January 3, 2012

Working-class hero

Robert Owen’s father was an Welsh ironmonger, his mother the daughter of a farmer.  He left school at the age of 10 to become apprenticed to a draper and at 16 left Wales forever, first for London, then Manchester, where he again worked in a draper’s shop.

By the time he was 21 – in 1792 – he had become manager of a textile mill. a pretty big career move. The next year he joined the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, exactly the kind of place where a bright forward-thinking young man – even one without much formal education – could meet other bright entrepreneurs and discuss the weighty issues of the day.

And, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, there were lots of things to talk about.  Not many could have put a name to it, but the movers and shakers of the time certainly knew that the world was changing dramatically and some, like Owen, were driven to create an ethical basis for the revolution.

Owen did not introduce himself as a socialist, for a long time didn’t even think of himself that way, but he was in fact England’s first. The ideas of socialism, even the word itself, were streaming across the channel from France at the end of the 18th century.

Mill workers

On a visit to Glasgow to see David Dale’s New Lanark mills, Owen fell in love with Dale’s daughter Caroline.  After they were married in 1799, Owen talked his partners into buying New Lanark and installing him as manager.  Soon he was making history.

Of the 2,000 or so people working directly or indirectly for the mill, about 500 were children brought from the poorhouses of big cities. Dale had been a philanthropic capitalist for his time, but his son-in-law went miles beyond. Owen imposed a starting age of 10 years for child labor and made plans for s daycare facility for the younger ones. By 1816, Owen had created the first infant school in Britain.

He improved workers’ housing, shortened the work day and cut prices at the company store.  He also ordered strict limits on the sale of alcohol there.  In spite of what seemed like ridiculous coddling of workers, New Lanark still made money.

New Lanark today. Photo by mrpbps.

But not enough money from his partners’ perspective – they urged him to reduce benefits.  Instead, Owen bought them out and got new partners, notably Jeremy Bentham and Quaker William Allen.

Becoming every day more convinced of the benefits of socialism, Owen put together a concrete plan for a utopian socialist community:

Communities of about twelve hundred persons each should be settled on quantities of land from 1,000 to 1,500 acres (4 to 6 km2), all living in one large building in the form of a square, with public kitchen and mess-rooms. Each family should have its own private apartments and the entire care of the children till the age of three, after which they should be brought up by the community; their parents would have access to them at meals and all other proper times. ..each person in the society (after the age of 15) would receive according to their needs. (Wikipedia)

New Harmony main street. Photo by Chris Light.

On January 3, 1824, Owen and his partner William Maclure paid George Rapp $150,000 for 30,000 acres in Harmony, Indiana – America had plenty of room for interesting experiments like Owen’s – and changed the name to New Harmony.

The experiment lasted only two years, suffering mainly from Owen’s absence. His son described the populace as “a heterogeneous collection of radicals… honest latitudinarians, and lazy theorists, with a sprinkling of unprincipled sharpers thrown in.”

There is much more to tell – you can find lots here – but most concerns Owen’s influence on the evolution of the labor movement in England.  His single greatest contribution to American progress may have been his four sons – all became American citizens.  The eldest, Robert Dale Owen, served in Congress and wrote the legislation that created the Smithsonian.


1 Comment »

  1. Very interesting thank you


    Comment by avery zia — January 15, 2012 @ 9:33 am | Reply

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