From ‘The Life of Robert Owen’, written by himself’ (1857)
Recollections of my Early Life [1771 – 1786]
1 As it appears in the family great Bible, I was born in Newtown, Montgomeryshire, North Wales, on the 14th of May 1771. My father was Robert Owen. He was born in Welshpool, and was brought up to be a saddler and ironmonger. He married into the numerous family of Williams, who were among the most respectable farmers around Newtown. My mother was deemed beautiful and, for her class, superior in mind and manner.
On their marriage they settled in Newtown. My father took up his own calling as a saddler and ironmonger. He was also post-master as long as he lived. He had the general management of the parish affairs, being better acquainted with its finances and business, than any other party in the township.
Newtown was at this period a very small market town, not containing more than one thousand inhabitants, – a neat, (2) clean, beautifully situated country village, rather than a town, with the ordinary trades, but no manufacturing except a very few flannel looms. I have not seen it since this clean village has been converted into a dirty but thriving manufacturing town of some consequence.
At this period there was a bridge of wood over the river Severn, which I remember with a deep impression, having nearly lost my life upon it. I was the youngest but one of a family of seven, two of whom died young, – William, Anne, and John, were older, and Richard was younger than myself.
I must have been sent to school at four or five years of age, – a Mr Thickens was the school-master. I used to have for breakfast a basin of flummery, – a food prepared from flour, and eaten with milk. One morning, I ran home as usual from school, found my basin of flummery ready, and as I supposed sufficiently cooled for eating. But on my hastily taking a spoonful of it, I found it was quite scalding hot. From that day my stomach became incapable of digesting food, except the most simple and in a small quantity at a time. This gave me the habit of temperance and of close (3) observation and of continual reflection.
In schools in these small towns it was considered a good education if one could read fluently, write a legible hand, and understand the four first rules of arithmetic. When I had acquired these small rudiments of learning, at the age of seven, Mr Thickens applied to my father for permission that I should become his assistant and usher. As I remained at school about two years longer, these two years were lost to me, except that I thus early acquired the habit of teaching others what I knew.
But at this period I had a strong passion for reading everything which fell in my way. As I was known to every family in town, I had the libraries of the clergyman, physician and lawyer thrown open to me. I made full use of the liberty given to me, and I generally finished a volume daily. Among the books I selected were Robinson Crusoe, Pilgrim’s Progress, Paradise Lost, Richardson’s, and all other standard novels.
4 I followed the games played by boys at that period, – such as marbles, hand and foot ball. I also attended the dancing school for some time. In all these games and exercises I excelled, and was the best runner and leaper in the school. 9 I was esteemed the 10 best dancer of my class.
8 Our next neighbours were two maiden ladies by the name of Tilsley, and they kept a superior country shop for the sale of 9 drapery and haberdashery on one side, and groceries on the other. They required more assistance, and my services were borrowed, first on their more busy days, then every day in the week.
Having by this period read much of other countries and other proceedings, and, with my habits of reflection and extreme temperance, not liking the habits and manners of a small country town, I began to desire a different field of action, and wished my parents to permit me to go to London. It was promised that when I should attain my tenth year, I should be allowed to go.
10 The time had now grown near for my departure. From Shrewsbury I was to travel alone to London, my coach hire being paid for me. 11 I was not to be alone when I arrived. My eldest brother, William, had obtained a saddler’s business in High Holborn, and to him I was consigned.
12 [After] six weeks, a friend of my father procured me a situation with a Mr James McGuffog, who carried on a large draper’s business in Stamford, Lincolnshire. 13 Here I was at once installed as a member of the family. I was carefully initiated into the business, so as to accustom me to great order and accuracy. Many of the customers were among the highest nobility in the kingdom. I became familiar with the finest fabrics of a great variety of manufactures.
Mr McGuffog had a well selected library, which I freely used. I read about five hours a day. 16 I was all this time endeavouring to find out the true religion. I studied and carefully compared one with another. I was compelled to reject all of them. My religious feelings were immediately replaced by the spirit of universal charity for the human race.
After my three [four] years had expired, I returned to my brother’s house in London with strong recommendations from Mr McGuffog. 18 I procured a new situation with Messrs Flint and Palmer on old London Bridge. 19 The shop was full from morning until late in the evening and a large business was transacted. The duties were very onerous: I had but about five hours for sleep. This appeared more than my constitution could support, 20 and I looked out for another situation. I was offered a very good one by a Mr Satterfield in Manchester at forty pounds a year.