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Robert Owen

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Robert Owen (1771–1858), textile producer, philanthropist and pioneering socialist.

1771 born on 14 May at Newtown, Montgomeryshire (now Powys), the son of Robert Owen (1741–1804), a saddler and ironmonger as well as the local postmaster, and his wife, Anne Williams (c.1735–1803).

1781 apprenticed to James McGuffog, a cloth merchant in Stamford, Lincolnshire

1784 Owen joined a London retailer, and then moved to a similar position under John Satterfield in Manchester where he developed an interest in the new machinery being applied to cotton spinning. Satterfield had a draper's shop at 5 St. Ann's Square. Owen did not stay long with Satterfield, as he met a manufacturer of wire frames for ladies' bonnets, " a mechanic with some small inventive powers and a very active mind ". This man was almost certainly John Jones, a machine maker, of 58 Water Street.

Borrowed £100 from his brother, William, to enter a partnership with Jones, constructing "mules" for making thread; soon the firm of Jones and Owen had forty employees.

1789–90 he was bought out of the partnership. He then rented a room in a large newly erected factory from a builder and land surveyor named Christopher Woodrooffe of Ancoats Lane.

1792 Managed a mill with 500 employees in Piccadilly, Manchester, owned by Peter Drinkwater, who pioneered the application of a Boulton and Watt rotative steam engine to cotton spinning in Manchester, in 1789-90. Owen took over the management of the mill from George Augustus Lee. Lee had succeeded in producing yarns and thread of what was then considered an extraordinary fineness, of 120 hanks (each 840 yards in length) to the pound, but it was of "very indifferent quality ". Owen succeeded in improving on this, to 160 after a year, and then, according to his own account, produced thread of the fineness of 300 hanks to the pound and above. At the same time he reorganised Drinkwater's Northwich mill and kept it under regular personal supervision.

He became concerned with the moral and physical condition of his workforce. He began to apply the principle which was to dominate most of his life, namely that character was derived from "circumstances" rather than created by the will. However, he may well have been influenced by Drinkwater.

He accepted a partnership with Drinkwater's sons but then renounced it in order that Drinkwater's son-in-law[1], the manufacturer Samuel Oldknow, would have greater control of the firm.

Owen left Drinkwater in 1794 or 1795, and was invited by Samuel Marsland to join him in partnership. Instead he entered into a partnership with Jonathan Scarth and Richard Percival Moulson, "two young men, inexperienced in the business, although they had capital". This early partnership, which must be distinguished from the Chorlton Twist Company of 1796, was to undertake the erection of cotton mills on land purchased from Samuel Marsland and Company. Owen was to be the general manager and each partner was to have one-third of the profits. This arrangement appears to have lasted about a year.

Late in 1795 Owen agreed to purchase a Boulton and Watt steam engine to drive the machinery in the proposed new cotton factory in Cambridge Street. In fact it was Samuel Marsland who had made the first approach to Boulton and Watt, and in addition was financing the industrial development of his "trading estate" by funding half the cost of the engine.

Owen's last activity in manufacturing in Manchester was with the Chorlton Twist Co, fine cotton spinners, between 1796 and 1800. This Chorlton Twist Co was in partnership with Messrs. Borrodale and Atkinson, of Salford and London, and Messrs. Barton of Manchester, managed by Owen, assisted by Thomas Atkinson, a brother of the one in the firm of Borrodale and Atkinson.

On a business visit to Glasgow, Owen met Ann Caroline Dale (1779–1831), the daughter of a prominent cotton spinner, David Dale (1739-1806) who, with Richard Arkwright had built New Lanark Mills, the delightful location of which impressed Owen, as did Dale's pioneering efforts to improve his labourers' working and living conditions.

1799 married Caroline Dale on 30 September and acquired the New Lanark mills with several partners for £60,000.

1800 Moved to Lanark to take the post of manager of the New Lanark Twist Company, with a ninth share in the profits.

Soon after Owen left Manchester for New Lanark towards the end of 1799 or early in 1800 the Chorlton Twist Company's mill was bought by Messrs. Birley and Hornby.

1806 Dale died; Owen formed a new partnership. He had tremendous drive and energy, was adept at handling both his partners and business associates, and was scrupulously honest in his dealings. Skilled as both manager and entrepreneur, he typified the early self-made capitalists of the era.

New Lanark became an experiment in philanthropic management. He reduced both vice and punishment while improving living and working conditions, expecting in return an increase in output from the workforce. Despite initial resistance from his workers and continuing suspicion from his partners, Owen was remarkably successful in all these areas.

Owen continued to pay full wages during an American cotton embargo, which won him support from the workforce.

1813 Owen outbid his partners at an auction of New Lanark and formed a new partnership with the philanthropist Joseph Fox, future lord mayor of London Michael Gibbs, William Allen and two other Quakers, Joseph Foster and John Walker, and the philosopher Jeremy Bentham.

1816 Owen reduced the working day from 11.75 hours to 10.75 hours and made many other changes. Expensive goods in the company store were replaced with better ones at wholesale prices. He started infant education which led to the opening of the Institute for the Formation of Character.

1816 Owen announced that "the chief object" of his existence would be to make "universal" the results of his experiments with the character of the labouring classes and espoused a new philosophy for the industrial age with many high-minded ideals.

By 1817 he was spending most of his time in London attempting, with the help of Sir Robert Peel, himself a cotton lord, to get a bill approved by a select committee of Parliament to prohibit employment before the age of ten, to reduce hours of labour to 10.5 per day, and to require a minimal education before beginning work.

On 21 August, at a public meeting, Owen proposed that lowering taxes would only add to the unemployed those who lived from public spending. Instead, he suggested, increased mechanization was a more fundamental source of distress. But he lost the vote of the meeting.

1820 At the invitation of a group of Lanarkshire notables, Owen composed one of his most important works, the Report to the County of Lanark. This suggested that, in order to avoid fluctuations in the money supply, as well as the payment of unjust wages, "labour notes" representing hours of work might become a superior form of exchange. This report is sometimes regarded as the origin of modern socialism.

Later in the 1820s, his efforts were focussed on building a community in America. He purchased a township at New Harmony in southern Indiana but by late 1827 this experiment had failed.

By 1830, around 300 co-operative societies had been started across Britain.

1833-4 Owen led the first general union of all trades, the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, with the aim of achieving an 8-hour working day.

1835 Formed the "Rational Society"

Late 30s: Owen composed his most extensive work, The Book of the New Moral World. Much was spent on constructing "halls of science" where members of the Rational Society attended lectures and held soirées.

1839 A new community called Queenwood was built in Hampshire designed for 700 members of the Rational Society. This included a large building for the community, with a model kitchen with a conveyor to carry food and dishes to and from the dining room.

By 1844, after more than £40,000 had been spent, Queenwood bankrupted the Rational Society.

Owen spent his later years in travelling, to further his socialist ideas and build bridges between nations.

1858 He died at the Bear's Head Hotel, Newtown on 17 November.

Brief summary of Owen's career to 1817, in his own words

'I was born in Newtown, Montgomeryshire ; I left it, and came to London when about 10 years of age; soon after I went to Mr. James M’Guffog, of Stamford, in Lincolnshire, where I remained upwards of three years; I returned to town, and was a short time with Messrs. Flint and Palmer’s, London bridge. I went afterwards to Manchester, and was some time with Mr. John Sattersfield, whom I left, while yet a boy; to commence business on a limited scale, in making machinery and spinning cotton; part of the time in partnership with Mr. Jones, and part on my own account: afterwards I undertook to manage the spinning establishments of the late Mr. Drinkwater, of Manchester, at the latter place, and at Northwich, (in Cheshire) in which Occupation I remained 3 or 4 years; I then formed a partnership to carry on a cotton spinning Business with Messrs. Moulson and Scarth of Manchester; built the Chorlton mills, and commenced a new firm, under the designation of the Chorlton Twist Company, along with Messrs. Borradaile and Atkinson, of London, and Messrs. H. and J. Barton and Co. of Manchester.— Some time afterwards I purchased the mills and establishments at New Lanark, where I have been before the public for 18 years past, and I am now 46 years old.'[2]


1824 Reference to Robert Owen contributing to the London Mechanics Institute - presumably the same person?

See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. It is not clear this is true, as Oldknow died unmarried
  2. Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser - Wednesday 30 July 1817
  • Biography of Robert Owen, ODNB [1]
  • Robert Owen, Peter Drinkwater and the Early Factory System in Manchester, 1788-1800, by W. H. Calloner, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, Sept 1954. [2]