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The story of Robert Owen (1771 to 1858)

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

(continued)  How Robert Owen changed his thoughts on education...

Robert said it should be natural and spontaneous. A child should enjoy also learning from books but the children should learn from free discussions, questions and answers, to explore and study the countryside, extensive provisions of pictures, maps and charts which is called visual aid today. The teacher always answering any questions promptly in good temper and truthfully. Robert didn’t believe in sitting children in tidy rows, but let them roam freely, to learn to sing, dance and make music. He forbade punishment or harsh critical words.

The New Lanark schools were an enormous success. He published two essays on the formation of character. The schools had visitors from Princes, Ministers and Philosophers as well as hard-headed business-men who came to look at the school and factory village. As Robert’s seven children grew up they were encouraged to be involved with the life of the community, especially the village schools. Robert's oldest son, Robert Dale Owen, accompanied his father on his travels around the country as well as inspecting his own mills. He was left in charge when his father was away.


From 1913 things began to change however. His business partners were unhappy about so much money being spent on schools and Robert's style of management came to a head. Robert advertised the mills for sale and his discontented partners hoped to buy him out. Robert had written a pamphlet entitled a statement regarding the New Lanark in 1812, successfully attracting some new investors who were sympathetic with his ideas and came on board on the 31st December 1813.

His new partners were Michael Gibbs, Jeremy Benthan, William Allen, John Walker, Joseph Foster and Joseph Fox. Some were members of the Society of Friends while Jeremy Bentham was a well known Utilitarian philosopher. They all agreed to take only a 5% return and the surplus profit was for the further of education and provisions of medical care and other community benefits.

On 1st January 1816 Robert opened a new building called the Institution for the Formation of Character. It was a Community Centre for the discussion, entertainment and enjoyment of leisure, for the young and old. Hopefully it would assist the transformation of society into co-operative living.   


With his new partners in 1813 the income of the factory dropped owing to the Napoleonic wars. The French trade which had bought cloth, leather, food and arms for soldiers had died and unemployment came about. But Robert was a successful business-man and made his own factory tolerable and his village was a happy place.


Robert started his travels to London and he suggested to the Government they reduce the import duties on raw cotton. Other employers supported him enthusiastically and drafted a bill to also forbid employment of children under the age of 10 and limit the hours of work, prohibiting night work. To enforce this Inspectors were appointed by a Justice of the Peace.


During the next three years Robert wrote several books sending details proposals to Parliament about his ideas on factory reform. This resulted in Robert appearing before Robert Peel and the House of Commons. Robert returned to New Lanark and it was reported in the Glasgow Herald that the villagers welcomed him back with bands and a cheerful crowd welcomed him home to build an institution which took one year. It was opened on the 1st January 1816 so that people were able to dance, sing and learn other activities for the community.


By April 1816 Robert toured the country making speeches of his experiment at New Lanark. He published his speeches in pamphlets sending free copies to influencial people. In Britain he spent £4,000 publicising his speeches. Robert also wanted to create a new moral world without bitterness or division. Religion would be his biggest critic and the Church of England upset reformers such as William Wilberforce and William Cobbett. Robert responded by turning to Parliament to bring in the Poor Law Act which was used to fight the cotton employer's abuses tooth and nail.


Robert had taken the humanitarian line that employers should pay attention to the physical conditions of the people that worked for them. Children were working in factories standing 12 hours a day and breathing in cotton fluff. Robert's youngest son was suffering nightmares about the conditions and had to be withdrawn from the factory.


Robert was very disappointed by the weakness of the laws. By 1819 he introduced his own regime in New Lanark which was far in advance of the Factory Act. He had opposed corporal punishment as a means of discipline at work and instead he introduced a four side block of wood which was hung at each work place and turned each day by the superintendent of each department to show how well the workers had behaved. But all the workers had the right to appeal. He called them black silent monitors in his autobiography and wrote that one of these was suspended in a conspicuous place near to each of the persons employed. The colour at the front told the conduct of the individual during the preceding day with four degrees of comparison. Bad was depicted by Black and Number 4, Indifferent by Blue and Number 3, Good by Yellow and Number 2 and Excellent by White and Number 1. Books of character were provided for each department to mark by the number of daily conduct.

Robert Owen’s spacious classrooms were colourful with maps and bright pictures of animals. He even devised a special school uniform at the New Lanark Mills. For the girls it was a toga garment of white cotton at knee length and for the boys it was ankle length. For the girls this was for dancing and physical exercise. Later the boys wore kilts. Robert was more into physical welfare at the institution and he constructed a bathing machine which was installed so the children could bathe and change three times a week. The expenses for books at the institution was 4 Guineas and he paid £400 towards the cost of childrens and adults hair cuts.

Robert encouraged families to leave their children at the school until they were age 12 but also provided evening classes for the adults. He organised the first school playground for children.

Robert had been to Newgate Prison in the company of Quaker Philanthropist Mrs Elizabeth Fry to see her work in a female prison. Robert was invited onto a committee headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was there for the business of society to recognise its institutions.

Robert presented a plan for dealing with the Poor Law setting up different districts in Scotland. What he called a village of co-operation under the plan. Rather like New Lanark it would be built upon intensive agriculture carried out by the best economic methods and would have schools, church community buildings with communal heating and kitchens to provide public responsibility for conditions both living for all. The members of the committee were somewhat concerned but decided to put Robert's proposals to the House of Commons. This was also considered with the Poor Law as Robert's friend was Henry Brougham, the future Lord Chancellor.

For two days Robert heard nothing so he went and held a meeting at the City of London Tavern and spent money for 30,000 copies of his plan to leading Newspapers. He also sent news to leading persons by stage-coach of his original plan. People who turned up were a number of critics, not only orthodox politicians and rationalists, who wanted to reform Parliament.

Robert handled this opposition body even though this exposition lost him the support of the Bishops but in the Times Newspaper favourable news was spreading far and wide.

His idea of paying the right wages so that they could buy technology to provide the employment necessary to build roads, bridges and a proper national centre for people as he had in New Lanark. He thought it was common-sense. Robert stated if men and women were educated this brought happy living and that reprimanding punishment was not only cruel but stupid because conduct was caused by bad upbringing and bad surroundings.

After the meeting in London Robert was invited to France as a guest of the French Academy. He set off with an introduction from the Duke of Kent, Father of Queen Victoria and travelled into France with his idea. They called Mr Owen's plan the 19 principles.

Robert's plan of 19 rules for New Lanark was one that parents be answerable for the conduct of their children in their households and even their lodger, every man and woman was capable of working in some legal and useful employment. Robert was often accused of a disbelief of religion so he wrote there are a very great variety of religious sects in the world and they are all equal.

Before long Robert Owen’s plan ran into trouble with his latest partners particularly with William Allen the Quaker, beginning to have severe doubts about the whole adventure not on financial grounds, and not because they were greedy men, but due to rumours of concern about Robert’s casual freedom in the schools.

William Allen was requested to give an address on Christianity and at his visit Robert had a Bible put at his bedside. Robert was away often from New Lanark and he wasn’t paying enough attention to it's affairs so William Allen and two other partners presented Robert with an ultimatum. He must dismiss some of the teachers and bring in more orthodox instructors to be heads of the schools. Dancing must no longer be taught and music only in form of Psalms and Scriptures was to be a regulated part. All males at the age of 6 should wear trousers. This was an accusation that Robert was an agnostic to Religion.

Roberts rule 18 ran as follows...

That as there are a very great variety of religious sects in the world, which are probably adapted to different constitutions under different circumstances, seeing there are many good and conscientious characters in each, it is particularly recommend as a means of uniting the inhabitants of the village into one family. That while each faithfully adheres to the principles which he most approved at the same time all shall be charitable to their neighbour's and show respect towards their religious opinions and not presumptuously suppose that theirs alone are right.

I have put this in full as there are more that could be put as at this time. Robert provided free medical care which was undertaken by a qualified Surgeon employed by the Company and each worker contributed six pence of their wages to a sick fund and was able to draw payment if unable to work. A register of births, deaths and marriages for the village was also kept. The original ledger, which runs from 1815 to 1855, is in the Glasgow University Archives.

Despite extensive campaigning lecturing and publication of pamphlets Robert failed to persuade other manufacturers to shorten working hours and to do away with child labour. He believed that improving conditions could still result in a profitable business.

Robert was getting so unpopular with his outspoken opposition towards organised religion but he couldn’t do anything about it as he was not in full control of his finances. In 1825 he sold the mills at New Lanark to Charles and Henry Walker the sons of one of his Quaker partners.
In 1825 Robert still had shares in other mills which his Son Robert Dale Owen looked after as he was thinking about his travels.

So after enormous and unqualifying success particularly after 1813 with scope and money he was able to write two essays on the Formation of Character which was widely read over the next 12 years as visitors came in their thousands to look at the Mills.

Long after the French wars the customers of production that had bought cloth, leather, goods and arms for soldiers had caused unemployment. Robert had made New Lanark a tolerable and a happy place.

Robert went to London to try with the Parliamentary Committee about the Poor Law, spending weeks at that time with people who wanted to reform Parliament. Robert handled it badly, loosing his head in an argument to deliver the debate against all religions as keeping people in such ignorance they could not realise the truth when it was explained to them. This explosion lost him the support of the Bishops and the Times Newspaper, which had first been favourable towards his people, was inclined to write it off as a piece of foolishness on the part of a distinguished industrialist and philanthropist whose heart was in the right place.

In New Lanark schools were growing, flourishing and spreading. Robert had ideas about education, environment and community outside London and the United Kingdom. He was invited to go to France as a guest of the French Academy by Robert’s friend the Duke of Kent, father of Queen Victoria, who gave him an introduction.

Robert spent some time travelling all over Europe with his pamphlets on Philosophy and practicable suggestions. In France Robert’s sister-in-law joined him from London to go on a grand tour of Italy to Geneva and Switzerland where Robert met people of like-minds.

Coming back to Britain, he went to Ireland for 6 to 8 months familiarising himself with interesting tours of textiles factories. Robert saw famine, food riots and the miserable conditions of the poor and unemployed. He went to Port Patrick, Donahue Belfast and Dublin. Robert wrote to his wife Caroline about being with a Bishop, Lord and Duke. Robert also went to County Cork in Limerick and Tipperary and Kerry with the expectation that further advertisements would appear in the newspaper and a report on the British and Foreign Philanthropic Society (the views of society).

Robert was ill for his last lecture in Ireland and he asked Doctor Charles Orpen to read the rules and regulations. He did not read even a few brief observations of Robert’s own views on anti-Christian tendencies and clearly the response caused Robert to think twice about his next meeting. People who had supported Robert said he was the anti-Christ and this caused uproar.

After this he gained a hearing. Robert stood up and said to the audience his sole purpose of coming to Ireland was to promote peace and comfort to all, to remove the wretchedness and misery of the neglected and suffering in the world. Robert also said he had no intentions to interfere with their religion. It was then that General Brown of County Wexford offered to lease a thousand acres and donate £1,000 to start up a place with a Church, Chapel, Meeting House. The people who became involved in this project were called Owenites.


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