Though Owen was born in 1771, a son of a successful maker of saddles for horses and mules, he started work in a cotton mill in Manchester at the usual age of twelve, and by only nineteen was appointed manager. Later, moving to Scotland, he was almost solely responsible for founding a ‘new model community’ in Lanark.
Here he supervised better living conditions for the workers, better housing, better food, even building an Institute for the formation of the children’s general education and character, in true socialist style. Naturally there was opposition as he and his community grew to be famous, conservative mill owners tending to prefer 18-hour working days for their employees, and not caring too much if they were not properly fed. The Institute contained the world’s first day-nursery and a playground, and evening classes for the parents were available.
Remembering that this was still the end of the eighteenth century, it is barely credible that Owen also introduced a comprehensively stocked village shop. In 1813, at only forty-two, Owen went into partnership with another great reformer – Jeremy Bentham and a few more. They designed and formed New Lanark, which might be seen as the world’s first cooperative and socialist commune. Robert Owen wrote a book called A New View of Society in that year, in which he stated that character in the human race is formed by one’s social environment, daily work, paid holidays, shorter hours and above all education for youth.
And then it was off to America, the land of the free, where he established several cooperative Owenite communities, including one called New Harmony in Indiana. Sadly, they all failed, and Robert Owen died, exhausted, in 1858, though, as they say, his ideas lived on despite growing opposition. The now world-wide Socialist movement owes a great deal to people like Owen and Bentham.