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Emlyn Davies; Robert Owen (English)

(June 01, 2017)


 Newtown’s unparalleled social reformer
Robert Owen (1771 – 1858)

Robert Owen - portrait by William Henry Brooke in the National Gallery, London, England
Robert Owen
portrait by William Henry Brooke, 1834
oil on canvas, 273 mm x 216 mm
in the National Portrait Gallery, London, England

Quite often, Welsh people tend to repeat the old cliché that, as a nation, we have been rather reluctant to venture into business. I cannot understand the source of this assumption, since one can easily think of several people who have been successful in the world of industry and commerce.

This article features one of these entrepreneurs who was also a renowned benefactor, and one who was particularly unique in that he succeeded as a businessman while adhering to his principles as a social reformer and socialist cooperative. This is what makes Robert Owen such an unusual phenomenon as one of the most influential thinkers of his time. He was born in Newtown in Montgomeryshire, and although he spent his working life in England and in Scotland, he chose to return to his roots at the end of his life. Today, the residents of Newtown are more than happy to claim him as one of their own as they celebrate his life.

He was the son of a saddler and ironmonger but when he was ten years old he was sent to Stamford in Lincolnshire to be apprenticed as a draper. He remained there for three years before taking up a position in a fashionable London shop, and then, in 1787, at the age of sixteen, he moved to Manchester to work for a cloth manufacturer.

Robert Owen developed a keen interest in the history of Richard Arkwright (1732 - 1792), an industrialist who lived in Cromford, Derbyshire, and who won the accolade 'Father of the Industrial Revolution' due to his enterprising spirit in business. Arkwright succeeded to revolutionise the way in which machines work by adapting them to operate with water power, and this led to the creation of factories as we know them today. His great achievement was the innovative approach which combined a number of factors, such as using water power, purpose built water frames, employing a semi-skilled workforce and introducing cotton, a fairly new raw material, which facilitated the mass production of yarn and thread.

Syr Richard Arkwright, portread gan Mather Brown
Sir Richard Arkwright, portrait by Mather Brown
oil on canvas, 127.95 × 102.55 cm
Image: New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, Conneticut, USA
Source: The Athenaeum

Richard Arkwright was particularly keen to attract families with a large number of children to settle in Cromford, and he offered employment to the children as well as the parents. Children as young as seven were taken on to work in the mill, although this later changed to ten years old. He employed 1,500 people by the time he retired, and almost a thousand of these were children, equating to two thirds of the workforce. He allowed a week’s holiday every year, as long as the workers did not leave the town.

Robert Owen came to admire Arkwright’s enterprise greatly, and although he was only nineteen years old himself, he borrowed one hundred pounds to establish a similar business, entering into a joint venture with his friend, John Jones, producing spinning machines. Although the initiative was short-lived, Robert Owen had gained enough experience to secure a position as manager of the largest spinning mill in Manchester, which belonged to Peter Drinkwater. This allowed him to become acquainted with a great number of businessmen who were prominent in the textile industry, and among them was a man named David Dale, owner of the Chorton Twist company at New Lanark, on the River Clyde in Scotland. They became good friends, and indeed Owen eventually married Robert Dale’s daughter, Caroline.

The next step was to buy four textile factories in New Lanark from David Dale for the sum of £60,000, and he received financial backing from a number of businessmen in Manchester to enable him to realise the sale. The business grew rapidly, but Robert Owen had an ambitious dream beyond making a profit, as he wanted to create a pleasant environment for his employees. He held strong beliefs in mankind’s inherent goodness, but argued that environment often creates bad people. And that's why he decided to prohibit all corporal punishment from schools and factories in New Lanark.


CartrefRobert Owen yn New Lanark – Llun: Gordon Brown
Cartref Robert Owen yn New Lanark
Llun: Gordon Brown

Working in Manchester had been a revelation to him because the conditions were so bad there, and factory owners took advantage of children, which made them grow up to become bitter adults.

When Robert Owen arrived in New Lanark, there were two thousand people living there already, and hundreds of houses had been built in the village close to the factory. But the first thing he did was to build a new school, where he insisted that disciplines such as dance, music and natural history were included in the curriculum. In his opinion, education was the key to creating the kind of person he wanted to see in the local society. He opened a shop where workers could buy high quality goods at reasonable prices.

His reputation as a visionary spread all over the world, with people from far and wide visiting the mills to see for themselves what he had achieved, and these visitors included even the Russian Tsar. Robert Owen’s socialism differed from the usual idea because the element of social justice featured so strongly, with the emphasis on practical application for the sake of the labourers.

One of Robert Owen’s most staunch supporters was the journalist and author George Holyoake (1817-1906), an atheist and steadfast socialist. He was a most interesting character, describing himself as ‘a secularist and co-operator’. It’s worth noting that he coined the term ‘secularism’ and was also the first to introduce the term ‘jingoism’ to the English language. He edited several newspapers during his career, each one taking a secular standpoint. The most famous were probably The Reasoner, and The English Leader.

George Jacob Holyoake
George Jacob Holyoake

Holyoake had failed to secure a teaching post because of his political and religious beliefs, and he became a social missionary to expound Robert Owen’s vision, being based in Gloucester and later in Sheffield. As it happens, he was the last person in the British Isles to be prosecuted for blasphemy following a speech delivered in Cheltenham, and he was subsequently jailed for six months.

George Holyoake was convinced that Robert Owen was the founder of the social revival in the same way as Thomas Paine was the founder of political thought among the people of England. In his view, Owen had managed to prove that society could be improved by creating a just and moral environment. Although several people held similar views, it was Robert Owen who succeeded to turn the dream into reality in a practical manner. He believed passionately in offering fair, favourable conditions to his workers, and his ambition was to develop cities which would be self-sufficient, renowned for their pleasant environment, with machinery doing all the hard, dirty work, while the residents would enjoy themselves pursuing educational and cultural activities. According to Owen, people should be working for themselves, and the fruits of their labour should also belong to them. That was the crux of his vision, and he saw no reason why it should not be practically possible.

Throughout his life, Robert Owen campaigned for better working conditions, and he published a volume entitled A New View of Society (1813) which outlined his dream in great detail. In 1824 he tried to establish a community similar to New Lanark in Indiana, called New Harmony, and although this experiment was not as successful, his ideas had substantial influence. Even today, he is recognised as the leading pioneer in reforming factories, and as the father of the co-operative movement. We could also add that he was the founder of the first nursery schools for the children of factory workers.

It was his astuteness that led to establishing the first co-operative shop in Rochdale in 1844, a venture that blossomed into the co-operative movement which spread all over the world.

Cofgolofn Robert Owen ym Manceinion – Llun: Mike Peel
A statue of Robert Owen in Manchester, England
Image: Mike Peel

Owen wanted to spend his final years in his old childhood haunts, and so in 1858 he settled in Newtown, but sadly he died within a few months. Today, we still remember him as someone who achieved so much to reform conditions in the factories, and to secure a good education for all. It is no wonder that he is often called an Utopian Socialist. There is little doubt that he was a giant among men in his own time, and one wonders whether we as Welsh people really appreciate his achievements.

Beddrod Robert Owen yn Y Drenewydd – Llun: Penny Mayes
Tomb of Robert Owen in Newtown, Powys
Image: Penny Mayes

He was buried in Newtown, but a memorial was erected to honour him in Kensal Green Cemetery in London, adjacent to the famous memorial to the great reformers throughout history. 

Cofeb Robert Owen ym Mynwent Kensal Green – Llun: Edward HandsRobert Owen memorial,
Kensal Green Cemetary, London, England
 Image: Edward Hands

On Robert Owen’s memorial we see the inscription “His life was sanctified by human affection and lofty effort." They are apt words to say the least, and a fitting tribute summarising the life and dream of one whose contribution we can be so proud.

Emlyn Davies, June 2017

If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy these by Emlyn Davies:

If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy these by Emlyn Davies:

If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy these by Emlyn Davies:

     Canon William Evans; September 2017
Ynysyfelin; a lost community; March 2017
Laura Ashley; December 2016
Adelina Patti, September 2016
Billy Hughes; June 2016
Coed y Bleiddiau; March 2016
Betsi Cadwaladr; December 2015
Sir Thomas Artemus Jones; September 2015
The two redheads; June 2015
cylchgrawn Cymru Culture magazine
Published by/Cyhoeddwyd gan: Caregos Cyf., 2017

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