Robert Owen

1771 - 1858

Social reformer and entrepreneur. Born in Newtown (Montgomeryshire), in humble surroundings, Owen was a brilliant pupil of his local school and by the age of 19 was a superintendent of a textiles mill in Manchester.

Having met his future wife Caroline, daughter of banker and entrepreneur David Dale (1739 - 1806) in Glasgow, Owen arrived in the cotton-spinning village of New Lanark, with which he is most famously associated, in 1798. The following year Owen purchased New Lanark from Dale and went on to build on Dale's principles of social justice. Owen realised that good working conditions made good business sense, giving him a loyal and productive work-force. However, his partners did not share Owen's ideas wishing only to maximise their profits. Owen found new partners in London, including philosopher Jeremy Bentham, the founder of University College. Many of these new partners were Quakers and all were enthusiastic supporters of Owen's "great experiment".

Owen was therefore able to devote his life to his belief that human character was dependent on the surroundings in which it formed and therefore good housing, health and education were critical. Owen instituted progressive schooling, including the innovation of evening classes for adults, founded a savings bank, sickness fund and even paid the workforce in full during times when the mills were silent due to lack of raw materials or when they were subject to a fire. He founded the world's first day nursery and children's playground. Through the village store, Owen established the principles which led him to be regarded as the 'father' of the co-operative movement.

In 1824, Owen and his sons set sail for the USA, with the intention of building a utopian colony at New Harmony (Indiana). Despite high ideals, the experiment failed, losing Owen much of his fortune and he returned to New Lanark in 1829. Owen went on to campaign for various socialist causes and eventually died in the Welsh town in which he was born.

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