Robert Owen (1771–1858)

Robert Owen was one of the most influential figures of the Industrial Revolution, a successful and philanthropic factory owner, a pioneer of co-operation and a thinker who inspired socialist movements in many countries.

He was born in Newtown in mid-Wales, and apprenticed to James McGuffog, a draper in Stamford, Lincolnshire, before spending time in the retail trade in London and Manchester. He was appointed manager in 1792 of a mill in Manchester in which 500 people were employed, and became a partner in the Chorlton Twist Co, which in 1799 acquired the mills at New Lanark, on the River Clyde in Scotland, that had been built by Richard Arkwright in partnership with David Dale (1739-1806), whose daughter became Owen’s wife.

Owen managed the mills from the first day of the 19th century. His philanthropic but disciplined approach gradually gained the trust of what had been a turbulent workforce. In the second decade of the 19th century he established the Institution for the Formation of Character at New Lanark, and in speeches and pamphlets drew attention to the educational and social ideals that he was applying. Visitors from all over Europe flocked to see the community at New Lanark.

Owen proposals for ‘villages of unity and co-operation’ were particularly influential. At least 16 Owenite colonies were established in the United States, and between 1825 and 1828 he himself was involved with New Harmony, Indiana, originally established by followers of the German Protestant George Rapp. In Britain unsuccessful Owenite colonies were established at Orbiston in Scotland in 1825-29, Manea Fen in Cambridgeshire in 1838-9, and Harmony Hall, Queenswood, East Tytherley, Hampshire, in 1840-45. Owen withdrew from the New Lanark partnership in 1829, set up the unsuccessful Grand National Consolidated Trades Union in 1834, and put forward his views through the New Moral World between 1834 and 1841.

He visited France during the revolution of 1848, and from 1853 turned to spiritualism. His many followers met in numerous Owenite halls in the 1830s and 40s. The subsequent co-operative movement in England and in other European countries acknowledged him as a source of inspiration.