Robert Owen lived from 14 May 1771 to 17 November 1858. He was a businessman and a social reformer credited with becoming one of the founders of socialism and of the cooperative movement. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Robert Owen was born in Newtown, Powys, in mid Wales. His father ran a small business as a saddler and ironmonger and his mother came from a farming family. He left school at the age of 10 and worked in a draper's shop before moving to Manchester.
In 1798 he visited the cotton mills at New Lanark in Scotland. He had met Caroline Dale, the daughter of the owner David Dale, by chance in Glasgow and she suggested the visit. Within a year Robert Owen was negotiating with David Dale to purchase New Lanark. He married Caroline Dale on 30 September 1799, and took over New Lanark on 1 January 1800 for £60,000.
Owen's first moves were to increase the working day from 13 to 14 hours and to tighten discipline, dismissing anyone found drunk three times. Output and productivity increased, as did profits. He was seen by the workforce as a harsh outsider.
Opinions of him only softened when Owen kept the workers on full pay during a trade dispute with the USA in 1806 that temporarily stopped the flow of cotton. This was actually no more than David Dale had done when his first mill had burned down in 1788. It was also prudent: replacing the workers when the trade resumed would have been very difficult. But many saw it as the start of a change in Owen's approach to his workforce.
Over the following years Robert Owen gradually began to implement a series of ideas that at their time were revolutionary. In 1809 children were moved from dormitories in the mills to purpose-built Nursery Buildings. The village store was opened by Owen in 1813. This used the principles of shared benefit and bulk purchasing to lower the prices paid by the workers and increase the quality of goods available to them. And he developed grand plans to build on the educational provision put in place by David Dale.
Robert Owen's ideas led to conflict with his partners, and in 1813 he was obliged to bid against them to take full control of New Lanark, this time for £114,100. He built an Institution for the Formation of Character in 1816, and a year later he built his School for Children next door. Child labour was phased out to be replaced by a system of infant education. The Village Store went from strength to strength, with its profits being recycled to pay for the schooling. Owen also established a Sick Fund for workers.
In 1824 Owen sold his interests in New Lanark to his largely Quaker partners, who carried on much as he had intended. Owen himself sailed for America, where he had purchased a Utopian community called New Harmony. It was to prove less successful than New Lanark and he returned much poorer in 1829.
Opinions differ about Robert Owen. Had he all along intended what amounted to a social revolution at New Lanark? Or was he a supremely effective capitalist who just happened to be the first to realise the importance of the wellbeing of his workers to the profitability of his company? In truth, Owen's motives matter less than his achievements. He was more than a century ahead of his time, implementing revolutionary ideas in the fields of childcare, education, healthcare, cooperatives and the trades union movement: ideas that would change the world forever. Karl Marx later gave Owen's philosophy the label "Utopian Socialism".
Robert Owen died in Wales in 1858. He and Caroline had eight children together, seven of whom survived into adulthood. Four sons and one daughter became US citizens, one of the sons becoming a congressman. Two other daughters died in the 1830s, as did Caroline Owen.