Both Robert Owen and his son were at pains to stress how everything was made relevant for the children, that they should understand what they were learning and why, and that they should enjoy what they were doing. Geography lessons played a prominent part in the education of children at New Lanark, and seem to have been practical as well as relevant. Geography also had a strong moral undertone, for the children were often reminded that but for an accident of birth they might have been born into a different society with values totally unlike those of their own. They were taught to respect other people’s ideas and way of life and never to be uncharitable or intolerant. Field studies were important, and youngsters were encouraged to go out into the woods and fields surrounding the village, through which Robert Owen cut paths and walks, collecting specimens and making observations. Robert Owen himself painted a fascinating picture of a geography lesson during which something like 150 children vied with each other in pointing out places on large wall-maps:
Does not Mr Owen know that the same scheme, the same principles, the same philosophy of motives and actions, of causes and consequences, of knowledge and virtue, of virtue and happiness, were rife in the year 1793, were noised abroad then, were spoken on the house-tops, were whispered in secret, were published in quarto and duodecimo, in political treatises, in plays, poems , songs, and romances--made their way to the bar, crept into the church, ascended the rostrum, thinned the classes of the universities, and robbed "Durham's golden stalls,' of their hoped-for ornaments, by sending our aspiring youth up to town to learn philosophy of the new teachers of philosophy; that these "New Views of Society" got into the hearts of poets and brains of metaphysicians, took possession of the fancies of boys and women, and turned the heads of almost the whole kingdom: but that there was one head which they never got possession of, that turned the heads of the whole kingdom round again, stopped the progress of philosophy and necessity by wondrous fortitude, and that "thus repelled, philosophy fell into a sadness, then into a fast, thence to a watching, then into weakness, thence to a lightness, and by this declension, to the lamentable state wherein it now lies," --hooted by the boys, laughed at by the women, spit at by fools, trod upon by knaves, damned by poet-laureates, whined over by maudlin metaphysicians, rhymed upon by mincing ballad-makers, ridiculed in romances, belied in histories and travels, pelted by the mob, sneered at by the court, driven from the country, kicked out of society, and forced to take refuge and to lie snug for twenty years in the new Lanark mills, with the connivance of the worthy proprietor , among the tow and spindles; from hence he lets us understand that it is coming up again to Whitehall-stairs, like a spring-tide with the full of the moon, and floating on the blood that has flowed for the restoration of the Bourbons, under the patronage of the nobility, the gentry, Mr Wilberforce, and the Prince Regent, and all those who are governed, like these great personages, by no other principle than truth, and no other wish than the good of mankind!
Owen, Robert (1771-1858), was a British utopian socialist whois generally considered to have been the father of theCo-operative movement.
He was born on May 14th, 1771, in Newtown, mid-Wales, and grewup as the youngest son of a family involved in iromongery andsaddlery on a modest scale. In his early years an accident,involving the swallowing of a mouthful of scaldingly hotporridge, left him with a lifetime legacy of digestive delicacyand associated caution about what he ate. Owen attributed somebeneficial effects from this accident in that it "gave him thehabit of close observation and continual reflection".
From a very early age Robert Owen was a great reader of booksoften sourced by borrowing from educated people in the town. Hisabilities were such that at age seven he was entrusted with arole as "usher" (assistant master) in the local school. He alsoexcelled at sports and took an interest in music.
At the age of nine he was apprenticed to a draper's shop, andhe quickly gained knowledge of fabrics. At eleven years of age hemoved to London and was employed in the drapery trade where hewas obliged to put in an eighteen hour day, six days a week, withonly short breaks for his meals. As he found these workingconditions to be hard to cope with he asked his friends to lookout for a new situation that would suit him and, as a result,found employment in a drapery in Manchester.
Whilst in this employment a supplier to the business where heworked encouraged him to raise some capital with the view ofgoing into a business partnership manufacturing models of the"new and curious" machines that had been devised to produce spuncotton. Although the business proved to be a modest success hispartner, two years later, wished to move on with wealthierassociates.
At the termination of the machine building partnership RobertOwen, at the age of twenty, was left in possession of a fairlyprosperous small scale business but followed up an opportunitythrough which he obtained the position of manager in a Manchestertextile mill where there were five hundred people employed. As heproved successful in this position his employer gave himadditional responsibility for the management of another largefactory.
Robert Owen had moved from Wales to London and Manchester witha limited amount of formal education and speaking a regional formof Welsh-English. His present position of increasing prominencein the booming industrial town of Manchester was such as to allowhim entry to the Manchester "Lit. and Phil." (Literary andPhilosophical Society) where he met many of Manchester's mostprominent citizens. In 1795 he took up, as part owner, a new postthat brought with it responsibilities for the buying of rawcotton and selling finished product as well as large scalefactory management. The following year membership of theManchester Board of Health gave him an insight into the sort ofworking conditions that were in place in many of Manchester'sfactories.
Whilst travelling on company business Robert Owen met a younglady named Anne Caroline Dale who was the daughter of aprosperous cotton manufacturer, Mr. David Dale, whose businessinterests were based in New Lanark some thirty miles fromGlasgow. David Dale was involved in an efficient business thatwas run on markedly humanitarian lines in terms of the standardsof the day. Although Robert Owen wished to marry Anne CarolineDale his first approach to her father was to gain his consent toOwen and his partner's purchasing of Dale's business interestsrather than Owen's personal wish to marry Dale's daughter. In1799 Robert Owen, at the age of twenty-seven, finalised thepurchase of the Dale factory holdings in New Lanark, Scotland,and married Anne Caroline Dale soon thereafter.
As the manager of the New Lanark mills which employed some two thousandpeople, (including some five hundred childen whose working lifehad begun at the age of five or six when they had left Edinburghor Glasgow workhouses), Robert Owen introduced a yet more humaneand progressive employment regime than that which had been inplace under David Dale. No children younger than ten years oldwere employed and these were allowed relatively decent breaks formeals and some modestly worthwhile educational opportunities. Asfar as adult employees went he sought to introduce some newmachinery, to improve the flow of work through the factory, andto quietly discourage pilfering and drunkenness.
New Lanark gained international fame when Owen's experimentsin enhancing his workers' environment resulted in increasedproductivity and profit. Robert Owen spent considerable amountson improving housing conditions in New Lanark, arranging thepublic refuse system, and for the paving of its streets. He alsoarranged for a company store that sold goods of higher qualityand at lower prices than the stores that had previously beenavailable in the area. This store managed to make a profit thatOwen diverted towards funding a school for the worker's childrenleading to the establishment of the first infant school in GreatBritain through Owen's support for the educational efforts ofJames Buchanan.
During these times Robert Owen had a number of businesspartners who believed that Owen's philanthropic approach wascosting them money. There was a difference of opinion where thosepartners seemed to want to squeeze Owen out and sell the businesson the open market. In the event a number of rich andphilanthropically inclined people, (including Jeremy Bentham andWilliam Allen), who knew and approved of Owen's relativelybenevolent approach to business management, arranged to associatewith Robert Owen in the buying out of the business with Owencontinuing as manager.
The same year (1813) that this new partnership was put inplace Owen's or waspublished. In this work Owen sets out the principles on which hissystem of educational philanthropy was based. An "Institute forthe Formation of Character" was established at New Lanark thatincluded opportunities for nursery, infant, and adult, educationas well as community rooms and public halls. Owen believed in theadvancement of humankind and, by improving the circumstances oflife, expected that an innate human goodness would more readilybe displayed.
The social and economic experimentation that was taking placeat New Lanark attracted the notice of many in Britain and morewidely in Europe. Manufacturers thought they might find humaneways of improving their profits. Philanthropists thought thatthat here was an example of a progressive system of employmentwhere the happier aspects of Humanity could be encouraged todevelop. Many in society found hope in an example of workingconditions that seemed to allow people to develop more fully andto be less likely to have to live in squalid urban settlements inthe future.
The New Lanark mills became a place of pilgrimage for socialreformers, statemen and royal personages. Many of these wereparticularly encouraged by the generally contented character ofthe young people as they were turned out from the educationalprocess in being there.
Owen became somewhat involved in politics being narrowlydefeated in an attempt to gain a seat in parliament and, in 1815,was the moving spirit behind an attempt to secure the passing ofa progressive law regulating the employment of children and youngpersons. By 1817 Owen's ideas were moving towards what we wouldtoday regard as Socialism and Co-operative ownership - this waspartly in response to the stagnation and unemployment associatedwith a marked fall off in trade at the close of the NapoleonicWars. As a remedy for pauperism Owen devised a scheme for theestablishment of a increasing number of fairly large scale (i.e.1200 persons on 1500 acres/600 hectares) productive communitiesby individuals, parishes, counties or the state.
Partly due to his being exposed as something of a free thinkerin religious matters Owen came to see that there was littlepossibility of his getting such schemes off the ground in Europeand he decided to pursue his ideas in the Americas.
Owen and his family moved to the United States in 1824 wherehis fame had preceded him and where he had an interview with thePresident of the United States. He was able to purchase 8100hectares (20,000 acres) at Harmony, Indiana, that were then beingoffered for sale by a Rappite religiously motivated communitythat was in the process of re-locating and sought volunteers toassociate themselves with a model communal village to be calledNew Harmony. The volunteers who were allowed to participate were,however, by no means all "industrious and well-disposed." Therewere also disputes about the structuring of the community andabout religion all of these factors contributing to an abandonmentof the communal principle before many months had passed. By 1828Owen's ambitious experiment in utopian communal village life hadto be regarded as a failure. Owen's involvement in the NewHarmony project cost some four-fifths of his personal wealth bythe time of his return to England in 1829.
From 1828 Owen lost his partnership in the New Lanark millsdue to increasing friction with some of the wealthyphilanthropists who were co-owners. Owen was, in practical terms,a lesser force in events now that his reputation had been dentedand his fortune had been depleted. Owen had adopted views thatheld that labour is the source of all wealth. The New Harmonyfailure allowed those who considered Owen's ideas to be eccentric, or even revolutionary, to be more open about voicingcriticism.
From 1833 Owen helped found the first British trade unions,including the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, whichsoon failed. Such early unionisation was widely supported byworkers and but was resolutely opposed by employers, thegovernment and the courts.
The ideas of Robert Owen and the example of New Lanark led,after circa 1825, to the establishment of numerous enterprisesbased on Co-operative forms of ownership. These earlyCo-operatives often had as an objective the funding of productivecommunities as recommended by Owen. Although sufficient fundswere not raised for such fundings it became accepted thatCo-operative ventures could be practicable; the first reallysuccessful Co-operative venture being the Rochdale PioneersCo-operative Society that was founded in 1844.
Robert Owen died on November 17th, 1858, during a visit to hishometown of Newtown, Wales and was buried in a local churchyard.
The Co-operative Union placed a memorial tablet near his gravein 1902.
Robert Owen's four sons all became American citizens.
The preparation of these pages was influenced to some degree by a particular "Philosophy of History" as suggested by this quote from the famous Essay "History" by Ralph Waldo Emerson:-
There is one mind common to all individual men...
Of the works of this mind history is the record. Its genius isillustrated by the entire series of days. Man is explicable bynothing less than all his history. Without hurry, without rest,the human spirit goes forth from the beginning to embody everyfaculty, every thought, every emotion, which belongs to it inappropriate events. But the thought is always prior to the fact;all the facts of history preexist in the mind as laws. Each lawin turn is made by circumstances predominant, and the limits ofnature give power to but one at a time. A man is the wholeencyclopaedia of facts. The creation of a thousand forests is inone acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, liefolded already in the first man. Epoch after epoch, camp,kingdom, empire, republic, democracy, are merely the applicationof his manifold spirit to the manifold world.
The full heading: "A New View of Society; or, Essays on the Principle of the Formation of Human Character, and the Application of the Principles to Practice." Murray, 1816.--"An Address to the Inhabitants of New Lanark, on opening an Institution for the Formation of Character." By Robert Owen, one of his Majesty's Justices of the Peace for the County of Lanark."--Hatchard, 1816.
Owen, R. (1927) A New View of Society and other writings (ed. G. D. H. Cole), London: Dent. 298 + xx pages. Includes ‘New View’ plus, for example, addresses to the inhabitants of New Lanark and to the working classes; pieces on manufacturing and the employment of children; and schemes fore the relief of the poor and the emancipation of mankind. In the archives: . This famous address on the significance of education for social change was delivered by Robert Owen on the opening of the Institute for the Formation of Character on January 1, 1816.
As Robert Owen made clear, the prime vehicle for social reform was education, which figured prominently in , the prospectus Robert Owen drew up in 1812 to attract potentially sympathetic partners. Education remained the key element of on-going reform at New Lanark, and like the enterprise itself the schools took on their own momentum. They were also the centre of attention as far the majority of visitors were concerned.
The beginning of 1814 undoubtedly represented a major turning point in Robert Owen’s development of New Lanark as a test-bed for his social psychology and economic philosophy. Reinstated as director of New Lanark and supported in capital and ideals by his philanthropic sleeping partners, who were safely located far away in London and thus unlikely to interfere much in day-to-day management, he had at last been able to pursue his goals. At that moment Robert Owen had entered what was undoubtedly the most dynamic and productive phase of his life. His continued success in business at New Lanark coincided with, and indeed made possible, his rise to national and international prominence as a social reformer and philanthropic savant following the publication of his essays on . There is no doubt that New Lanark played a vital role in his propaganda campaign for improved social conditions and the re-ordering of society. The further reforms and innovations he introduced after 1814 built on what had been achieved and showed how his community ideals could be applied to Old Society.
Again the emphasis on observation and experience was borrowed from Pestalozzi. But the infants at New Lanark were, in Robert Owen’s opinion, completely unlike others of their age, indeed, he said ‘unlike the children of any class of society’. Griscom took a more pragmatic view, probably shared by Owen, when he observed that ‘this baby school is of great consequence to the establishment, for it enables mothers to shut up their houses in security, and to attend to their duties in the factory, without concern for their families.’ As Robert Owen showed his visitors around children would come forward to be patted.
Robert Owen was not without his critics, but few could quarrel with his system of education at New Lanark. He seems to have evolved a system based on a mixed bag of contemporary social and educational thought linked to benevolent paternalism, deriving from earlier experience in Manchester and of running New Lanark. His basic assumption that character could be formed under favourable conditions seemed to work in that context, and if we are not to discount the multitude of evidence about the New Lanark schools, he succeeded in creating a system which was able to produce conforming and apparently happy (or docile) children equipped with basic literacy and numeracy. Robert Owen’s community was certainly not unique in this regard for Archibald Buchanan in 1816 reported a thirst for knowledge and a high level of literacy among the cotton spinners of Catrine (Ayrshire) and other mills under his management. In many other industrial districts throughout Britain the same observations could no doubt have been made.