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The story of Robert Owen (1771 to 1858)

by Rita B. Jones D.S.N.U.

As Spiritualists we talk about Emma Hardinge Britten with Robert Owen giving us the 7 Principles but who was he and what was he like?  I like to study our pioneers and thought you would also like to know about Robert Owen.

He was born on 17th May 1771 in Newtown Wales, a small market town. He was the 6th of 7 children. Two died young. When he went to school his teacher said Robert learnt very quickly and by the age of 7 he was visiting the library to read many books by physicists, lawyers and clergymen. He must have taken after his Father as he was a saddler, postman ironmonger and was also a general advisor to people who would come to him for guidance.

Robert was a quick learner by the time he was 8 he was teaching the younger children how to read and his teacher used him as a pupil teacher. In the town 3 ladies called him the little person, as he would go to their house to read as many books on religion. He eventually thought Religion was a mistake. Beside that he was good at sports, sang, played the clarinet and liked country dancing. His dislikes were prizes for anything as he said it made the loser unhappy. He also would work in the shop. All this in two years then on his 10th birthday his Father gave him £2 and a stage coach ticket to London from Shrewsbury to stay with his elder Brother. Within 6 weeks he had a job in Stamford in Lincolnshire. A child getting a job at the age of 10 is unheard of today.


After staying with his elder brother for 6 weeks he heard of a job in Stamford in Lincolnshire. He went to work in a high class linen drapery store with the owner Mr McGuffogs and this was the making of him. Mr McGuffogs treated him as one of the family, giving him good quarters and plenty of leisure time. He also taught him much about the finer points of the trade and his employer had a very good library which he could read and learn from. Robert could in fact have had a pleasant remunerative career in Stamford but he was ambitious and wanted to widen his experiences so after three years he left. He was now 13 years old.


He was given an excellent reference by Mr McGuffogs to be an assistant in an up-and-coming drapery firm called Flint and Palmer on London bridge. This was a busy establishment selling at small profit for quick cash. The assistants, boys and girls, would work from 8am when opened with a continuous stream of customers. The staff would snatch a meal when they could as it didn't close until 10pm, after which the assistants would spend up to three hours cleaning and stocking up for the next day.


This experience for Robert Owen lasted for the next two years. At 15 years of age he then heard of a post in Manchester with a draper called Mr Satterfield, as the Americans called Manchester boom town. Robert Owen with his references went to work for Mr Satterfield and this is where his business career really began. No young person at that age worked in a factory producing cotton goods and cotton yarn which followed the greatest invention and fortunes were being made at this time. By the time Robert was 18 years old.


At 18 his early experiences had left him trained as a careful book keeper and with the knowledge of various branches of both the wholesale and retail trade. He understood fabrics and textiles but not people. As he made the acquaintance of a young mechanic, Ernest Jones, Robert entered his first business in a 50% partnership with Ernest Jones, having borrowed £100 from his elder brother to manufacture spinning mules. These were cotton spinning machines which was invented by Samuel Crompton, combining the best features of Arkwrights water frame and the Hargreaves spinning jenny. The business lasted only a few months as Robert didn't know anything about cotton spinning. Ernest Jones walked away with his share of the business and Robert met two young Scots, McConnell and Kennedy.


Robert had a warehouse and 3 mule spinning machines, 40 workers and no capital. However during the few weeks of their association he had employed his time effectively and looked at what men in different department were doing as well as keeping all the books and accounts himself. He was able to continue his business for a year and was netting a clear £6 a week profit. Then he saw in a newspaper an advertisement from Mr Drinkwater, a merchant manufacturer, a post of Manager. Robert already had the warehouse experience and he applied for the job but he asked for a salary of £100 a year. He wouldn't take less as he was already making that with his own business. Mr Drinkwater saw him as a pink faced lad of barely 20 but convinced himself he was capable and engaged Robert for the salary he had asked for.


Satisfied with providing the references from his previous employer he got the job it was before his 20th birthday and found himself in charge of 500 workers. He was responsible for the whole operation from buying the raw cotton to manufacturing the fine yarn. In Mr Drinkwaters employment he was a mere boy who was managing his mills. Robert was a great success and even improved the quality of the yarn. He was the first manufacture to introduce Sea Island cotton which is considered the best even today. Robert started to improve working conditions and his reputation began to spread beyond Manchester.


He had come a long way from working with McGuffog when he left Mr Drinkwater at 22. A company called Charlton Twist Company which was formed by the established businesses Barradaile and Atkinson of London and Barta of Manchester. He joined the Company and represented the partnership on many business trips also going to Glasgow. By this time Robert was a master cotton spinner and of good reputation. He began to be invited to different societies such as the Manchester Literary and Philosophy Society and to join the Board of Health.


He met people such as John Dalton the inventor of atomic theory the best known scientists, technologists and the American pioneer of the Steamboat Navigation Robert Fulton. He met Thomas Paine who is mentioned in the Lyceum Manual.


Robert's income grew very fast and he was able to buy a fairly large house instead of being in lodgings. He also started to travel extensively for the Company.  


For the Charlton Twist Company he went on many business trips to Glasgow with a friend who had a Sister, who lived in Glasgow. She introduced Robert to Caroline Dale whose Father David Dale was a prominent banker and industrialist in the New Lanark cotton mills. Caroline was sufficiently taken with Robert and in conversation asked if he would like to see her Father's mill in New Lanark. Robert was generally shy of ladies but jumped at the invitation to see the factory as he had heard this was generally held to be a model of its kind.


When Robert went to see it he did not share her enthusiasm as the mill was ran by James Dale, half Brother to David Dale who was growing old and with no Son. He was getting less vigorous in attending to it's affairs. Robert was between 25 and 26 by then and the friendship with Caroline grew into a romance despite him being unsuitable as he was Welsh, not a Scot nor a member of the Church. But gradually he won David Dale's affection and respect and was able with his Manchester partners to buy the four textile factories in New Lanark for £60,000. This came under his control in 1799 and in the same year he married Caroline and went to live in New Lanark.


Robert replaced James Dale with Robert Humphries as working Manager whom he knew from Bank Top Mill. From then cost and quality were closely controlled and wages and time-keeping were monitored efficiently. His approach to stock control, supervision, absenteeism and persistent drunkenness earned Robert a reputation. However his methods paid off and made his business more profitable expanding into new markets and abroad. Robert was managing Mills and in charge with his business partners.


In 1807 he came to terms with a group of wealthy philanthropists including Jeremy Benthan the philosopher and William Allen the Quaker who were prepared to give him a free hand and only required 5% return on their capital.


In the meantime Robert and Caroline's Child was born. The first-born died in infancy but they went on to have 7 more childern; 4 Sons and 3 Daughters. First in 1801 Robert Dale Owen, 1802 William, 1805 Anne Caroline, 1805 Jane Dale, 1807 David, 1809 Richard Dale and 1810 Mary. Their childhood was spent in New Lanark.


Caroline was a loving wife and mother and the marriage was a happy one despite their religious differences. Like her father Caroline had a deep Christian faith and prayed that Robert would convert but he believed all religious sects to be fudamentally wrong and a source of conflict in society. However he never interfered with his wife's religious instruction of their children.


The Chiltern Twist Company expanded rapidly but Robert was not only concerned only with making money. He was also interested in creating a new type of community in New Lanark. He believed that a person's character is formed by the effect of their environment and was convinced that if he created the right environment he could produce rational, good and human people.

Robert argued that people were naturally good but they were corrupted by the harsh way they were treated so he set about changing conditions in New Lanark to support his belief in the factory by refusing to employ children under the age of 10. He restructured the organisation so as to minimise pilfering and he apposed a physical punishment in the factory. Instead he introduced fines and dismissals.


David Dale Owen originally built a large number of houses close to his factory in New Lanark. By the time Robert arrived there was a total of 2000 people and they called it The Village. He was then the new owner and as there were children at the age of 5 working this is were he stopped them as they were working 15 hours a day. He built a school as Robert was convinced that education was critically important to the development the type of person he wanted.

The first school was a nursery and an infants schools. Then a school was provided for the older children to attend part of the day. Robert set about changing the conditions in New Lanark to support of his beliefs. Outside the factory were he went to Glasgow to look for 50 orphan children from the age of 10 to be employed in the factory and he clothed them.


Robert shortened the hours to ten working hours a day and abolished all punishment but for fines. The Village was called The Community and with clean pavements and streets he built additional rooms for workers and one room houses. Shopkeepers replaced their wares with good coal, clothes and pure food which he bought in bulk and he even persuaded the Villagers to try buying collectively. He did this realising initially they thought his motives suspect and it was 1806 before he gained their complete confidence by paying full wages.


Robert's interest was however mostly in the children. He believed that the character of men, women and children depended on education and he built more schools to take in children from outlining Districts that could walk to school. The schools were then used all day and evening classes provided for the community on all subjects.


We think of schools today as Robert did over 180 years ago. Roberts father-in-law David Dale even started a school in 1790. It was a well structured system at the time.


To continue reading about the life and work of Robert Owen please click... here


To view the photographs taken at the Robert Owen Memorial please click... here


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