|Robert Owen w/book, color portrait by Ebenezer Morley (1834, National Portrait Gallery)|
ROBERT OWEN 1771-1858
At the beginning of the industrial age in Great Britain, working conditions were difficult and dangerous. Small children worked alongside their parents in the factory. There were no limits on the length of the workday and no pay for workers who were sick or injured on the job. In 1799 Robert Owen purchased a cotton mill in New Lanark, Scotland. Owen planned to reshape New Lanark as an experimental industrial community. He attempted to prove that a factory could be both financially successful and humane to its workers.
Over the years, Owen instituted several changes at New Lanark that, for the time, were considered revolutionary. He instituted a minimum age limit of 10 for children working in the mill. He reduced the working day from 14 to 10 hours. He built new housing, created sick pay and established a school for his workers’ children at a time when most working class children received little or no education. The school at New Lanark is often cited as one of the first examples of universal education for young children, a precursor of today’s pre-schools and kindergartens. Visitors from as far away as Russia traveled to New Lanark to study Owen’s innovations.
In 1824 Owen came to America to invest the bulk of his fortune in an experimental 1,000-member colony on the banks of Indiana’s Wabash River, called New Harmony. Such was Owen's reputation that a joint session of Congress convened over two days – attended by outgoing President John Monroe and President-elect John Quincy Adams – to hear Owen personally present his views. A scale model of Owen's community was put on display in the White House.
|"New Harmony - All Owin' - No payin'" cartoon criticizing the community founded by Robert Owen (1843, Library of Congress)|
To coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in July 1826, Owen issued what he saw as the next step in the liberation of humankind: “The Declaration of Mental Independence.” From here forward, he proclaimed, man was free from, “the trinity of evils responsible for all the world’s misery and vice: traditional religion, conventional marriage … and private property.” New Harmony became a center for progressive thought, drawing a broad range of intellectuals from the sciences, philosophy and education. But few of the new settlers had the practical skills necessary to support a working community. In only a few short years the experiment collapsed amid disagreements.
|The New Moral World, a London weekly publication. "Rational System of Society" (1835, The New Moral World; Edmund & Ruth Frow)|
After returning to London in 1828, Owen focused on promoting his vision of what he began calling “socialism.” He published a newspaper called The New Moral World in which he advocated the reformation of human character. He developed a system of payment for cooperative communities to trade based on hours worked rather than monetary cost. As his views of a “Rational Religion” spread, Owen’s followers began meeting in “Halls of Science” to listen to sermon-like lectures and sing socialist hymns.
Throughout the remainder of his life, Owen became one of the leaders of Britain’s growing labor movement.
For more information, read interviews with:
Author, Blood, Class and Empire: The Enduring Anglo-American Relationship
Gareth Stedman Jones
University of Cambridge
Author, Languages of Class: Studies in English Working Class History 1832-1982