Robert Owen was born in 1771. At 10, he was sent to London to be apprenticed as a draper and by his early twenties he was a successful manager in the mills of Manchester. The working conditions there appalled him. He believed character was formed by experience and that the dreadful environment of child workers would inevitably lead to damaged and dehumanised adults.
So when, in his late twenties, Owen became a partner and manager of a large cotton mill at New Lanark on the River Clyde, he decided to create a model environment. He improved the factory and village, built a school and provided a shop where quality goods could be bought at a fair price. The school curriculum included music, dancing and nature study. Visitors came from all over the world – even the Tsar of Russia.
Owen campaigned and lectured throughout his life. In 1812-13 he wrote “A New View of Society” which explained his vision. He tried to repeat the success of New Lanark when in 1824 he created a model community in New Harmony, Indiana. The ideal was a village based on co-operation and profit sharing. New Harmony and similar experiments by his followers did not succeed as he had hoped. But his ideas continued to have influence and one group of followers in Rochdale set up the famous Co-operative shop in 1844 and pioneered the world wide co-operative movement.
Owen returned to Newtown at the end of his life and died there in 1858. Factory reform and universal education were achieved in the 19th century, and Owen’s vision for fairness and social progress remains a source of inspiration today.