‘Father of British Socialism’ meets ‘Socialist Architect’

A review of Penelope Harris’ new book Robert Owen and the architect Joseph Hansom: An unlikely form of co-operation’ –  by Colin Laker (Curator of Robert Owen Museum)

New book by Penelope Harris
New book by Penelope Harris. Available for sale in the online shop.

Dr Harris, the Museum’s Education Officer, has combined her knowledge of Joseph Hansom (1803-1882) (on whom she did her PhD and produced her first book) and her research on Robert Owen (1771-1858) to produce an interesting joint study of the two very different characters, set against a backdrop across which flit other interesting characters, such as Thomas Attwood and Daniel O’Connell (rather like David Cameron’s fleeting background appearance at the time of Norman Lamont’s announcement of the withdrawal of the UK from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism on ‘Black Wednesday’ in 1992). Neither Owen nor Hansom, it would appear, were easy characters for others to get on with, and neither were strangers to failure or debt. Both, rather oddly, also ended up probably being more famous for things that were not at the core of their interests – Hansom for the design of the hansom cab rather than for any of his architectural exploits and Owen for being a successful businessman rather than initiating his ‘New View of Society’, the New Moral World. Their joint story is also almost exclusively based in two contrasting landscapes; the industrial urban environment of Birmingham and the rural utopia of East Tytherley on the Hampshire/Wiltshire border.

Harris sketches out the early years of both Owen and Hansom before concentrating on the first key period in which they co-operate together, ‘between 1829 (Owen’s return from America) and 1834 (Hansom’s bankruptcy)’. It is during this period that Hansom and his business partner, Edward Welch, won the competition to design the Birmingham Town Hall and ‘succumbed to Owen’s influence and became radicalised’. They were just two of the ‘numerous devoted followers’ that ‘Robert Owen’s charismatic personality enabled him to gather’. However, it should also be noted that the hundreds, probably thousands, of people who were actively involved in the organisations which Owen, Hansom and Welch became involved in, especially the Equitable Labour Exchanges (which had a branch in Birmingham as well as London), the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union (and its forerunner the Operative Builders’ Union) and the campaign to try to save the Tolpuddle Martyrs from being transported to Australia and Van Diemen’s Land for their involvement in trade unions, were not attracted to Owen’s personality, but to his ideas, especially those contained in his Report to the County of Lanark of 1820. It was this document, with its statement that ‘Manual labour, properly directed, is the source of all wealth, and of all national prosperity’, that led to an upsurge of interest in and action around Owen’s ideas in Britain during his absence in America setting up New Harmony. These were mostly working class, or at least artisan, men and women, who, on their own initiative, founded, as Harris notes, the first Co-operative Society in Birmingham and the Ralahine Owenite community in County Clare. Dealing with other people’s perceptions of your protagonist’s ideas and with movements that career along almost independent of your subject’s influence (as happened with both the Labour Exchanges and the GNCTU) is difficult in any biography, never mind a double one, and acknowledging this ‘history from below’ is probably the least effective part of this book.

Owen, on the white horse in 1834
Owen, on the white horse, at the head of the protest in Copenhagen Fields against the Tolpuddle labourers’ sentence, in 1834

However, the second time that Owen and Hansom link up, over the creation of the Harmony Hall (sometimes known as Queenwood) community at Tytherley in the 1840s, is much more successful in this format, partly because it is much more about the building of the community – and the problems associated with it – which was very much in the hands of Owen and Hansom, rather than any putative mass movement. Harris charts in detail the attempt to move Owen’s ‘vision for Tytherley’ from the ‘totally nebulous’, through his ‘unfettered, and slightly self-defeating, ambition to have “nothing but the best”’, to Hansom’s task of creating ‘buildings for residents and a school “on the most magnificent scale”’. The ambition of both Owen and Hansom was immense, summed up in the letters carved over the entrance door, C M – the Commencement of the Millennium: Harmony Hall was to represent nothing less than Hansom’s architectural embodiment of Owen’s New Moral World. As Harris shows, more than £40,000 was spent on the Tytherley project; George Holyoake noted on a visit in 1844 that Harmony Hall was ‘more like Drayton Manor, the residence of Robert Peel, than the home of pioneers’.  ‘Right to the bitter end’, Harris notes, ‘money was being spent on Social Halls (Halls of Science)’, but eventual financial crisis in 1845 meant that it was sold to Quaker educationalist George Edmondson (who had co-incidentally employed Hansom as architect for work on his own property in Lancashire, Tulketh Hall). The book guides the reader through a period in which ‘events occurred in rapid succession, in several directions at once’, especially in the 1830s, and has all the things you could ask to help it do so – a clear and informative timeline, a good set of mini-biographies of relevant figures such as Attwood, William Pare and George Holyoake, and sections which focus on the wider politics of, for instance, the Birmingham Political Union and the Derby Lockout. It is well, and informatively, illustrated throughout, with many illustrations of Hansom’s architectural work, both before and after his involvement with Owen, such as Beaumaris Gaol and the Bulkeley Arms Hotel on Ynys Mo ̂n, St Bueno’s College and Todmorden Town Hall.

Penelope Harris’ book shows how Owen and Hansom were remarkable characters, who were, in different ways, both atypical and representative of their times, with Owen, in her words, being, ‘a man of ideas… by no means void of imagination or easily swayed by convention’ and Hansom having a design approach which was ‘perverse with rebellious touches of defiance’. Both had more failures than successes, but both deserve to be remembered and read about, and this is a good place to start to encounter them both.

Signed copies of Robert Owen and the architect Joseph Hansom: An unlikely form of co-operation by Penelope Harris are available from the Museum Shop for £14.95 with free postage, with a proportion of the proceeds going to support the Robert Owen Museum.

After reading this review, please visit our online shop, where you might like to purchase a copy of the new book for £14.95 incl. P&P (Free postage – UK only – please see cart for International postage rates).

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