There are statues to Owen (1771-1858) in his hometown of Newtown, Powys and outside the Co-op Bank’s headquarters in Manchester, where there is also a plaque in his honour. Additionally, there is a monument to him that was unveiled in Kensal Green in 1879. Fifty years later a small museum dedicate to keeping his memory and his many ideas alive was opened in Newtown. Such an array of tributes shows the standing that Robert Owen, often described as the first socialist, has in the eyes of many people.
Robert Owen (1771- 1858) was born and died in the small market town of Newton, Powys. At aged ten Owen moved to Stamford, Lincolnshire to become a draper’s apprentice before moving to Manchester, the heart of the industrial revolution. At 21 he was managing a large mill of 500 workers. The poverty and terrible working conditions, especially for very young children, he witnessed across the cotton trade caused Robert to consider developing radical alternatives to a capitalist system that failed most people.
Owen and his partners purchased New Lanark Mills and its workers’ village in 1799. New schools, including the first ever infants’ one, were built, adult evening classes introduced and a healthy environment was promoted by opening shops selling good affordable food.
Owen wanted to demonstrate a way to end the degradation of the working class. But as he pushed for improvements by promoting a Factories Bill to raise the minimum employment age to ten, introduce half-time education up to the age of 12 and create a system of factory inspection, he was left frustrated when it was severely watered down by MPs, many of whom were owners of dark satanic mills themselves.
In 1824, Owen sold some of his Scottish holdings. Seeking to expand his social experiments when he moved to New Harmony, Indiana. He returned to Britain in 1828 but his four sons and daughter remained there and subsequently played important political roles with congressman Robert Dale Owen openly calling on Abraham Lincoln to abolish slavery.
Owen sought to take his co-operative vision to a wider audience by publishing pamphlets, writing to newspapers and speaking publicly. But he was also key to the development in 1834 of The Grand National Consolidated Trades Union. The famous print of the massive workers’ protest in London against the transportation of the Tolpuddle Martyrs shows him leading it on horseback.
Owen died in 1858. By then the Rochdale Pioneers, inspired by his ideas, had opened the first successful co-op store.
The Robert Owen Museum was opened in 1929. It stands just yards from his birthplace, helps explain the life of this remarkable man by skilfully combining many drawings, illustrations, photographs, books, a video, paintings, sculptures, everyday family objects and explanatory display boards.
The Museum is free to visit and is an independent charity run entirely by volunteers, who should be congratulated for their efforts.
“It is an old fashioned museum, which is part of its charm, acting as a memorial to the place where Owen was born and died. It gives a good overview to him and his ideas.” Volunteer Colin Laker, a retired history and politics teacher.
The Museum is open 11am to 3pm, Monday to Friday.