Robert Owen - Social reformer, 'Co-operator', and utopian visionary
Born in Wales in 1771, Robert Owen was no arm-chair agitator, but a proactive reformer for the rights of the working class. He is now lionised as a progenitor of British socialism.
By the age of 19, Owen was managing a cotton mill in Manchester after training as a draper and a cloth merchant. It was during this period that Owen set out to improve the lives of the working class. His ideas formed in tandem to his time as a member of the Manchester Lit & Phil, joining the society in 1793. It was as a member that Owen would discuss theories pertaining to the Enlightenment, with the society serving as his academic snorkel to a new world of ideas. As a result of the new wave of Enlightenment thinkers, religious orthodoxy became eclipsed by science, as thinkers sought to better society through unity, cooperation, and progress. Owen’s ears were pricked.
Robert Owen felt that if his workers were happy, then they were more productive. At his mills in New Lanark, he sought to improve the education of children as well as improving their housing conditions.
In Manchester, Owen’s statue can be found close to Victoria Station, on the corner of Corporation Street.
Owen is known to many as the ‘father of co-operation’ such was his influence on those who went on to found the modern co-operative movement such as the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers and the Co-operative Wholesale Society. Owen’s keenness to improve the education of the working classes was of great importance to the co-operative movement.
- The Co-operative Heritage Trust holds over 3000 items relating to Owen and the collection is on the Unesco UK Memory of the World Register as a collection of great significance.
- Owen’s mill at New Lanark is also recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site.
- The People's History Museum archive holds some items relating to Robert Owen.