Robert Owen was born in Newport Wales in 1771, the sixth child of a local ironmonger and saddler. Owen was a bright and lively boy who enjoyed playing football, learning to dance and to play the clarinet. At school he was so advanced for his age that he became a ‘Pupil Teacher’ when only seven. He read profusely on history, philosophy and theology.
Robert was sent to London in 1780, to join his elder brother and became apprenticed to James McGuffog, a draper from Stamford in Lincolnshire. He was greatly influenced by his employers’ liberal views on religion.
In the late 18th century a major revolution was taking place in the textile industry. Originally the manufacture of cloth was a cottage industry, but the invention of water powered spinning machines, such as Arkwright’s Water Frame, Hargreave’s Spinning Jenny and later Compton’s Mule led to the development of the cotton mills. (Robert Owen Memorial Museum archives.)
In 1789, Owen borrowed ï¿½100.00d, from his brother and along with Ernest Jones went onto business manufacturing new spinning machines in Manchester. (Robert Owen Memorial Museum archives.)
At age twenty in 1791, Owen took on the management of a spinning factory employing 500 workers; he proved to be an efficient manager with a compassion for the workers and began to develop his ideas on social reform. He stayed in Manchester for 13 years and in 1793 at the age of 22 he joined the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society where he was introduced to new ideas on public health.
New Lanark mills were formed in 1782 by David Dale and Richard Arkwright in partnership, this didn’t last and Dale took control. Dale was a benevolent employer and some of the ideas that Owen went on to develop originated with him. When a mill burned down in1786, Dale paid his workers until they could resume work; he also had in place some education for children, who at the time were employed at the mill in great numbers.
Around 1799, Owen entered into a consortium that purchased the New Lanark Mills, the village and land for ï¿½60,000, which was to be paid at a rate of ï¿½3000, per year for twenty years. Owen (1857). In 1813, Owen and Jeremy Bentham et al, formed New Lanark, the site of the mill into a new company. Owen immediately began to transform the conditions for the workers. He began the task of building a new model community including good houses, a new school and institute emphasising co-operation. He also worked toward better working conditions for his employees. At this time he met Caroline Dale, the daughter of a Scottish banker. She was impressed with Owens ideas and they soon became friends. They were married in the autumn of 1799.
Owen saw the plight of the apprentices whom the mill owners were supposed to feed, clothe and educate, but they were lacking in their responsibilities. As a result the children were small, pale and their growth stunted. Safety standards, which where virtually non-existent resulted in many accidents some of which were fatal.
Owen set about reforming some of these conditions and practices, he won the trust of his employees after paying them for four months when production was halted by the 1806 American embargo on cotton exports.
Owens’ partners were happy to leave the running of the mill to him, but he still had problems trying to introduce reform, his partners although sympathetic to his ideas were worried about their investment. Owen at this point, with the worries of his partners to take onto account, began to circumvent these problems by utilising what he had in place without extra expenditure. He opened a company store and used the proceeds to open a free village school. From here he began to look at the living conditions of his workers and set about improving their lot.
One of his first improvements was to build a second storey on the houses and to build new ones; he introduced new ideas to his workforce on morality, education, health and knowledge. His ideas on community living were radical, exposing the church to scrutiny and expressing ideas on equality between the sexes. This led the way for women to express themselves as people, free from the restraints of the old morality and the idea that women could not reach their full potential. Owens ideas on sexual freedom for women were greeted with enthusiasm in some quarters but frowned upon in others. Feminists of the period, such as Emma Martin, 1812-1851, Eve and the New Jerusalem. Barbara Taylor. Virago Press (1983).
Were advocates of contraception in order to free women from repeated pregnancies? Other Owenites looked upon contraception as a means of giving women the freedom to express their sexuality as individuals. This proved to be controversial in the communities as some women saw this as a way to exploit women sexually rather than liberating them from childbirth. The old idea of women being the property of men was a difficult one to break away from, the influence of church and state on morality was to some extent ingrained in the people especially the men who saw this as undermining their position in the communities.
New ideas for the community included a facility where children would be looked after and cared for by everyone in turn. The abolition of marriage was another idea, which was intended to free women from being the ‘slaves of the slaves’, and their role as domestic lackeys for men. Part of his reforms was to improve ‘Moral Standards’, he introduced a system of fines to combat drunkenness and loutish behaviour. In the factory he introduced a system of coloured markers at each work place, which showed good and bad behaviour. Black for bad, Blue for indifference, yellow for good and white for excellent. The system worked and the yellow and white markers soon replaced the others.
In 1816, Owen started his community school at New Lanark, the school was non-sectarian offering free full time education for young people aged two to four, and he also offered classes for adults. Part of his system included lectures with dances three evenings each week during the winter, alternating these with evening classes and meetings. Podmore. (1906). His system for the education of the workforce graded children and formed three age-related classes. Children aged between two years and six years attended infant school, children aged between six years and fourteen years attended the day school and older children and adults, evening classes. However one must take into account that Owen struggled to convince his partners that shorter hours for the children and the adults was a good thing. He endeavoured to shorten the hour’s from14 to 12 but lost to the capitalist ideology of wages price and profit. Working conditions although improved were still very hard for the employees.
Robert Owens’ experiments in social reform at New Lanark soon attracted interest from far and wide; this led him to express his ideas on a larger front than before.
Following the Napoleonic wars, Britain was plunged into a severe economic depression, which allowed Owen to proselytise his ideas on social engineering. He attracted some influential people but the church was opposed to his ideas on Marriage and religion. In one of his speeches he expounded on the idea of marriage as nothing more than domestic slavery for women. These ideas led to other debates on sexuality and freedom of sexual expression. The church and some middle class people where outraged by these suggestions. His experiment in New Lanark, although considered a great success, did not outweigh his more liberal views on the family and morality. His partners at New Lanark were becoming increasingly concerned where Owen was going with his ideas. G.D.H. Cole, (1930). Many of Owens followers were now women who saw the opportunity to improve their living standards and to be regarded as individuals.
In his autobiography Owen lists the qualities of his school citing that there was no corporal punishment, his teachers were kind, using conversation as part of the instruction, and an un-patronising attitude toward answering questions. His ideas on education could be described as ‘Gestalt’ meaning wholeness; he included quality of life as part of the nurturing of children exposing them to superior surroundings. Stewart (1972). In this sense Owens’ enlightenment and progressive standards where visionary. Owen severed his links with New Lanark during the mid 1820s after financial difficulties
In 1824, Owen heard that a settlement in America called Harmony was for sale. He set sail with the idea that the New World would provide the ideal opportunity to establish an experimental community Harmony was well suited for his purposes. Owen purchased Harmony for ï¿½30,000, $125,000. Harmony had bee occupied by a semi-communistic society called the ‘Raphites’. (Life of Robert Owen), G.D.H. Cole, (1930). It lay on the banks of the Wabash River and had good soil and pastureland but also had several small industries including a silk and a woollen mill. Harmony or New Harmony was ideal for Owens social experiment in a country where, as Owen believed, there was less commercialisation. Owens ideas where well received in America and he was invited to speak to Congress.
In 1824, a young woman named Fanny Wright, who was touring America with her younger sister Camilla, came to see Owen at New Harmony. Fanny had been born in Scotland; her father was a linen manufacturer, who tragically died when fanny was only two, her mother dying a few months later. Her upbringing was conventional, her aunt finding her a bit of a handful but non-the less brilliant. The daredevil Fanny socialised in intellectual circles and by her mid-twenties had written and published several books. In 1818, she travelled to America and recorded her views on democracy as she toured the New World. She was applauded wherever she went but back in Britain her views were frowned upon. Eve and the New Jerusalem. Barbara Taylor. Virago Press (1983). When she met Owen she was immediately converted to Owens ideas and within twelve months had spent nearly all her fortune on a co-operative community in Tennessee who’s residents were black slaves that Fanny purchased and freed to live in her co-operative. Eve and the New Jerusalem. Barbara Taylor. Virago Press (1983). Within six years Fanny’s radical feminist views made her the most notorious feminists in America and an object of adoration to fellow Owenites in Britain.
Owen toured America extensively and invited people to join his New Harmony Community in Indiana. Whilst travelling, Owens son William looked after New Harmony, but there soon developed problems. So many people were attracted to the community meant that it soon became overcrowded and William had to write to his father to ask him, not to send any more settlers. Owen re-organised the community into a system entirely based on co-operation and order was restored. However this did not last long and without Owens presence disharmony resulted. The community began to fracture into independent groups some keeping the idea of co-operation and others confining their co-operation to ‘religion, education, recreation and work in the natural sciences’. (Robert Owen Memorial Museum archives.) By 1828 ‘The New Harmony’ experiment had failed and Owen returned to Britain, he had lavished most of his wealth on New Harmony and on his return was a poor man.
Arriving back in Britain, he found his ideas had been taken up not by the middle class, but the workers. A socialist movement had gathered momentum in his absence and people of both sexes were expounding the virtues of ‘Owenism’. Women were campaigning for rights and to be allowed into educational institutions such as the Birmingham Mechanics Institute. The response from these institutions was patronising and negative refusing to admit them, in response the Owenites provided classes and tutors and used the new enterprise as a stick to beat their middle class competitors. Eve and the New Jerusalem. Barbara Taylor. Virago Press (1983).
Some men within education, who were not entirely opposed to women in educational institutions, only went as far as offering education for domestic roles, like running a home and family. When the institutions began to admit women, it was exactly for those reasons. A number of feminists argued that women should have the same access to education that men did.
At this time in the early 1830’s, trade unionism was growing and a number of co-operatives and workshops had opened. In 1832 Owen started his own newspaper ‘The Crisis’, but was drawn to the labour movement and began the National Equitable Labour Exchange. This allowed the exchange of goods between co-operative societies and issued Labour Notes valued in hours, which could be exchanged for merchandise. Owen went on to propose that the unions unite and in 1834 the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union was formed.
When the government got wind of this, the new mass labour movement alarmed them. The government’s reaction was to arrest six agricultural workers from Tolpuddle in Dorset and sentence them to seven years transportation. A Protest led by Owen, which attracted 30,000 union members, failed to convince the government of its error. The union now weakened by financial burdens, caused by strikes and lockouts by the employers collapsed in August 1834. The collapse dragged down hundreds of small co-operative shops, Owens newspaper and the labour exchange. Soon after this Owen established a new journal he called ‘The new Moral world’ he was quick to publish articles by feminist thinkers of the time, including Anna Wheeler. The radical feminist of this period where being attacked on two major fronts, one from the men, who wanted to protect their jobs from women and the employers, who would employ women but at a lower wage than their male counterparts and from the middle class women who did not have the wherewithal or courage to fend off the pseudo moral stance that the church took. This marked the end of the mass labour movement, which had grown around Robert Owen. (Robert Owen Memorial Museum archives.)
“He organised infants schools. He secured the reduction of the hours of labour for women and children in factories. He was a liberal supporter of the earliest efforts to obtain national education. He laboured to promote international arbitration. He was one of the foremost Britons who taught men to aspire to a higher social state by reconciling the interests of capital and labour. He spent his life and a large fortune in seeking to improve his fellowmen by giving them education, self-reliance, and moral worth. His life was sanctified by human affection and lofty effort”.
Did Owen provide a ‘New Moral World for Women’?
There is no doubt that Robert Owen had a vision of a ‘New Moral World’, his life was dedicated to his social engineering experiments, but one has to remember that the financial support came from the success of his mills. The women in the communities were encouraged to think about their lifestyles and the exploitation of their sex, to liberate themselves from marriage and sexual ownership. However this could be looked upon as a male attitude to sexual liberation in so far as, would the abandonment of sexual propriety work for the women or serve as a free source of sexual partners for men?
His ideas on working conditions and the standard of living his workers enjoyed created a efficient style of production and could be argued as nothing more than an ideological exploitation of his workforce. His egalitarian communities paved the way for free thinkers and reformers but one cannot take away the efforts of his followers and their endeavours. Owens vision of an egalitarian society with mutual respect, the promise of health care, education, well built housing, and shorter hours must have been an attractive vision for people of that era. However the decline of Owenism ended the vision of a ‘New World Order’ for Women, the class struggle sidelined them into the symbolic idea of women once again. Feminism preceded Owen and it continued after his death, women of courage have always raised their voice against injustice.