St. Mary’s Church, which dates back to the 13th century, is the burial place of Robert Owen (1771-1858), one of the great social reformers of the industrial age.
Owen was a highly influential figure in both British and international political thought. In many ways Robert Owen’s views and actions provided a fundamental challenge to the values and beliefs of the age he lived in.
He was a radical thinker, secularist, utopian socialist, communitarian, and staunch campaigner for social reform. His ideas informed early British socialism, provided building blocks for emerging ideas about class and class conflict, universal education provision, the co-operative movement, workers’ rights and the conditions of labour and the emerging trades union movement.
He was an influential figure, evidenced by the memorialisation of his life in various places. For example, the sculpture to the left should be recognisable to anyone living in Newtown. But this is not the original, which is found in Gas Street, this is a replica. It sits outside of the Cooperative Bank Headquarters in Manchester.
So what is the significance of this man from Newtown for Newtown and the wider world?
Robert Owen – Early life and influences
He was born in Newtown on 14th May 1771, the son of a local saddler. Even before he left home, at the age of ten, he began developing the views that were to define his life. Indeed some might argue much of his life’s work was informed by a reflection upon elements of the community he was born into; self-contained, co-operative, mutualistic, close to nature, and providing for him a basic school education from a young age.
For example, realising that had he been born in another country his religious beliefs would have been different led him at the age of 14 to declare that his religious feelings had been replaced “by the spirit of universal charity – not for a sect or a party, or for a country or a colour – but for the human race, and with a real and ardent desire to do them good”. This sort of insight, that where you are born, how you are brought up and how you live are the biggest factors in determining what sort of person you will be, factors over which most people have no control, is reflected in his moral philosophy and later works.
Owen left Newtown to live with his older brother in London and soon entered the drapery business, first in London and then in Manchester (which was rapidly becoming one of the centres of the global cotton industry) where he became involved in the intellectual and philanthropic life of the city. At the age of twenty-one he became an under-manager of one of the largest spinning mills in Manchester. Here he was to witness first-hand the social consequences of the Industrial Revolution.
Owen travelled to other cities, including Glasgow where he met Caroline Dale, the daughter of a mill-owner in New Lanark, Scotland. Owen proceeded to successfully negotiate for ownership of the mill and the hand of Miss Dale in marriage in 1800. The industrial village of New Lanark would become a testing ground for his theories.
Image: New Lanark, The JR James Archive, on Flickr
New Lanark and “A New View of Society”
It was at New Lanark that Owen put into practice his ideas on how society might be transformed. He set out to prove his argument that “character is formed for and not by the individual” (i.e. that the right environment would produce good, rational and humane people) and that education was the means to achieve this end. His first task was “to supercede the evil conditions with which the population was surrounded by good conditions”. New houses were built for the workers, the conditions in their workplace improved including shorter working days and establishing a Sickness Fund and free medical care, preventing children under 10 working in the mill, building a school for the children of factory workers (including what is credited as the first infants school), and a new village store. This latter used the principles of shared benefit and bulk purchasing to lower the prices paid by, and increase the quality of goods available for the workers.
A New View of Society
Owen’s experiments at New Lanark Mills were a success both financially (profits went up) and socially, becoming internationally famous with visitors from all over Europe coming to see the social experiment in action. In 1813 he began writing a series of essays setting out the principles he espoused. Drawing on his philosophy and experience as an industrialist he wrote and published “A New View of Society” in 1816, which became a rallying call for widespread social change and collective forms of social organisation and property ownership.
Owen put forward plans for “villages for the poor and unemployed” operated on principles of mutual co-operation and profit sharing. In 1825 he bought land in Indiana, USA with the intention of creating a new utopian community, New Harmony. The following year an Owenite community founded on communal ownership of property, and equal distribution of wealth was established at Orbiston, Lanarkshire, and in the 1840s he tried again at East Tytherly, Hampshire. These were not economic successes but both provided concrete examples and exercises in learning to live in radically different ways, to challenge and change the prevailing social order.
Owen’s ideas were taken up by others, leading directly to the establishment of the Co-operative movement; he was also involved in the formation of the first trade unions.
In 1858, sensing that his life was coming to an end, Owen returned to Newtown. He died there on 18th November. He was buried in St Mary’s churchyard, next to his parents, where his tomb remains.
Owen’s ideas continue to inspire millions throughout the world.
In many ways Owen’s experimentation, for all its determinist and paternalist undertones, provided the bedrock for later political and social movements that tried and try to imagine a world that works differently. His ideas and his real world social experimentation have influenced generations since his death, often reinterpreted for the times. For example in the 1960s, Jim Griffiths, the first government Minister for Wales, had a view to transform the landscape and economy of mid Wales through the building of a whole new town of 70,000 people there. This would be named “Treowen” (Owen’s town) in honour of Robert Owen. While this radical experiment never came to pass it was the cause of the expansion of Owen’s original small co-operative community, of Newtown, in the 1970s.
This blog was written from material jointly prepared by Marc Welsh of the Global-Rural project, and David Pugh of Newtown.