founder of infant schools in Great Britain; and, though he was anticipated by Continental reformers, he seems to have been led to institute them by his own views of what education ought to be, and without hint from abroad. In all these plans Owen obtained the most gratifying success. Though at first regarded with suspicion as a stranger, he soon won the confidence of his people. The mills con-tinued to be a great commercial success, but it is needless to say that some of Owen's schemes involved considerable expense, which was displeasing to his partners. Tired at last of the restrictions imposed on him by men who wished to conduct the business on the ordinary principles, Owen formed a new firm, who, content with 5 per cent, of return for their capital, were ready to give freer scope to his philanthropy (1813). In this firm Jeremy Bentham and the well-known Quaker, William Allen, were partners. In the same year Owen first appeared as an author of essays, in which he expounded the principles on which his system of educational philanthropy was based. From an early age he had lost all belief in the prevailing forms of religion, and had thought out a creed for himself, which he considered an entirely new and original discovery. The chief points in this philosophy were that man's character is made not by him but for him; that it has been formed by circumstances over which he had no control; that he is not a proper subject either of praise or blame,—these principles leading up to the practical conclusion that the great secret in the right formation of man's character is to place him under the proper influences—physical, moral, and social—from his earliest years. These principles-—of the irresponsibility of man and of the effect of early influences— are the keynote of Owen's whole system of education and social amelioration. As we have said, they are embodied in his first work, A New View of Society, or Essays on the Principle of the Formation of the Human Character, the first of these essays (there are four in all) being published in 1813. It is needless to say that Owen's new views theoretically belong to a very old system of philosophy, and that his originality is to be found only in his benevolent application of them. For the next few years Owen's work at New Lanark continued to have a national and even a European significance. His schemes for the education of his workpeople attained to something like completion on the opening of the institution at New Lanark in 1816. He was a zealous supporter of the factory legislation resulting in the Act of 1819, which, however, greatly disappointed him. He had interviews and communications with the leading members of Govern-ment, including the premier, Lord Liverpool, and with many of the rulers and leading statesmen of the Continent. New Lanark itself became a much-frequented place of pilgrimage for social reformers, statesmen, and royal personages, including Nicholas, afterwards emperor of Russia. According to the unanimous testimony of all who visited it, the results achieved by Owen were singularly good. The manners of the children, brought up under his system, were beautifully graceful, genial, and uncon-strained ; health, plenty, and contentment prevailed; drunkenness was almost unknown, and illegitimacy was extremely rare. The most perfect good feeling subsisted between Owen and his workpeople, and all the operations of the mill proceeded with the utmost smoothness and regu-larity; and the business was a great commercial success.

Hitherto Owen's work had been that of a philanthropist, whose great distinction was the originality and unwearying unselfishness of his methods. His first departure in socialism took place in 1817, and was embodied in a report communicated to the Committee of the House of Commons on the Poor Law. The general misery and stagnation of trade consequent on the termination of the great war was engrossing the attention of the country. After clearly tracing the special .causes connected with the war which had led to such a deplorable state of things, Owen pointed out that the permanent cause of distress was to be found in the competition of human labour with machinery, and that the only effective remedy was the united action of men, and the subordination of machinery. His proposals for the treatment of pauperism were based on these principles. He recommended that communities of about twelve hundred persons each should be settled on quanti-ties of land of from 1000 to 1500 acres, all living in one large building in the form of a square, with public kitchen and mess-rooms. Each family should have its own private apartments, and the entire care of the children till the age of three, after which they should be brought up by the community, their parents having access to them at meals and all other proper times. These communities might be established by individuals, by parishes, by counties, or by the state; in every case there should be effective supervision by duly qualified persons. Work, and the enjoyment of its results, should be in common. The size of his community was no doubt partly suggested by his village of New Lanark; and he soon proceeded to advocate such a scheme as the best form for the reorganization of society in general. In its fully developed form—and it cannot be said to have changed much during Owen's lifetime—it was as follows. He considered an association of from 500 to 3000 as the fit number for a good working community. While mainly agricultural, it should possess all the best machinery, should offer every variety of employment, and should, as far as possible, be self-contained. " As these townships," as he also called them, " should increase in number, unions of them federatively united shall be formed in circles of tens, hundreds, and thousands," till they should embrace the whole world in a common interest.

His plans for the cure of pauperism were received with great favour. The Times and The Morning Post and many of the leading men of the country countenanced them; one of his most steadfast friends was the duke of Kent, father of Queen Victoria. He had indeed gained the ear of the country, and had the prospect before him of a great career as a social reformer, when he went out of his way at a large meeting in London to declare his hostility to all the received forms of religion. After this defiance to the religious sentiment of the country, Owen's theories were in the popular mind associated with infi-delity, and were henceforward suspected and discredited. Owen's own confidence, however, remained unshaken; and he was anxious that his scheme for establishing a community should be tested. At last, in 1825, such an experiment was attempted under the direction of his disciple, Abram Combe, at Orbiston near Glasgow; and in the same year Owen himself commenced another at New Harmony in Indiana, America. After a trial of about two years both failed completely. Neither of them was a pauper experiment; but it must be said that the members were of the most motley description, many worthy people of the highest aims being mixed with vagrants, adventurers, and crotchety, wrong-headed enthusiasts. After a long period of friction with William Allen and some of his other partners, Owen resigned all connexion with New Lanark in 1828. On his return from America he made London the centre of his activity. Most of his means having been sunk in the New Harmony experiment, he was no longer a flourishing capitalist, but the head of a vigorous pro-paganda, in which socialism and secularism were combined. One of the most interesting features of the movement at this period was the establishment in 1832 of an equitable labour exchange system, in which exchange was effected by means of labour notes, the usual means of exchange and the usual middlemen being alike superseded. The word " socialism " first became current in the discussions of the Association of all Classes of all Nations, formed by Owen in 1835. During these years also his secularistic teaching gained such influence among the working classes as to give occasion for the statement in the Westminster Review '1839) that his principles were the actual creed of a great portion of them. His views on marriage, which were certainly lax, gave just ground for offence. At this period some more communistic experiments were made, of which the most important were that at Ralahine, in the county of Clare, Ireland, and that at Tytherly in Hampshire. It is admitted that the former (1831) was a remarkable success for three and a half years, till the proprietor, having ruined himself by gambling, was obliged to sell out. Tytherly, begun in 1839, was an absolute failure. By 1846 the only permanent result of Owen's agitation, so zealously carried on by public meetings, pamphlets, periodicals, and occasional treatises, was the co-operative movement, and for the time even that seemed to have utterly collapsed. In his later years Owen became a firm believer in spiritualism. He died at his native town at the age of eighty-seven.

The exposition and criticism of Owen's socialism and of his socialistic experiments belong to the general subject (see SOCIALISM). Robert Owen was essentially a pioneer, whose work and influence it would be unjust to measure by their tangible results. Apart from his socialistic theories, it should, nevertheless, be remembered that he was oue of the foremost and most energetic promoters of many movements of acknowledged and enduring usefulness. He was the founder of infant schools in England ; he was the first to introduce reasonably short hours into factory labour, and zealously promoted factory legislation—one of the most needed and most beneficial reforms of the century ; and he was the real founder of the co-operative movement. In genera] education, in sanitary reform, and in his sound and humanitarian views of common life, he was far in advance of his time. Still he had many serious faults; all that was quixotic, crude, and superficial in his views became more prominent in his later years ; and by the extravagance of his advocacy of them ho did vital injury to the cause he had at heart. In his personal character he was without reproach—frank, benevolent, and straightforward to a fault ; and he pursued the altruistic schemes in which he spent all his means with more earnestness than most men devote to the accumulation of a fortune.

Of R. Owen's numerous works in exposition of his system, the most important are the New View of Society, already mentioned ; the Report communicated to the Committee on the Poor Law; the Booh of the New Moral World; and Revolution in the Mind and Practice of the Human Race. See Life of Robert Owen written by himself, London, 1857, and Threading my Way, Twenty-seven Tears of Autobiography by Robert Dale Owen, his son, London, 1874. There are also Lives of Owen by A. J. Booth (London, 1869) and by W. L. Sargant (London, 1860). For works of a more general character see G. J. Holyoake, History of Co-operation in England, London, 1875; Reybaud, Études sur les réformateurs modernes, Paris, 1856; Adolf Held, Zwei Bücher zur socialen Geschichte Englands, Leipsic, 1881. (T. K.)

The above article was written by: Thomas Kirkup, M.A.

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