Papers of Robert Owen (1771-1858)

Reference and contact details: GB 1499 ROC
Title: Papers of Robert Owen (1771-1858)
Dates of Creation: 1821-1858
Held at: National Co-operaitve Archive
Extent: 3,500 items
Language of Material: English
Name of Creator: Robert Owen
Level of Description: fonds

Administrative/Biographical History

Robert Owen (1771-1858) was born at Newtown, Wales to a working family. Owen was encouraged to read and debate ideas and this freedom led him to become an atheist at an early age. He became an apprentice at the age of ten to a Mr James McGuffog, a linen draper from Stamford, Lincolnshire. According to his Autobiography he was independent from his parents from this point onwards.

In 1784 Owen was employed in a busy store on London Bridge called Flint and Palmer's. The store was relatively unique as prices were fixed and cheap. After a year however Owen moved on to Manchester to work for a Mr Sattersfield, whose business was mainly with upper middle class clients. This move was crucial to the development of Owen's experiences and ideas. In 1785 Manchester was at the crest of the Industrial Revolution and was also a hot bed of intellectual and philanthropic discourse.

In 1789 Owen set up a spinning business with a man named Jones, the capital for which was borrowed from an elder brother of Owen's. They were an unlikely pairing, Jones having no knowledge of business and Owen having no knowledge of machinery, and they dissolved their partnership in 1890, although both continued spinning with their share of the machinery and Owen was in profit by 1891.

Owen was clearly a confident man because in 1891 he heard of an opportunity to manage a fine-spinning mill owned by a rich merchant named Drinkwater and Owen asked for the post. He was still only twenty but Drinkwater agreed to come and see Owen's business and hired him at a salary of £300 a year. Owen had little or no experience of many functions of his new role and set to learning them. He was obviously successful because by 1893 the fineness of the cotton had more than doubled and they were one of the first mills to use Sea Island cotton, therefore they were progressive.

Owen left in 1794 to become a partner in a new venture called the Chorlton Twist Company. Whilst in Glasgow on business Owen met a Miss Caroline Dale who offered to show him her father's, David Dale, mills at New Lanark. Owen was very impressed and according to his Autobiography he stated "I should prefer this [place] in which to try an experiment [in an ideal community] I have long contemplated" David Dale agreed in 1789 to the engagement of Caroline to Owen and to the sale of his mills, to Owen's valuation, the Chorlton Twist Company. Owen took over the management of the New Lanark mills in 1790 with the aim of creating a model factory and community. For Owen believed that character is formed for people and not by the individual, thus superior conditions were required to form a good character. Owen went beyond improving living and working conditions however, when he proposed in 1809 to build schools, playgrounds and lecture halls. He also proposed that children under the age of ten should not work. This was a radical suggestion as business exists to make profit and not to invest in things with no tangible return and arguments ensued. This led to a new set of partners being found, including Jeremy Bentham and several wealthy Quakers, who agreed to his educational proposals.

At New Lanark Owen was essentially carrying out his ideals, which he subsequently called the "New View of Society" The premise was relatively simple, man's character was formed by the environment in which man grew up therefore, if this environment was built on co-operation, forbearance and understanding the result would be harmony, well-being and ultimately the attainment of the ideal universe. Society was to be planned not on oppression but on mutual co-operation. Therefore, Owen was the first socialist planner in the UK.

As Owen believed character was formed in childhood he concentrated on children's welfare for example he approached Sir Robert Peel with a factory bill that would ban employment of under ten year olds and limiting hours of work for under eighteens. The bill was not successful. Despite this Owen continued to be vocal for example, after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 post-war depression hit. This led a group of notables to meet in 1816 and Owen spoke at the meeting. This led the men to ask him to write a report, in it he makes a demand for full employment and the abolition of the Poor Law. Instead the unemployed should be settled into Villages of Co-operation with schools, agriculture and ancillary industries. In short he was proposing the building of planned towns paid for by government and interested parties that would become self-supporting. Owen then attempted to take his report to the Commons Committee on the Poor Law but they refused to receive him.

The report formed the basis of The Report to the County of Lanark, 1819 which Owen was asked to compile by the County in response to growing number of unemployed. The Report anticipated many later socialist views for example, the Marxist view that some other standard than money of measuring wealth should be created. The Report led to the establishment of an Owenite community in Orbiston, Lanark in 1826.

In 1824 Owen was pushed out of New Lanark by his partners largely as a result of his atheism. This led him to purchase an estate in Indiana, USA, and establish an Owenite community called New Harmony. The community failed in 1828 and Owen returned to Britain in 1829. Having lost much money and his mills Owen took up the unofficial leadership of Unionism and Co-operation for example, in 1832 he help found the National Equitable Labour Exchange in an attempt to establish the principle of real value ie assembling the goods of co-operative societies and individuals and calculating their true cost, goods were to be purchased for sale by the Exchange by Labour Notes, these Notes could then be used to purchase other goods. The Exchange failed in 1834 when there was a crash in markets.

Trade Unionism felt itself under attack by 1834 for example, the Factory Bill of 1833 was greatly weakened. The Unionists therefore searched for new ways to engage workers and decided to try and gain power through co-operative Socialism. The co-operative movement and Owen thus became involved. The first development this caused was the establishment of the Grand National Guild of Builders, that was organised on Owen's principles. Following this the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union was established to help the working classes secure, protect and establish right and co-operative stores. From 1832 Owen had published a paper, The Crisis , which he now used in part to promote Unionism and utopian ideals. However, the Guild of Builders was quickly financially ruined and by the end of 1834 the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union was effectively defunct (although some constituent Unions survived). Owen very much gave the impression that his concern with Unionism was as a vehicle for his own ideas and the failure of Grand National Consolidated Trades Union simply led him to found the British and Foreign Consolidated Association of Industry, Humanity and Knowledge which pushed his principles.

Owen continued to preach and teach socialism and atheism, the latter being a forerunner to the Secularist movement although Owen became a spiritualist around 1853. Some Owenite communities survived the Union crash, such as Queenwood in Hampshire of which Owen was a governor. He also continued to publish journals such as Robert Owen's Millennial Gazette.

Owen died in 1858 in Newtown, Wales having been an inspiration to many.

Scope and Content

The collection contains approximately 3,500 letters and papers written by and to Robert Owen between 1821 and 1858. The correspondence is with those involved in various labour movements of the early nineteenth century - co-operative, socialist etc in the UK and abroad, including his involvement with communities in America. There is an associated collection of books, pamphlets and journals written by and about Owen.

System of Arrangement

The collection was listed in the 1960's. Each item was individually listed, with dates, names and a brief description. It is anticipated that the collection will be catalogued to ISAD (G) standards in the future.

Custodial History

The correspondence was collected together by Dr Henry Travis. On his death the collection passed to his executors, their representative, a Mr Galpin gave them to George Jacob Holyoake. For information about Holyoake see

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The collection was donated to the Co-operative Union by George Jacob Holyoake at the end of 1903. The Co-operative Union Archive was transferred to the Co-operative College on 1 January 2000.


None expected

Access Conditions

Open access, the Archive is open by appointment only from Monday-Friday 10-5.


All reproduction requests should be sent to:

The National Co-operative Archive
Co-operative College
Holyoake House
Hanover Street
Manchester M60 0AS

+44 (0)161 246 2925

Existence of Copies

Surrogates used at the Archive.

Finding Aids

A full listing of the collection is available, please contact the Archive about this at In addition to this the associated collection of books and pamphlets is listed at .

Dates of Accumulation

Description compiled by Karyn Stuckey, Assistant Archivist, Feb 2006.