Owen, Robert

views updated Jun 08 2018

Robert Owen

Born May 14, 1771

Newton, Montgomeryshire, Wales

Died November 17, 1858

Newton, Montgomeryshire, Wales

British industrialist

"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."

As the owner of a cotton mill, Robert Owen was an early industrialist who envisioned a more humane way of running factories, which he called cooperatives, as well as a system of education for workers. Sometimes called England's first socialist, one who believes in the collective ownership of business, Owen was an idealist (someone who places ideals before practical considerations) who brought his ideas to the United States, but eventually failed to make a permanent mark.

Childhood and youth

Owen was born at Newton, in Montgomeryshire, Wales, in 1771. His father was an ironmonger, someone who sells iron and other hardware, and also served as the town's postmaster. Owen had a reputation as an exceptionally bright student; he was helping teach other children when he was just seven years old, and before he turned ten he had read most of the classics of the day. His father took him out of school when he was ten and arranged for him to become an apprentice (an assistant who is learning a job) in a clothing store in town. Although his formal education did not last long, it proved to be sufficient for Owen to succeed in business later in life.

Owen eventually made his way to Manchester, England, in 1786 just as the Industrial Revolution, a period of rapid economic change that began in Great Britain in the middle of the eighteenth century, was starting to have an enormous impact on the textile industry. The industry, made up of companies involved in the production of yarn and cloth, was rapidly changing as the result of new technology. Newly invented machines enabled fewer workers to produce more yarn, or cloth, than ever before. Textile workers who once worked independently at home found themselves employed in factories where the large and expensive new machines were housed and operated. People who previously worked for themselves became paid employees of the owners of the new machines.

The beginning of his life's work

Owen was fifteen when he arrived in Manchester, England, and his success came early. He met a young engineer named Ernest Jones, and in 1789, believing that the new machines were the future of the textile industry, Owen borrowed £100 (a little more than $160) from his brother and went into business manufacturing a yarn-making machine called a spinning mule, used to manufacture yarn from cotton or wool fibers. Owen ran the business while Jones over-saw the machinery.

Jones did not stay with the business long, and Owen continued with just three employees. Owen earned a good reputation in Manchester, and in 1792 he was hired to manage a large spinning factory, Chorton Twist, owned by Peter Drinkwater. Owen, now twenty-two years old, was supervising five hundred employees at a modern steam-powered mill. Chorton Twist rapidly expanded under Owen's management and became well known for its high-quality cotton yarn. Owen was eventually made a partner in the company.

Owen's interests went well beyond managing a factory. In 1792 he had been invited to join the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society. The group held meetings at which members gave lectures and debated issues of the day. Among the members were the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) and public health pioneer Dr. Thomas Percival (1740–1804). Owen was active in the society and presented his own papers on subjects such as "The Improvement of the Cotton Industry" and "Universal Happiness and Industrialization."

Owen's position at Chorton Twist led him to meet many businesspeople in the thriving textile industry, including David Dale (1739–1806), who owned four factories in New Lanark, Scotland. Owen became close friends with Dale, and especially with Dale's daughter, Caroline, whom he married in 1799. Soon thereafter, Owen raised £60,000 (more than $97,000) from several businessmen in Manchester and bought his father-in-law's share in the company.

New Lanark

The factories in New Lanark, Scotland, employed almost two thousand people, including five hundred children who had been sent from orphanages. In situations like this, which were not uncommon at the time, factory owners were responsible for housing, feeding, and clothing these young workers. The result was that many grew up without an education, ill-fed and ill-clothed. Even worse, many were injured, maimed, or killed outright, in industrial accidents.

In some respects, the conditions of the adult workers were not much better. They worked long hours in dark mills for little pay. Abuse of alcohol was a problem among the men, who sometimes drank to relieve their despair.

Owen's first claim to historical fame was to recognize that the poor habits of workers, including drunkenness, might reflect their working conditions rather than be a sign of a defect in their characters. Almost uniquely among mill owners, Owen resolved to improve the conditions of his employees.

He gained his workers' trust in 1806, when he continued to pay them for four months while his factory was shut down because of a ban on cotton exports imposed by the United States in a dispute with the British government. (Owen used American cotton to spin yarn.) Then he attempted to shorten the working day, from thirteen hours to twelve. But pressure from his business partners to increase profits actually forced him to increase the workday, to fourteen hours, at least temporarily. (He finally introduced the twelve-hour day in 1816). But in other areas, he had more success.

Owen greatly improved the housing his company provided to workers and paved the surrounding streets, which he paid to keep clean. He opened a company store to sell food and other merchandise to workers, and used profits from the store to fund a community school. Children from age two to six attended the Infant School, then graduated to the day school until age ten when they started working in the factory. But children could still attend the night school that Owen set up.

Owen believed that education should go beyond basic reading, writing and arithmetic in order to build good character and encourage good behavior throughout life. He was a pioneer in what today would be called a liberal education, as well as in modern education techniques. His schools introduced music, dancing, and games to schools, and pictures, maps, and charts were used to help students learn. Previously school consisted entirely of printed books that taught the basics. Owen had the idea that education could be fun and natural—a radical departure from what was generally practiced in his day.

Owen did not allow corporal punishment (spanking, for example) and insisted that teachers treat students with kindness. Instruction was to be by conversation, rather than one-way lectures, and lessons should alternate with play. Children were encouraged to think and act rationally.

In 1816 he opened the Institute for the Formation of Character near his factories, extending his educational ideas to adult workers. In the same rooms where young children attended classes in the daytime, adults could attend lectures and concerts at night. Owen also took an interest in the morality of his employees. On his mill's property, a form of local government was organized, which imposed fines for drunkenness. Owen paid supervisors to keep track of the behavior of workers; a black mark was recorded for instances of bad behavior, a white mark for good behavior, with blue and yellow marks for behaviors in between. Although Owen noted some improvement in the lives of his workers, his experiment did not spread to other factories.

Overall, Owen's ideas were widely praised but seldom adopted by others. His business partners strongly objected to the methods employed, partly on grounds of cost and partly on grounds of their own ideas about morality. Gradually the music and dancing stopped (some of his partners, members of the Society of Friends, or Quakers, objected on religious grounds), and formal religious education was introduced. By 1824, pressure from his partners forced Owen to end his connection with the school at New Lanark, fifteen years after he had started.

Taking reform to the masses

As early as 1802, some British politicians had advocated the sort of reforms on a national basis that Owen tried to introduce in his factory, such as a limit on the length of the workday, a minimum age for working long hours, and education for children (who often worked in factories as early as age six). Initially led by Robert Peel (1750–1830), himself a textile businessman and father of the future British prime minister, also named Robert Peel (1788–1850), these initiatives were introduced as bills (proposed laws) in Parliament. Owen was called as a witness in favor of such reforms, and he even drafted proposals for new laws himself. But opposition by other business owners to any government interference in their businesses was strong, and it was not until 1819 that a watered-down version of Owen's factory reform bill was made law. It took another fourteen years to pass a law requiring inspection of factories to make sure the regulations were enforced.

Discouraged by the work of Parliament, Owen decided to appeal directly to the public. He published his ideas in a book titled New View of Society, in which he outlined his ideas for a system run on a cooperative basis. Instead of bosses and owners, Owen proposed an arrangement in which everyone at a factory would jointly own and operate the business, with democratic votes on key decisions. He based his work on the reforms introduced at New Lanark, which had been highly successful. To solve the problem of unemployment, for example, which was plaguing Britain and leading to widespread poverty and rioting, Owen proposed organizing new cooperatives that could operate along the lines of his own factory.

While some people liked Owen's ideas about treating workers as partners and assuring them a decent living, others strongly objected to his ideas about religion. Owen strongly believed in the power of science to explain natural phenomena, and insisted that people should not believe in ideas that could not be demonstrated and proved by science. In his book A New View of Society, Owen advocated setting up schools independent of the Church of England (most English schools were run by the church in Owen's era) in order to encourage children to think rationally without confusing scientific studies and religious teachings. Owen's criticisms of the official Church of England annoyed church officials and eventually some of Owen's supporters (but not Owen himself) were accused of the crime of blasphemy (showing contempt or irreverence toward God). Eventually Owen financed buildings he called Halls of Science, which promoted his social ideals without including religious elements that were not based on science.

New Harmony, Indiana

In 1824 Owen learned that a religious sect (group) in Indiana that had organized their own community, called New Harmony, wanted to sell their property. Here, he thought, was an opportunity to buy an entire town and set up a utopia (a place where things are perfect) by implementing his ideas for an ideal society without meddling by a Parliament, church, or edgy business partners. In fact, his ideas seemed welcome in the United States, and he was even invited to address the U.S. Congress.

Owen acquired the New Harmony settlement for $125,000 and set forth on a project to prove that his ideas could work. He recruited new settlers to come to the town and run agricultural and small industrial ventures on the principles of a cooperative (see box on page 136). While he was traveling, his son William was left in charge of the settlement.

Things did not go smoothly at New Harmony. Settlers flocked there, but many were not suited for the sort of social experiment Owen had in mind. Some newcomers lacked practical skills to run a farm or a factory, and instead of contributing to the enterprise actually became a drain. William urged his father to stop sending new inhabitants, as the town became overcrowded. With constant supervision by Robert Owen, the community managed to run relatively smoothly, but the minute he was absent, dissatisfaction grew. The community split into different groups, some restricting their cooperative spirit to religion, education, or recreation. Owen's ideal of cooperative business ventures faltered.

By 1828, four years after he started the venture, Owen handed New Harmony over to his sons and went back to England. For him, the experiment at New Harmony was over.

Robert Owen, organizer

Owen had sold his interest in the factories at New Lanark to finance New Harmony, and the failed cooperative left him without much money. But he found that British workers appreciated his ideas about improving their welfare, even if the upper and middle class of Britain did not. Workers were beginning to form trade unions—organizations in which workers joined together to demand better wages and working conditions from their employers—as a means of achieving the benefits advocated by Owen, such as limited work hours and an end to employment of young children.

Still spurred by strong idealism, Owen plunged into the union movement. He opened a newspaper, and then the National Equitable Labor Exchange in London, a place where people could acquire goods in exchange for work or for things they had produced. Workers paid in notes, like currency, which represented the number of hours worked and which could be exchanged for other goods worth a comparable number of hours.

What Is a Cooperative?

A cooperative is a group of people, sometimes living in a community or sometimes just working for an enterprise, who agree to work for the common good. They tend to contribute to the community or business as best they can, and everyone shares alike in the results.

The idea of a cooperative was shocking to many people in Robert Owen's social class, who were used to receiving much more income than workers. It was more appealing to workers, and to revolutionaries who emerged during the Industrial Revolution, including Karl Marx (1818–1883; see entry). Marx, the father of modern communism, advocated an end result that was similar to Owen's ideal, but thought that a violent revolution by workers against business owners was the only away to achieve such a society.

In 1832, Owen suggested that trade unions, which typically represented workers in a particular industry or occupation, should unite. Two years later, the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union was formed in Britain. It had half a million members within a week, which alarmed the government. But the new union did not last long in the face of opposition by employers. Strikes by workers (refusal to work until union demands were met) and lockouts by employers (in which an employer fights union demands by shutting a factory and refusing to pay workers) caused the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union to collapse shortly after it was organized. Lack of funds forced Owen to close his newspaper and his labor exchange.

After 1835 Owen lived modestly, still actively promoting his "new view of society" through books and pamphlets. His followers, known as Owenites, held meetings around England to promote his ideals, but ultimately, none of the organizations or causes he supported managed to attract enough support to succeed. In 1858, Owen fell ill and asked to be taken to his birthplace of Newton, where he died on November 17, 1858. At his request, he was buried next to his parents in a churchyard cemetery.

For More Information


Harrison, J. F. C. Quest for the New Moral World: Robert Owen and theOwenites in Britain and America. New York: Scribner's, 1969.

Jones, Lloyd. The Life, Times, and Labours of Robert Owen. New York: AMS Press, 1971.

Owen, Robert. A New View of Society and Other Writings. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.

Pollard, Sidney, and John Salt, eds. Robert Owen, Prophet of the Poor: Essays in Honour of the Two Hundredth Anniversary of His Birth. London, England: Macmillan, 1971.

Sargant, William Lucas. Robert Owen and His Social Philosophy. New York: AMS Press, 1971.


Barker, Paul. "In New Lanark Robert Owen Tried to Forge a New Society. Today, His Model Village Is a Visitor Centre." New Statesman, August 7, 1998, p. 54.

Cowell, Alan. "Britain's 'Satanic Mills' Now a Valued Heritage." New YorkTimes, February 10, 2002.

Web Sites

Gordon, Peter. "Robert Owen (1771–1858)." http://www.ibe.unesco.org/International/Publications/Thinkers/ThinkersPdf/owene.PDF (accessed on March 3, 2003).

"Owen, Robert." Encyclopedia of Marxism.http://www.marxists.org/glossary/people/o/w.htm#owen (accessed on February 13, 2003).

Owen, Robert. "A New View of Society." Avalon Project at Yale Law School.http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/econ/owenm.htm (accessed on February 13, 2003).

Robert Owen Museum.http://robert-owen.midwales.com (accessed on February 13, 2003).

"Robert Owen, 1771–1858." History of Economic Thought. http://cepa.newschool.edu/het/profiles/owen.htm (accessed on March 25, 2003).

Owen, Robert

views updated May 17 2018

Owen, Robert

works by owen

supplementary bibliography

Robert Owen (1771-1858), British socialist, was born at Newtown, Montgomeryshire, Wales. He began to influence social thought in 1799, when he acquired at New Lanark, Scotland, the cotton mills which he made famous. His mills became a showplace of enlightened management, and Owen’s reputation as a philanthropist spread throughout Europe.

When he entered upon the “government of New Lanark” as he called it, Owen’s object was not to be a “mere manager of cotton mills, but to introduce principles in the conduct of the people.” These principles had to do with character formation. Owen rejected the competitive business system through which he had made his money and urged the merits of a cooperative system in which “one man’s gain” would not be “another man’s loss” ([1813-1821] 1927, p. 124). In a cooperative community, he believed, a healthy and happy environment would shape individual character along the right social lines. Factories were nurseries of bad habits which only social controls, particularly education, could eliminate. It was necessary, moreover, to educate not only children but also adults.

Having expressed these views even before the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Owen was all the more convinced of the urgent need to apply them when the years following the wars brought economic discontent and distress to Britain. From his original interest in the effects of industrial working conditions on character he moved naturally to a concern with the state of the unemployed. He advocated “villages of co-operation” where work would be carried on collectively; these he considered not only a necessary remedy for unemployment but also a contribution to “social regeneration,” a remodeling of society on cooperative lines with no reliance on the profit motive.

When Owen failed to convince the rich and influential of the wisdom of his plans and the practicability of his vision of a new order, he turned to other sectors of society, particularly the middle and working classes. He broke sharply with the churches in 1817, and thereafter his cooperative philosophy became markedly anticlerical in tone. He also began to formulate more definitely communitarian ideals and, finding British opinion reluctant to support him, left Britain for the United

States in 1824. There he set up a system of community living at New Harmony, Indiana, an attempt to realize “the new moral world.” The community fared ill from the first (Maclure 18201833) and soon swallowed up most of Owen’s fortune.

Owen returned to Britain in 1829 and again was forced to plot a new course. He discovered that many of his ideas on labor as a source and standard of value and on cooperative production had been accepted by working-class groups of Owenites, and he was increasingly drawn into British workingclass politics. This phase of his experience reached its high point when in 1833 the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union was conceived. Although the Trades Union had over half a million members early in 1834, it disintegrated within a few months.

Owen’s greatest dream was even further from reality: it was a “Grand National Moral Union of the Productive Classes,” a pyramid of producers’ power with trade-union lodges at its base and a national labor exchange at its apex. Society would be quickly transformed—indeed, at a single blow—by the operation of the union. Like his previous schemes, this one also failed. Yet, still believing in the possibility of social redemption, Owen turned to the development of a secular religion and in 1839 to the development of a new community experiment at Harmony Hall (Queenwood), Hampshire.

As working-class cooperation developed in the 1840s under the leadership of the Rochdale Pioneers, it depended much on Owenite ideals, but soon thereafter became more practical in its emphasis. Owen was frequently dismissed as a “Utopian socialist”; it was even denied that he was a socialist at all. In fact, however, he had done much to develop a constructive critique of industrialism, to fashion the socialist vocabulary (Bestor 1948), and to stimulate working-class action by offering a new vision of society as it might be.

Asa Briggs

[See alsoEconomic Thought, article onSocialist Thought; Cooperation; Cooperatives; Utopianism.]

works by owen

(1813-1821) 1927 A New View of Society, and Other Writings. New York: Dutton. → First published as ANew View of Society: Or, Essays on the Principle of the Formation of the Human Character. Includes Owen’s “An Address to the Inhabitants of New Lanark” (1816) on pages 93-119; “Observations on the Effect of the Manufacturing System” (1815) on pages 120-129; and the “Report to the County of Lanark” (1821) on pages 245-298.

1818 Two Memorials on Behalf of the Working Classes. London: Longmans.

1830 Lectures on an Entire New State of Society. London: Strange.

supplementary bibliography

Bestor, Arthur E. Jr. 1948 The Evolution of the Socialist Vocabulary. Journal of the History of Ideas9:259-302.

Bestor, Arthur E. JR. 1950 Backwoods Utopias: The Sectarian and Owenite Phases of Communitarian Socialism in America, 1663-1829. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

Cole, G. D. H. (1925) 1930 The Life of Robert Owen. 2d ed. London: Macmillan.

Maclure, William (1820-1833) 1948 Education and Reform at New Harmony: Correspondence of William Maclure and Marie Duclos Fretageot, 1820-1833.Edited by Arthur E. Bestor, Jr. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society.

Podmore, Frank (1906) 1924 Robert Owen: A Biography. 2 vols. New York: Appleton.

Owen, Robert

views updated May 29 2018


OWEN, ROBERT (1771–1858), English socialist.

The founder of British socialism, Robert Owen was born on 14 May 1771 at Newtown, Montgomeryshire, Wales. He was the son of Robert Owen (1741–1804), a sadler, ironmonger, and local postmaster, and the former Anne Williams (c. 1735–1803), a farmer's daughter. Apprenticed in 1781 to a Stamford cloth merchant, James McGuffog, Owen joined a similar London retail firm three years later. Moving to Manchester, he borrowed one hundred pounds from his brother William and commenced cotton-spinning. In 1792 he became manager of the largest local cotton mill, owned by Peter Drink-water, and in 1800 assumed the management of the New Lanark mills on the River Clyde south of Glasgow, having first married the owner's daughter Caroline the previous year.

At New Lanark, Owen proved astonishingly successful both at refining the cotton-spinning process and improving the lot of the labor force. His profits, some 40 percent of about 12 percent return on capital per annum, brought a fortune, while his wish to experiment socially on the 1,800-strong workforce brought an increasing reputation as a reformer. Owen reduced working hours from eleven and three quarters to ten and three quarters per day, made cheaper and better goods available at the company shop, introduced infant education in the "Institute for the Formation of Character," opened in 1816, and did much to improve life in the workers' quarters. Seeking to widen the scope of his ambitions, he published A New View of Society; or, Essays on the Principle of the Formation of the Human Character (1813–1814), which proposed a system of national education to reduce idleness, poverty, and crime among the "lower orders," and urged the discouragement of "gin shops and pot houses" and state lottery and gambling, as well as penal reform, an end to the monopolistic position of the Church of England, and the collection of statistics on the value and demand for labor throughout the country.

Such proposals, particularly for an extension of factory reforms, fell on deaf ears, however. In the years 1815 to 1817 Owen then turned to the wider question, in the midst of a postwar depression, of solving the rapidly burgeoning problem of poverty. He now proposed, thus, to relocate the urban poor into "villages of union" motivated by a "mutual and combined interest," in the countryside, where employment would include both manufacturing and agriculture, and the proceeds would be shared in common. Increasingly hostile to the "individual system" of "buying cheap and selling dear," which he first derided at length in the Report to the County of Lanark (1820), Owen proposed instead the "social system" of enhanced cooperation and community life. This, by the mid-1820s, gradually came to be called "socialism" for short. Having in Observations on the Effects of the Manufacturing System (1815) described industrialization as likely to cause immense suffering to the working classes, Owen now sought a practical experiment to prove the worth of his principles. He acquired a readymade community in the United States, constructed in Indiana by a German Protestant sect, the Rappites. Owen renamed it New Harmony and moved

there in 1824. Unfortunately, insufficient attention was paid to the selection of members, and Owen tired quickly of having so many quarrelsome associates. By 1828 the community had collapsed.

Returning to Britain, Owen became briefly involved in the early 1830s in an effort to construct "exchange bazaars" in London and Birmingham, where artisans were to trade goods on the basis of labor and material costs alone, eliminating the profit of retail middlemen. In 1833 and 1834, he was also briefly involved with an effort to construct a single union of trades, the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union.

The last great phase of Owen's efforts came in the period from 1835 to 1844, when he set about publishing his mature program (The Book of the New Moral World, 7 parts, 1836–1844), and established a large-scale organization, with some fifty branches, to raise funds for a new community. Land was acquired at Tytherly in Hampshire, and an elaborate (and unduly expensive) central edifice constructed. But the soil was poor, and too little was invested in agriculture to ensure an adequate return. After the community failed, Owen turned to spiritualism, but was increasingly ignored in the last decade of his life.

Owen's reputation is often bifurcated into a successful capitalist phase at New Lanark and a failed socialist career thereafter. Though the writings of John Gray (1799–1883), William Thompson (1775–1833), and others were more incisive, his impact on popularizing the socialist ideal in Britain and the United States is undisputed and was extended to later generations by writers such as Fabian Frank Podmore (1856–1910), his most important biographer.

See alsoFourier, Charles; Socialism; Utopian Socialism.


Primary Source

Owen, Robert. Selected Works of Robert Owen. Edited by Gregory Claeys. 4 vols. London, 1993.

Secondary Sources

Claeys, Gregory. Machinery, Money and the Millennium: From Moral Economy to Socialism, 1815–1860. Princeton, N.J., 1987.

——. Citizens and Saints: Politics and Anti-Politics in Early British Socialism. Cambridge, U.K., 1989.

Harrison, John Fletcher Clews. Quest for the New Moral World: Robert Owen and the Owenities in Britain and America. New York, 1969.

Podmore, Frank. Robert Owen: A Biography. 2 vols. London, 1906.

Gregory Claeys

Robert Owen

views updated May 29 2018

Robert Owen

The attempts of the British socialist pioneer Robert Owen (1771-1858) to reconstruct society widely influenced social experimentation and the cooperative movement.

Robert Owen was born in Newtown, Wales, on May 14, 1771, the son of a shopkeeper. Though he left school at the age of 9, he was precocious and learned business principles rapidly in London and Manchester. By 18 he was manager of one of Manchester's largest cotton mills. In 1799 he purchased the mills at New Lanark, Scotland; they became famous for fine work produced with high regard for the well-being of the approximately 2,000 employees, of whom several hundred were poor children.

A reader and thinker, Owen counted among his acquaintances Robert Fulton, Jeremy Bentham, and the poet Samuel Coleridge. Owen's reforms emphasized cleanliness, happiness, liberal schooling without recourse to punishment, and wages in hard times. As his fame spread, he considered implementing ideas that would increasingly negate competitive economics. His attack on religion at a London meeting in 1817 lost him some admirers. His pioneer papers of the time, including "Two Memorials on Behalf of the Working Classes" (1818) and "Report to the County of Lanark" (1821), held that environment determined human development.

Owen learned of the religious Rapp colony in America at New Harmony, Ind., and determined to prove his principles in action there. In 1825 he purchased New Harmony and drew some 900 individuals to the community for his experiment. Despite the work of talented individuals, New Harmony did not prosper. By 1828 Owen had lost the bulk of his fortune in New Harmony, and he left it.

Following an unsuccessful attempt to institute a comparable experiment in Mexico that year, Owen returned to England to write and lecture. He propagated ideas first developed in 1826 in Book of the New Moral World. A kind, selfless man, he failed to perceive that the industry and responsibility that had made New Lanark great were not present in New Harmony and in other experiments he sponsored. Nevertheless, his views created theoretical bases for developing socialist and cooperative thought.

In The Crisis (1832) Owen advocated exchanging commodities for labor rather than money to relieve unemployment. The Equitable Labour Exchange founded that year failed but led to the Chartist and Rochdale movements. Labor unrest further fed on Owenite tenets, and in 1833 the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union was formed. It rallied half a million workers and fostered such new tactics as the general strike but fell apart within a few months, owing to opposition by employers and the government.

Owen continued to write and propagandize. Such experiments as Harmony Hall, in Hampshire, England (1839-45), derived from his theories. But new revolutionary forces and leaders put him out of the main current. His conversion to spiritualism in 1854 and his New Existence of Man upon the Earth (1854-1855) seemed to him a broadening of reality, rather than a retreat. His Autobiography (1857-1858) is one of the great documents of early socialist experience. He died in Newtown, Wales, on Nov. 17, 1858.

Further Reading

Owen's ideas are attractively presented in his own A New View of Society (1813). Full-length studies of Owen are Frank Podmore, Robert Owen (1906), and G. D. H. Cole, Life of Robert Owen (1925). Cole's Persons and Periods: Studies (1938) includes a brief, authoritative statement on Owen. Owen is often considered a utopian, but an immense literature establishes him with socialist founders; see, for example, George Lichtheim, The Origins of Socialism (1969). General studies include George B. Lockwood, The New Harmony Movement (1905); Arthur E. Bestor, Backwoods Utopias: The Sectarian and Owenite Phases of Communitarian Socialism in America, 1663-1829 (1950); and J. F. C. Harrison, Quest for the New Moral World: Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America (1969).

Additional Sources

Altfest, Karen Caplan, Robert Owen as educator, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977.

Claeys, Gregory, Machinery, money, and the millennium: from moral economy to socialism, 1815-1860, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987. □

Owen, Robert (1771-1858)

views updated May 17 2018

Owen, Robert (1771-1858)

British socialist and humanitarian. Owen was born May 14, 1771, at Newtown, Montgomeryshire. He was successful in the cotton mill industry and, in 1800, established a utopian society based on his cotton mills at New Lanark.

Owen established a community at New Lanark. This news induced the settlers of the Harmony Society in Indiana to sell land to Owen, who purchased Harmony with its mills, factories, houses, and land when the Harmonists moved to Pennsylvania. Owen came to the United States in December 1824 and established the community of New Harmony, based on socialist principles; the experiment did not succeed. For an account of New Harmony see Strange Cults & Utopias of 19th Century America by J. H. Noyes (Dover, 1966).

On May 14, 1856, at The First Meeting of the Congress of the Reformers of the World, detailed plans, based on spiritually-inspired architectural conceptions, were submitted through Owen's agency for building Homes of Harmony.

At the age of 83, Owen developed an interest in Spiritualism after several sittings with Maria B. Hayden, the first American medium who visited England. In 1853, in his journal, the Rational Quarterly Review, Owen published a formal profession of his new faith. In the same year he issued as a separate pamphlet The Future of the Human Race; or great, glorious and peaceful Revolution, to be effected through the agency of departed spirits of good and superior men and women. The periodical installments of his New Existence of Man Upon Earth (1854-55) were, for some time, the only British publications dealing with Spiritualism.

Nevertheless, Owen cannot be ranked as a typical Spiritual-ist. Communication with the Beyond for him was another means for the advancement of mankind. Supposedly Andrew Jackson Davis, who saw him when lecturing in America in 1846, wrote in November 1847, some months before the Rochester knockings, that according to a message he received from the spiritual spheres, Robert Owen was destined to hold "open intercourse" with the higher world. Reportedly some of the prophecy communications were printed in Owen's autobiography The Life of Robert Owen (2 vols., London, 1857-58). Owen died at Newtown November 17, 1858, and his Spiritualist interests were carried forward by his son, Robert Dale Owen.


Freudenberg, Gideon G. Robert Owen: Educator of the People. Tel Aviv, Israel: Dvir, 1970.

Harrison, John F. C. Quest for the New World. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969.

Oved, Yaacov. Two Hundred Years of American Communes. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publications, 1993.

Owen, Robert Dale. The Debatable Land Between this World and the Next. London: Trubner, 1871.

. Footfalls on the Boundaries of Another World. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1860.

. The Life of Robert Owen. 2 vols. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1966.

Owen, Robert

views updated May 11 2018

Owen, Robert (1771–1858). Cotton magnate and utopian socialist. Born in Newtown (Powys), Owen became a partner in cotton firms in Lancashire and at New Lanark (Strathclyde), where he managed the mills and village (1800–25), gaining a reputation as a successful and humanitarian businessman. His experience led him to publish A New View of Society (1814–18), in which he advanced propositions that character was formed by environment, and that a system of villages of co-operation rather than unplanned large industrial towns was conducive to social progress. Attacked for his secularism and millenarianism, he accepted the labour theory of value and favoured state intervention to offset the effects of depressions in his Report to the County of Lanark (1820); he espoused factory reform, the legalization of trade unions, a national system of education, and co-operation. Described as the ‘Father of British Socialism’, Owen could be regarded also as a protagonist of scientific management.

John Butt

Owen, Robert

views updated May 23 2018

Owen, Robert (1771–1858) Welsh industrialist and social reformer. He believed that better conditions for workers would lead to greater productivity. He put these beliefs into practice at his textile mills in Scotland. He also attempted to establish a self-contained cooperative community in New Harmony, Indiana (1825–27). His ideas provided the basis for the cooperative movement.

Owen, Robert

views updated Jun 11 2018

Owen, Robert (1771–1856). See company town.

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Robert Owen

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