Robert Owen and the Co-op

Robert Owen is known around the world and the Robert Owen Museum is dedicated to making known the continuing impact of his ideas today. The Co-operative Society been committed, through the years, to maintaining the memory of Owen in Newtown, giving grants to keep the museum going. Over time, these grants have reduced in size, so the Museum is reliant on public donations and grants from other local bodies such as The Davies Trust and the Mid Counties Co-op group.
Robert Owen’s vision was of a co-operative world and it has been mistakenly assumed that the early shops were not central to his ideas. His friend, William Lovett in his autobiography, indicates that this simplifies the truth:
“On returning from America he looked somewhat coolly at these ‘trading associations’. But when a great number amongst them were disposed to entertain many of his views, he took them more into favour, and ultimately took an active part amongst them.”
Toad Lane, Rochdale was founded by Owenites and their aims were far more substantial than setting up co-op shops. The rules of the Rochdale Pioneers could have been drafted by Owen himself and included the ambition “…to arrange the powers of production, distribution, education and government… to establish a self-supporting home colony of united interests.”
The respect and affection for Robert Owen from these Owenites and co-operators lasted long after his death. In 1858 Robert Owen’s body was interred near his parents in the parish church. G H Holyoake and other co-operators, concerned that this modest grave was an inadequate memorial to the great man, arranged for a beautiful memorial to be erected. In 1902 it was opened on behalf of the Co-operative Society, by Holyoake and his funeral oration on the Co-op Archive website is a generous and loving account of Owen’s life and work.
The building now occupied by the Museum has this plaque outside:
“THIS PART OF THE BUILDING WAS ERECTED BY THE CO-OPERATIVE UNION ACTING ON BEHALF OF THE CO-OPERATORS OF THE UNITED KINGDOM TO THE MEMORY OF ROBERT OWEN, FOUNDER OF CO-OPERATION.”
The ground floor was formerly occupied by the lending library until the museum moved here in 1983 – a very appropriate home.

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