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A pioneer of social reform

During the early phases of the Industrial Revolution in England, the workers suffered greatly. Enormous fortunes were made by mill and mine owners, while workers, including young children, were paid starvation wages for cruelly long working days. However, trade unions, child labor laws, and the gradual acceptance of birth control finally produced a more even distribution of the benefits of industrialization.

One of the most interesting pioneers of these social reforms was Robert Owen (1771-1858), who is generally considered to have been the father of the Cooperative Movement. Although in his later years not all of his projects developed as he wished, his life started as an amazing success story. Owen’s life is not only fascinating in itself; it also illustrates some of the reforms that occurred between 1815 and 1850.

Robert Owen was born in Wales, the youngest son of a family of iron-mongers and saddle-makers. He was a very intelligent boy, and did well at school, but at the age of 9, he was apprenticed to a draper, at first in Wales. Later, at the age of 11, he was moved to London, where he was obliged to work eighteen hours a day, six days a week, with only short pauses for meals. Understandably, Robert Owen found this intolerable, and he moved again, this time to Manchester, where he again worked for a draper.

An almost unbelievable success story

While in Manchester, Robert Owen became interested in the machines that were beginning to be used for spinning and weaving. He borrowed a hundred pounds from his brother, and entered (as a partner) a small business that made these machines.

After two years of moderate success as a small-scale industrialist, Owen saw the newspaper advertisement of a position for manager of a large spinning mill, owned by a Mr. Drinkwater. “I put on my hat” Owen wrote later, “and proceeded straight to Mr. Drinkwater’s counting house.” “How old are you?”, he asked. “Twenty this May”, was my reply. “How often do you get drunk in the week?”… “I was never”, I said, “drunk in my life”, blushing scarlet at this unexpected question. “What salary do you ask?” “Three hundred a year”, was my reply. “What?”, Mr. Drinkwater said with some surprise, repeating the words, “Three hundred pounds! I have had this morning I know not how many seeking the situation and I do not think that all of their askings would amount to what you require.” “I cannot be governed by what others seek”, said I, “and I cannot take less.”

Apparently impressed by Robert Owen’s success as a small-scale industrialist, and perhaps also impressed by his courage, Mr. Drinkwater hired him. Thus, at the age of 19, Owen became the manager of a large factory. Mr. Drinkwater had no cause to regret his decision, since his new manager quickly became the boy wonder of Manchester’s textile community. Within six months, Drinkwater offered Owen a quarter interest in his business.

After several highly successful years in his new job, Robert Owen heard of several mills that were for sale in the village of New Lanark, near to Glasgow. The owner, Mr. Dale, happened to be the father of the girl with whom Robert Owen had fallen in love. Instead of directly asking Dale for permission to marry his daughter, Owen (together with some business partners) first purchased the mills, after which he won the hand of the daughter.

New Lanarck, a Utopian community

Ownership of the New Lanark mills gave Robert Owen the chance to put into practice the ideas of social reform that he had been developing throughout his life. Instead of driving his workers by threats of punishment, and instead of subjecting them to cruelly long working hours (such as he himself had experienced as a draper’s apprentice in London), Owen made the life of his workers at New Lanark as pleasant as he possibly could. He established a creche for the infants of working mothers, free medical care, concerts, dancing, music-making, and comprehensive education, including evening classes.

Rather than the usual squalid one-room houses for workers, neat two-room houses were built. Garbage was collected regularly instead of being thrown into the street. New Lanark also featured pleasant landscaped areas.

Instead of leading to bankruptcy, as many of his friends predicted, Robert Owen’s reforms led to economic success. Owen’s belief that a better environment would lead to better work was vindicated. The village, with its model houses, schools and mills, became internationally famous as a demonstration that industrialism need not involve oppression.

Crowds of visitors made the journey over narrow roads from Glasgow to learn from New Lanark and its visionary proprietor. Among the twenty thousand visitors who signed the guest-book between 1815 and 1825 were the Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia (who later became Czar Nicholas I),  and Princes John and Maximilian of Austria.

Robert Owen’s ideas of social reform can be seen in the following extract from an “Address to the Inhabitants of New Lanark”, which he presented on New Year’s Day, 1816: “What ideas individuals may attach to the term ‘Millennium’ I know not; but I know that society may be formed so as to exist without crime, without poverty, with health greatly improved, with little, if any, misery. and with intelligence and happiness increased a hundredfold; and no obstacle whatsoever intervenes at this moment except ignorance to prevent such a state of society from becoming universal.”

Owen’s solution to the national crisis

Robert Owen believed that these principles could be applied not only in New Lanark but also in the wider world. He was soon given a chance to express this belief. During the years from 1816 to 1820, apart from a single year, business conditions in England were very bad, perhaps as a result of the Napoleonic Wars, which had just ended. Pauperism and social unrest were widespread, and threatened to erupt into violence. A committee to deal with the crisis was formed under the leadership of the Dukes of Kent and York.

Because of Owen’s reputation, he was asked for his opinion, but the committee was hardly expecting the answer that they received from him. Robert Owen handed the two Dukes and the other committee members a detailed plan for getting rid of pauperism by making paupers productive. They were to be settled in self-governing Villages of Cooperation, each with between 800 and 1,200 inhabitants. Each family was to have a private apartment, but there were to be common sitting rooms, reading rooms and kitchens. Near to the houses, there were to be gardens tended by the children, and farther out, fields to be cultivated by the adults. Still farther from the houses, there was to be a small factory.

Owen’s idea for governmentally-planned paupers’ collectives was at first rejected out of hand. The early 19th century was, after all, a period of unbridled laissez-faire economics. Owen then bombarded the Parliament with pamphlets advocating his scheme. Finally a committee was formed to try to raise the money to establish one Village of Cooperation as an experiment; but the money was never raised.

New Harmony: Utopia on the banks of the Wabash

Unwilling to accept defeat, Robert Owen sold his interest in New Lanark and sailed for America, where he believed that his social experiment would have a better chance of success. He bought the town of Harmonie and 30,000 acres of land on the banks of the Wabash River in Indiana. There he established a Village of Cooperation which he named “New Harmony”. He dedicated it on the 4th of July, 1826. It remained a collective for only two years, after which individualism reasserted itself. Owen’s four sons and one of his daughters made their homes in New Harmony, and it also became the home of numerous scientists, writers and artists.

Owen’s son, Robert Dale Owen, became a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, where he introduced the bill establishing the Smithsonian Institution. In 1862 he wrote an eloquent letter to Abraham Lincoln urging emancipation of the slaves. Three days later, probably influenced by Owen’s letter, Lincoln read the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet. Another son, Richard Owen, served as President of the University of Indiana, and was later elected as the first President of Purdue University.

Founding the Cooperative Movement

When Robert Owen returned to England shortly after dedicating New Harmony, he found that he had become a hero of the working classes. They had read his writings avidly, and had begun to establish cooperatives, following his principles. There were both producer’s cooperatives and consumer’s cooperatives. In England, the producer’s cooperatives failed, but in Denmark they succeeded.

One of the early consumer’s cooperatives in England was called the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers. It was founded by 28 weavers and other artisans, who were being forced into poverty by mechanization. They opened a small cooperative store selling butter, sugar, flour, oatmeal and candles. After a few months, they also included tobacco and tea. From this small beginning, the Cooperative Movement grew, finally becoming one of the main pillars of the British Labour Party.

A national labour union

Robert Owen’s attention then turned from cooperatives to the embryonic trade union movement, which was struggling to establish itself in the face of fierce governmental opposition. He assembled the leaders of the working class movement and proposed the formation of the “Grand National Moral Union of Productive and Useful Classes”. The name was soon shortened to “The Grand National Consolidated Trades Union” or simply the “Grand National”.

Owen’s Grand National was launched in 1833, and its membership quickly grew to half a million. It was the forerunner of modern nationwide trade unions, but it lasted only two years. Factory-owners saw the Grand National as a threat, and they persuaded the government to prosecute it under anti-union laws. Meanwhile, internal conflicts helped to destroy the Grand National. Owen was accused of atheism by the working class leaders, and he accused them of fermenting class hatred.

Robert Owen’s influence helped to give raw laissez faire capitalism a more human face, and helped to spread the benefits of industrialization more widely. Through the work of other reformers like Owen, local trade unions succeeded, both in England and elsewhere; and in the end, successful national unions were finally established. The worst features of the early Industrial Revolution were moderated by the growth of the trade union movement, by child labor laws, by birth control and by a minimum wage law.

Robert Owen, pioneer of the cooperative movement, pioneer of social end economic reform, we need your voice today!


This article is a chapter of John Avery’s new book “We Need Their Voices Today”. Rest of the chapters can be read HERE


John Avery received a B.Sc. in theoretical physics from MIT and an M.Sc. from the University of Chicago. He later studied theoretical chemistry at the University of London, and was awarded a Ph.D. there in 1965. He is now Lektor Emeritus, Associate Professor, at the Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen. Fellowships, memberships in societies: Since 1990 he has been the Contact Person in Denmark for Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.  In 1995, this group received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. He was the Member of the Danish Peace Commission of 1998. Technical Advisor, World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe (1988- 1997). Chairman of the Danish Peace Academy, April 2004. http://www.fredsakademiet.dk/ordbog/aord/a220.htm.

  • niveb

    I regret to say that I have reached the conclusion that Mr Avery knows as much about British history as I do about theoretical physics or chemistry, two subjects in which I never comment.
    This quotation is misleading to the point that it is the reverse of the truth: “trade unions, child labor laws, and the gradual acceptance of birth control finally produced a more even distribution of the benefits of industrialization….”
    The “acceptance of birth control” had nothing to do with the brief period in which the working class, through political struggle, physical and mental, temporarily tamed the ravenous tiger of capitalism. Working class living standards in Britain have been declining for decades- birth control has never been more widespread, popular or available.

  • K SHESHU BABU

    Contribution to the growth of working class movement by the social reformer is valuable. His experiences are useful to mould modern society and working class interests