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wo hundred and fifty years ago, one of the UK’s most enlightened and pioneering social reformers was born. The changes he implemented in his mills grew into a movement that many of us see on our high streets today.
Robert Owen was born into humble beginnings on 14th May 1771, in Newtown, Powys, a few miles from the English border. He was the second youngest of seven and went to school from the age of four, where he flourished.

Three years later, his teacher, Mr Thickens, appointed him as his assistant and usher, keeping him at school for two years longer than any of his peers.

During this time, he read widely, a habit that continued into his later life.
Aged ten, he travelled by coach, alone, from Shrewsbury to London to join his older brother’s saddler’s business. He was only there five weeks, when a friend of his father’s secured him a job in a drapery in Stamford, Lincolnshire, owned by a Mr James McGuffog. This gave Owen free use of McGuffog’s substantial library, allowing him to further broaden his reading, sometimes up to five hours a day.

Nine years later, he secured a job in Manchester, working in a cotton mill, where he kept the accounts, and looked after the labourers. He realised that a good moral and physical environment for his labourers created a productive workforce. This gained him the reputation of running a tight but fair workplace.

Newtown, where Owen was born and died. © Simon Whaley

Barely twelve months later, Owen joined Mr Drinkwater of Bank Top Mill in Manchester, to manage his mill and five hundred workers of men, women and children. He also joined the Manchester Board of Health, focussing on improving factory conditions for all workers in the city.

Later, Owen went into partnership with two other Mancunian cotton manufacturers, and in 1797 they bought the New Lanark Mills on the Clyde. When Owen saw the mills and the labourers’ housing, he knew this was the place for him. “Of all places I have yet seen, I should prefer this in which to try an experiment I have long contemplated.”

The labourers’ accommodation was poor, many of the workers were lazy, dishonest, regularly drunk, and frequently caught stealing. He knew that by taking better care of his workers, of which there were 1,300 and some 500 pauper children, he could make the mills more profitable and productive.

“I determined, therefore, that no more pauper children should be received; that the village houses and streets should be improved, and new and better houses erected to receive new families in place of the pauper children; and that the interior of the mills should be rearranged, and the old machinery replaced by new.”

Ironically, the labourers were sceptical of Owen’s intentions and obstructed his changes at every opportunity. This changed in 1806, when America banned all cotton exports. Faced with no raw materials, Owen had a stark choice.

“To proceed in our operations was most hazardous,” he wrote. “To discharge the work people would be cruel and unjust. I therefore concluded to stop all the machinery, retain the people, and continue to pay them their full wages.”
Unsurprisingly, recieving full pay without having to work changed their minds about Owen and his plans.

Traditionally, in mills across the country, labourers were paid in tokens, not cash. Called the truck system, these tokens had no value outside the mill and could only be redeemed for expensive goods purchased from the mill’s stores. These stored were also owned by the mill owner.

Owen changed this at New Lanark.

“I arranged superior stores and shops, from which to supply every article of food, clothing, etc. which they required. I bought everything in the first markets on a large scale and had articles of the best quality supplied to the people at cost price. This saved them a full twenty-five percent.”

Owen’s idea of buying goods at wholesale and selling them at a slightly higher, but affordable, price inspired the co-operative retail movement we know today.

As Owen noted, “The effects soon became visible in their improved health and superior dress, and in the general comfort of their houses.”

He created nurseries children could attend as soon as they could walk. This freed the mothers to return to work. “The children were trained and educated without punishment, and were by far the happiest human beings I have ever seen,” Owen commented.

He instituted evening classes for his adult workers, and soon, industrialists from all over the world visited New Lanark to see Owen’s ideals and beliefs in action.

The Robert Owen Museum, Newtown, Wales — © Simon Whaley

Over the next ten years, Owen pushed the Government to implement his idea of an eight-hour day, recommending “eight hours’ labour, eight hours recreation and eight hours’ rest” for all workers. Alas, he was a little ahead of his time.

Buoyed up by his co-operative approach to work and living, he travelled to America and established a co-operative community called New Harmony. Unfortunately, despite attracting over a thousand people, it failed economically after two years.

Owen returned to the UK and during the 1830s continued to support workers’ rights. In 1833, he briefly headed the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union, an organisation that secured half a million members during its first two weeks of existence.

But in 1858, with poor health, Owen returned to Newtown. He knew he was dying and wanted to “lay my bones whence I derived them.” He died at Newtown’s Bear Hotel on 17th November, aged 87, and was buried in St Mary’s churchyard alongside his parents.

Robert Owen’s Grave, St Mary’s Churchyard, Newtown, Wales — © Simon Whaley

Newtown is proud of its pioneering son. There’s a statue to him in Shortbridge Street, and in the centre of town stands a fascinating museum dedicated to Owen and his efforts.

And, in recognition of the man respected as the father of the co-operative movement, a copy of his Newtown statue stands outside the headquarters of the Co-operative Bank in Manchester.

Not bad for the sixth child of a saddler from the Welsh Borders.

For more information about Robert Owen, visit the Robert Owen Museum in Newtown, Wales.

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