Owen Model Communities

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Owen Model Communities

Great Britain, United States 1799-1827


Robert Owen, reacting to the brutalities of industrial capitalism, attempted to establish cooperative communities that would serve as models for a new pattern of life. Often categorized as a utopian and the father of British socialism, he encouraged laborers to pursue the happiness of all instead of the few, refused to exploit workers under his command, and pushed for communal alternatives to the family system. By turning his cotton mill at New Lanark, Scotland, into a successful example of communitarianism and amassing a large fortune in the process, Owen hoped to demonstrate that the changes wrought by capitalism were not permanent and that nonrevolutionary alternatives could still be created. Conflicts with his partners pushed Owen out of New Lanark and prompted him to establish a model town in New Harmony, Indiana, in 1825. He never attracted more than a small group of followers in the United States and returned to Britain in 1827.


  • 1800: The world's population reaches 870 million.
  • 1801: French National Convention makes the metric system, established in 1799, compulsory throughout Frenchoccupied western and central Europe.
  • 1806: Noah Webster publishes his first Compendious Dictio-nary of the English Language.
  • 1810: Revolts begin in South America, initiating the process whereby colonies will win their freedom from Spain and other European colonial powers.
  • 1815: Napoleon returns from Elba, and his supporters attempt to restore him as French ruler, but just three months later, forces led by the Duke of Wellington defeat his armies at Waterloo. Napoleon spends the remainder of his days as a prisoner on the island of St. Helena in the south Atlantic.
  • 1815: Congress of Vienna establishes the balance of power for post-Napoleonic Europe, and inaugurates a century of British dominance throughout most of the world.
  • 1818: In a decisive defeat of Spanish forces, soldier and statesman Simón Bolívar leads the liberation of New Granada, which includes what is now Colombia, Panama, Venezuela, and Ecuador. With Spanish power now waning, Bolívar becomes president and virtual dictator of the newly created nation of Colombia.
  • 1825: Britain's Stockton and Darlington Railway introduces the world's first passenger rail service.
  • 1828: Election of Andrew Jackson as president begins a new era in American history.
  • 1829: Overturning of the last of the "penal laws" imposed by the English against the Catholics of Ireland since 1695.

Event and Its Context

In the early nineteenth century, English socialists argued that reformers had made little impact on the poverty, oppression, and gross inequality of wealth that plagued modern society. Arguing that the liberal doctrine of individualism had degenerated into selfish egoism that harmed community life and challenging the laissez-faire belief that the elimination of poverty and suffering ran contrary to the natural order, socialists demanded the creation of a new society based on cooperation rather than competition. The man who emerged as the leading socialist, the manufacturer Robert Owen, aimed to demonstrate the practicality and profitability of communitarianism by putting his theories into practice.

Robert Owen

Owen's experience as a worker gave him enormous sympathy for the lives of laborers as well as credence among the working class. The son of a saddler and ironmonger, Owen left school at the age of nine to learn a trade. After a year, he briefly joined a brother in London, then found work in Lincolnshire as a draper's apprentice. In 1785, having completed his term of service, Owen headed to London to widen his experience and obtain a post as an assistant in a large drapery shop on London Bridge. The long hours and poor working conditions of this job took a toll on Owen's health, and after several months he headed to Manchester for a fresh start. This bustling city would turn Owen into a reformer.

With accessible supplies of coal and good transportation, Manchester had become the burgeoning hub of the new textile industry and, in effect, of the Industrial Revolution. It also became a testament to the evils of rapid industrial development. Manchester's cotton mills attracted a flood of workers to the city, and its population exploded during the 13 years of Owen's residence. Smoke from the mills established a permanent haze throughout the city, and soot coated everything including every man, woman, and child. Living and working conditions were horrendous, with the result that Manchester became a hotbed of radicalism.

In Manchester in 1789, Owen joined a friend in the manufacture of spinning machines. The partnership did not last long, and Owen set up as a cotton spinner with three employees. This venture prospered and enabled him to obtain a job as manager of a large mill. Only 20 years old, he found himself in charge of a steam-powered mill employing 500 people. He soon mastered the art of cotton spinning and earned a considerable reputation as a producer of fine cotton. His career prospered, and eventually he became a partner in the Chorlton Twist Company. As a respected businessman, Owen received an invitation to join the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society. He began to voice publicly his theories about universal happiness and industrialization. Not surprisingly, he advocated a model other than that found in Manchester.

New Lanark

In 1799 Owen and his partners bought the cotton mills at New Lanark, just outside Glasgow, and shortly afterwards he moved to New Lanark to serve as the sole manager and dominant partner of what would become the largest and most prosperous cotton spinning establishment in Britain. The mills would bring Owen an immense fortune, but profit was not his sole concern. From the start, Owen resolved to modernize the mill and improve both the working and social conditions of his workers. Along the way, he would test his communitarian theories.

In sharp contrast to Manchester, New Lanark was isolated and rural. The village consisted of a cluster of mills and row after row of gray granite four-story stone houses huddled along the wooded bank of the River Clyde just below its falls. A tunnel had been cut through a hillside to provide water to power the mill machinery. The simplicity of the village strongly appealed to Owen, and he hoped that its very primitiveness would allow New Lanark to preserve the spirit of community that had been lost in the larger city. He would later claim that because he could not make a fresh start, his experiment had been seriously compromised from the beginning.

At the time that Owen assumed control of the mill, it employed between 1,500 and 2,000 people, including 500 pauper children. These children, many younger than 10 years, had been removed from parish workhouses and employed as apprentices in conditions that often permanently compromised their health. The children worked 13-hour days and, although they were well fed, well clothed, and well housed, Owen argued in testimony before Parliament that their minds and growth had been materially injured by their employment. His testimony gave Owen a reputation as a child labor reformer, but his attempts to institute reforms at his mills ran into considerable opposition from his business partners. Although he would have preferred to accept no children younger than 12 for full employment, his associates forced him to compromise by taking children 10 and older. Owen did succeed in banning the use of pauper children, accepting only those child laborers who could be supervised by their parents.

Although wages were low at New Lanark in comparison with other mills, the treatment accorded to the workers compensated for the disparity. Refusing to exploit his workers, Owen offered housing at a moderate rent, free medical services, and a contributory sickness and retirement fund. All children were strongly encouraged to attend village schools and, because only a nominal fee was charged, families could afford to educate their offspring. The company store sold food, clothing, and household goods at cost.

While improving upon the typical factory colony, Owen also embarked upon efforts to establish a utopian society. Problems with alcoholism were limited by the absence of a tavern in the village and the imposition of fines for drunkenness. Fines were also imposed for illegitimate births with both the mother and father required to make weekly payments to a poor fund.

Owen aimed to reduce the hours that people spent in disagreeable or heavy labor. Machines were used not to displace workers but to protect and assist the laborers in the performance of necessary tasks. In accord with this philosophy, Owen also tried to reduce the work burden placed upon women. Children as young as two years were encouraged to attend school. Families could take advantage of communal dining rooms and kitchens, thereby freeing women from household drudgery. There is no evidence, though, that the dining rooms and kitchens were actually used. When Owen departed for the United States, the areas were still under construction.

Although New Lanark made a considerable amount of money and Owen received much acclaim for reducing longstanding social problems such as drunkenness, the experiment collapsed in controversy. After launching attacks on the church for encouraging oppression, Owen saw sympathy for his views among wealthy philanthropists and the middle class slowly ebb away. In spite of this, his denunciation of the competitive economy gave him enormous popularity among the working class. Increasing opposition from his partners added to Owen's determination to make a fresh start elsewhere. By 1824 he had concluded that a cotton mill was a poor location to begin a social revolution and that progress in Britain would be interminably slow. He left New Lanark and would never return.

New Harmony

In 1825 Owen bought the 20,000-acre settlement of New Harmony, on the Wabash River in Indiana, from a German religious sect under the leadership of George Rapp. Owen's involvement with this former Rappite village marked the end of his long association with the world of business and his establishment as a radical social reformer. Like other millennial sects, Owenites believed that they needed to withdraw from the world so as to live according to their principles and precepts, for only in an isolated community could alternatives to the evils of the world be developed and honed.

By starting with New Harmony, Owen took advantage of an already established settlement. A tannery, silk factory, woolen mill, sawmill, brickyard, brewery, distillery, and shops were in operation along with orchards, vineyards, and farms cut out of the wilderness. Although Owen in theory sought to unite manufacturing and agriculture, in practice agriculture became the major community pursuit. No attempt was made to establish factory production on the scale of New Lanark. The small industries and farms did no more than meet the needs of the residents and, further emphasizing the importance of agriculture, all men were required to perform two hours of chores every afternoon under the command of a leader.

Owen's ideas for social reform and cooperative communities had been well received in America, and settlers flocked to New Harmony. Unfortunately, the enthusiasm of these pioneers could not compensate for their lack of mechanical and farming skills. These practical difficulties soon led to conflict among the settlers and the subsequent division of New Harmony into five settlements. Labor notes, first proposed by Owen in 1820 as a standard of value and representing hours of time, were introduced to facilitate trading between these bickering communities. A committee assigned value to goods according to the number of hours judged to be necessary for their production plus the cost of raw materials. This labor exchange eventually became a depot where individuals and trade unions exchanged their products without the use of money.

The conflict that rent the community never entirely abated. Owen made a final unsuccessful attempt to reorganize New Harmony in 1827 and then departed for Great Britain. At this point, the experiment essentially came to an end as the New Harmonites abandoned communitarianism and embraced individualism. Owen never attempted to lead another community and elected instead to spend his remaining years writing and lecturing.

Key Players

Owen, Robert (1771-1858): The Welsh-born Owen apprenticed as a draper, worked as a shop assistant, then set up as a manufacturer of cotton spinning machinery. When New Harmony failed, he returned to Britain and discovered that Owenite ideas had come to dominate the British working-class movement. In 1834 Owen briefly headed the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union, an umbrella association of unions that formed upon his suggestion.



Claeys, Gregory. Machinery, Money, and the Millennium:From Moral Economy to Socialism, 1815-1860.Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Donnachie, Ian L., and George Hewitt. Historic New Lanark:The Dale and Owen Industrial Community Since 1785.Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1993.

Harrison, J. F. C. Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969.


The Robert Owen Museum. 1999 [cited 7 November 2002].<http://robert-owen.midwales.com/>

Additional Resources


Butt, John, ed. Robert Owen: Aspects of His Life and Work.A Symposium. New York: Humanities Press, 1971.

Donnachie, Ian. Robert Owen: Owen of New Lanark and New Harmony. East Linton, Scotland: Tuckwell, 2000.

Morton, A. L. The Life and Ideas of Robert Owen. London:Lawrence and Wishart, 1962.

Owen, Robert. The Life of Robert Owen: By Himself.London: G. Bell, 1920.

Royle, Edward. Robert Owen and the Commencement of the Millennium: A Study of the Harmony Community. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.


Carmony, Donald F., and Josephine M. Elliott. "New Harmony, Indiana: Robert Owen's Seedbed for Utopia." Indiana Magazine of History 76 (September 1980): 161-261.

—Caryn E. Neumannc