Robert Owen was a Welsh social reformer and one of the founders of utopian socialism and the cooperative movement. Owen's philosophy was based on three intellectual pillars: First, no one was responsible for his will and his own actions because his whole character is formed independently of himself. Second, all religions have the same base: a man is a weak creature. Third, support for the putting-out system instead of the factory system.
Robert Owen was born in Newtown, a small market town in Montgomeryshire, Mid Wales. Here young Owen received almost all his school education, which ended at the age of ten. From a very early age Robert Owen was a great reader of books often sourced by borrowing from educated people in the town. His abilities were such that at age seven he was entrusted with a role as "usher" (assistant master) in the local school. He also excelled at sports and took an interest in music.
He quickly found his feet in the burgeoning textile city and was soon a master cotton spinner. Although far from wealthy, he made such an impact on the town's society that in 1793 he was elected to the prestigious and influential Literary and Philosophical Society, and it was here that his ideas on social reform began to take shape.
Three years later, he joined other Manchester entrepreneurs in forming the Chorlton Twist Company, and in 1799 he moved North to manage David Dale's New Lanark Mills, which the Manchester firm had bought out.
Owen knew from instinct and experience that workers responded more positively to consideration and kindess than to cruelty, and now he began to put into practice his reforming ideas. He built a model community with quality housing for his workers, a school, a day nursery for pre-school children, a playground, evening classes for adults and a shop which was the forerunner of the co-operative retail movement.
Owen's A New View of Society was published in 1813, and in it he expounded his theory that environment had a major influence on character, and berated the church for failing to fight against the evils of capitalism.
By 1816, Owen had opened the New Lanark community's Institute for the Formation of Character, which served variously as a school, religious meeting place, dance hall and community centre - another step, he considered, towards his dream of a classless society.
The following year, he outlined his plans for "co-operative villages", where residents would live and work in harmony in a "new moral commonwealth." Such towns, he claimed, "are the abode of vice, crime and misery, while the proposed villages will ever be the abode of abundance, active intelligence, correct conduct and happiness."
Although the Government rejected his appeal for financial help, Owen did go on to form several "Owenite" co-operative communities, including one at New Harmony, Indiana, in 1825 and others at Orbiston near Glasgow the following year,
Ralakine in County Cork in 1831 and Queenswood, Hampshire, in 1839.
None of the communities was a success, however, New Harmony lasting only three years.
The New Lanark complex eventually fell into decline, but recent work has restored it and it is now open to visitors.
A New View Of Society, Essays on the Formation of Human Character. London.
Observations on the Effect of the Manufacturing System. 2nd edn, London.
Report to the Committee for the Relief of the Manufacturing Poor. In The Life of Robert Owen written by Himself, 2 vols, London
The Revolution in the Mind and Practice of the Human Race. London.
Owen's philosophy was based on three intellectual pillars: First, no one was responsible for his will and his own actions because his whole character is formed independently of himself; people are products of their heredity and environment, hence his support for education and labour reform. Second, all religions are based on the same ridiculous imagination, that make man a weak, imbecile animal; a furious bigot and fanatic; or a miserable hypocrite; (though in his later years he embraced Spiritualism). Third, support for the putting-out system instead of the factory system.