A life in 300 words

Bust of Robert Owen

Robert Owen, Britain’s first “Socialist”, was born in Newtown in 1771, over his father’s saddler’s shop in Broad Street. Robert was a bright and athletic child. At the age of ten, he insisted on leaving home, and was apprenticed to a draper’s in Stamford.

After five years, he moved to a draper’s in Manchester, and later switched to cotton  spinning. At just 21 years old, he was manager of a new, steam-powered mill with 500 employees. Later, he formed a partnership to build new mills in Manchester. In 1799, the partnership bought the extensive cotton mills and workers’ village at New Lanark, with Owen as manager.

Owen did much to improve the working and living conditions there, and found that it paid. He built fine schools, including the first infants’ school and adult evening classes. He published his ideas on education in “A New View of Society”, which was widely read. He promoted a Factory Bill to improve working conditions generally, but its  provisions were much diluted.

When peace in the war with France came in 1815, after Wellington’s victory at the Battle of Waterloo, there was considerable unemployment. Owen proposed building “Villages of Co-operation” for the unemployed, but the cost was prohibitive. Owen went on to advocate co-operative living for all, and in 1824 he purchased the Indiana town of New Harmony for a community experiment. It failed: the habit of private enterprise was too ingrown.

Returning to England, Owen found that many small co-operative businesses had sprung up. He opened “Labour Exchanges” to facilitate trade between them. In 1834, he headed the short-lived Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, which collapsed following the conviction of the “Tolpuddle Martyrs”.

The Owenites founded a major community at Queenwood in Hampshire in 1839, but this failed due to over-lavish building. Owen returned to Newtown in 1858 to die. Some of his ideas live on in the Co-operative Movement.

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