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'Robert Owen was the only Welshman I ever knew who did not think Wales the world ...'

                                                                                          G.J.Holyoake: History of Co-operation

Owen's grave in Newtown, Powys


Robert Owen, the factory manager who could be regarded as the first British theorist of socialism, was born in Newtown, a sleepy village in the centre of Wales. Both his parents were Welsh. But he left Wales at the age of ten and seems to have shown no interest in it for the rest of his very active life. In 1817, at the height of his fame, an old friend from his childhood, Rev James Donne, headmaster of Oswestry school, wrote to say that he had compiled his genealogy. According to his son, Robert Dale Owen, he showed no interest in it. At the end of his life, however, at the age of 87, he asked to return to Newtown and that is where he died and was buried.

There is something a little mysterious in his attitude to his origins. The main source is his own Autobiography. There he shows an idyllic childhood in which his own remarkable talents are recognised and indulged from the age of seven, when his schoolmaster, who rejoiced in the name of Mr Thickness, recognised that he had nothing more to teach him and made him his assistant. But he soon felt that that was not sufficiently challenging and went to work in a shop. He read voraciously and by the age of ten, always following his own account, he was convinced that, given the differences between all the world's leading religions, none of them could be true. By the age of nine he wanted to seek his fortune in the wider world but, out of deference to the wishes of his parents, put it off for another year, after which he left with 40 shillings in his pocket, going to his brother's house in London. 

He did return to Newtown at least once in his later life, around 1820. Robert Dale Owen gives us his impressions:

'I remember well how my father mourned the change which, after forty years absence, he found in his native place, Newtown. It lived in his recollection humble and homely in its ways, but cheerful and carefree also. No factory bell calling little children from their beds at daybreak. Village ways and village freedom. On those days they had taken all things easily. Saturday was by common usage a holiday, when half the population, young and old, had been wont to gather on the public green to watch the good old game of fives (now crowded out by more ambitious novelties), played against the high and wide blank wall of some public building hard by. But with the lapse of years there came a shadow over the place. He found it a busy, bustling, manufacturing town, producing beautifully figured Welsh flannels; but no holidays, no village games, no childhood life of glee; wealthier no doubt by statistical returns; for census takers do not register content, nor freedom, nor rural mirth.' (p.311).

Here Newtown seems to resemble the ideal villages which Owen had begun to advocate and which he would soon try to establish in America, as if a good deal of nostalgia was mixed into his life's work. Yet once he left his brother - to work for a linen draper in Stamford, Lincolnshire - this seems to have been his only contact with home until his death. In particular he seems to have broken off all contact with his family. The doctrine he later worked out and promoted over many years included a radical denial of the importance of heredity in the formation of human character, a system of education which encouraged the separation of children from their parents at the earliest possible age, and a fervent opposition to the institution of marriage - at least to marriage considered as an indissoluble religious sacrament. All of which would suggest the idea of an unhappy childhood.

In one respect, however, his childhood experience was certainly important for his later achievements. He tells us that he was a very good dancer.


Owen's life can be easily divided into two parts, though they overlap in time. In the first he was a practical businessman, advancing from one successful undertaking to another; in the second he was a prophet, presiding over a succession of failed experiments but nonetheless inspiring thousands of people with the vision of a much better system of social organisation that could be obtained easily and without violence.

The first, financially successful, part of his career sees him progressing from assistant shopkeeper to small manufacturer, to manager of a large factory in Manchester employing some 500 workers, until, in 1797, he took control of the great New Lanark spinning mill, near Glasgow, reputedly the largest factory of its day.

The story coincides with huge increases in the productive power of the cotton spinning industry due to the introduction of a series of machines able to take over different stages of the process - the 'jenny', which enabled a single wheel to power several spindles; the 'frame', which could group and twist the threads together to give the desired thickness and strength; and the 'mule', which combined the two processes in a single machine. Owen was not himself one of the great technical innovators though as manager of the mills owned by Peter Drinkwater in Manchester, he was the first to use 'Sea Island cotton'. This was a variety of cotton which grew in Jamaica and the Caribbean which could be cleaned more easily and therefore in greater quantities more quickly than the cotton produced in the southern states of North America. The advantage was soon lost through the invention of the 'cotton gin' which automated the process of separating freshly picked cotton from its impurities.

Owen had been introduced to Sea Island cotton by a broker named Robert Spear, who also introduced him to Caroline Dale, daughter of David Dale in Glasgow, founder of the New Lanark mills. Robert soon married Caroline and bought the mills from her father.