Can we nominate Robert Owen as Wales’s greatest political icon?

He was born 250 years ago in Newtown, a Welsh-speaker with a proud Welsh heritage. Montgomeryshire at that time was in a very different world from what we live in today - life expectancy was on average 36 years, few had the vote, the USA was still a British colony, while Beethoven and Napoleon were still in nappies.

There is no question about his Welshness. But is he a political icon? Currently, from a Welsh perspective, probably not. Very few ordinary citizens of Wales have heard of him. But this is an unfortunate reflection on those who write Welsh history and educational curricula.

From a global perspective, Owen is a political giant.

The National Wales: An image depicting Newtown during the lifetime of Robert Owen. Photo: History.powys.org.uk.An image depicting Newtown during the lifetime of Robert Owen. Photo: History.powys.org.uk.

The son of a saddler, ironmonger, and local postmaster, Owen was born in 1771, the sixth of seven children. He started his education early and was an avid reader and tutor. At the age of ten he had to earn his keep and was apprenticed in Lincolnshire and then worked in London drapery shops.

At the age of 18, Owen moved to Manchester, where he spent twelve years working initially at a large drapery firm and then as a manager in one of Manchester’s largest cotton spinning factories. This was a particularly important period in the formation of Owen’s character and ideas. His entrepreneurial spirit, management skills and progressive moral views were developing, and when he presented papers as a member of the Manchester Literary & Philosophical Society.

The National Wales: Portrait of Robert Owen by John Cranch, 1845Portrait of Robert Owen by John Cranch, 1845

On visiting Scotland in 1799, Owen met David Dale, the philanthropist and proprietor of the New Lanark Mills near Glasgow and married his daughter Caroline Ann. Subsequently Owen and his business partners bought the New Lanark mills, where he became the manager of Britain’s largest and best equipped cotton mills at the young age of 29.

At the New Lanark mills, Owen began building upon Dale’s successful ideas and made his enlightened vision a reality. ‘Model’ housing at low rents, an employee sickness and pension fund, free medical services, free infant, school provision without fear of punishment, a refusal to employ children under ten years of age and free adult education. These were offered alongside a not-for-profit store, bank, hall, church, and chapel facilities in Owen’s community.

The National Wales: Robert Owen's House in New Lanark, ScotlandRobert Owen's House in New Lanark, Scotland

It is noted that Owen was in a position of considerable power and authority over the workforce. He was able to shape the conditions in which they lived and experienced the greatest resistance coming from his business partners.

Owen’s platform for national intervention was based upon his 1813 publication, ‘A New View of Society', which was a combination of ideas surrounding economic success and social reform he had engineered at New Lanark. For Owen, this was proof positive that his ideas would work once they were extended to other communities and eventually wider society.

New Lanark became the show place of the industrial revolution with visitors flocking from across Britain, the USA, Mexico, Europe. Even the Russian Czar, Nicholas I visited in 1816.

The National Wales: New Lanark todayNew Lanark today

His success at New Lanark was of global reach with its significance eclipsing anything comparable before. Raymond Williams suggested this was such an incredible achievement in the period between the Luddite resistance to the factory system (1811) and the Manchester Peterloo Massacre (1819). Although, most noticed at the time, his later work on unions and co-operatives arguably had wider influence.

Once beyond New Lanark, Owen rarely had the same degree of control in using his considerable fortune to extend the New Lanark model as he went onto engineer a new model co-operative community called ‘New Harmony’ in Indiana. The community failed, swallowing up most of his fortune.

On his return to England in 1829, Owen found that his ideas for a revolutionary reform of Britain’s economic and social order were now being taken up among the working class. It was a new experience to be regarded by them as a pioneer. In this he provided something indispensable to the emergence of an organised working-class movement. But of course Owen did not achieve this on his own, however, the role of Dr King and William Thompson go beyond the scope of this article.

During this period, co-operative ideals were being crystallised and began to emerge as a future movement; with an appeal to the working class which pointed to working-class power in the 19th century and a significant counter to rapacious capitalism.

The National Wales: Robert Owen's ‘Institute for the Formation of Character’ for the children of mill-workers at New LanarkRobert Owen's ‘Institute for the Formation of Character’ for the children of mill-workers at New Lanark

Owen had a passionate belief that every citizen is essentially a product of their own unique socialisation. Largely unrecognised, education is one of Owen’s most significant contributions to British social and cultural development with early, adult, and citizenship education.

He strongly condemned existing methods of education, where children were made to memorise instead of learning to understand and be creative. The real purpose of education was the formation of good character, and this was central to his philosophy.

In 1816 he opened an Institute for the Formation of Character. A school for 5–12-year-olds, properly equipped with hundreds of pounds spent upon visual aids, with a teacher / pupil ratio of 1 to 18. Pupils were taught not just reading, writing and arithmetic but also botany, geology, geography, science, and history. This reflects education as we know it today.

Owen was truly ahead of his time. Pupils were taken on field trips, enjoyed music and dance and, unlike most schools of the time, including the ‘great’ Public Schools, was not reliant on corporal punishment for discipline. Owen was determined to make to education fun.

The National Wales: Children visiting the New Lanark World Heritage Site nowadays can pretend to be part of Robert Owen's school. Photo: M J Richardson CC BY-SA 2.0Children visiting the New Lanark World Heritage Site nowadays can pretend to be part of Robert Owen's school. Photo: M J Richardson CC BY-SA 2.0

Raymond Williams argued that the infant schools at New Lanark were original enough in their educational techniques but far more innovative in their humanity and kindness. Owen’s approach was no abstraction but a major achievement of the century. Working class children deserved the same chances as others, with questioning minds eventually becoming adults who would find their place in the world.

With his concern for the whole person, Owen understood people’s lives extended beyond the factory. Addressing citizens' needs in the round had to be a necessary component if society was to move towards a more satisfactory arrangement for all. This involved certain fundamental guarantees prefacing a future ‘welfare state’ and an employment model made a reality at New Lanark.

READ MORE: 

In evaluating Owen’s legacy, we know his ideas were formed in a very different era. However, some do transfer well to 21st Century society, where education, universal suffrage, the modern welfare state and enjoying material comfort are standard but would have been unthinkable in the early 19th Century.

Owen was far from perfect: he was a paternalist, inflexible, blind to things that were not his priorities, he had a stubborn refusal to comprise, and was prone to lose interest when complex problems had to be solved. Nevertheless, he was always capable of generating new ideas, many of which are still fertile despite the passage of time.

Why then should Owen be considered as one of the greatest Welsh political icons? We offer six reasons to support this claim.

  1. Although mainly unrecognised, Owen’s contribution to education is significant and are as relevant today in demonstrating a new and portent relationship between education, work, and society, as a mechanism of social change. Certainly, his view that man was shaped by the environment was no less than revolutionary.
  2. Second, his socialism was not focused upon increased production or an improved system of distribution, but on social and economic transformation in which voluntary co-operation not coercion was the mainspring of change.
  3. Owen understood the danger of conspicuous consumption, with rapacious capitalism destructive of the natural environment. This in an era when there was no concept of climate change. This is most relevant today with the destructive force driving global warming due to 'artificial wants', epitomised by our ‘throwaway culture’. In his frugality, Owen had in mind a co-operative and equitable world, not following greed and want which he deemed unnecessary. Did Owen’s critique of capitalism thinly foreshadow our environmental movement?

The National Wales: Robert Owen's grave at the old parish church, Newtown. Photo: Percy Benzie Abery. Source: National Library of WalesRobert Owen's grave at the old parish church, Newtown. Photo: Percy Benzie Abery. Source: National Library of Wales

4. Owen’s many ideas were available for adaptation and innovation resulting in his profound global reach and influence. One legacy being the notion of “association” or solidarity based upon the common interest and the public good. Such ideas led to co-operatives, mutuals, credit unions, trade unions, building and friendly societies, economic community development and much more.

5. Owen shaped international history. He is often referred to as the ‘father’ of the worldwide co-operative movement. More than 12% of humanity is part of the 3 million co-operatives in the world. The largest 300 co-operatives and mutuals report a turnover of 2,100 billion USD, overall employing 10% of the world’s employed population with special United Nations status.

Without walking in his footsteps, we can discover in his career and achievements a stimulus to our own imagination, understanding and practical commitment to building a better society for all.

The National Wales: The Robert Owen statue stands between Shortbridge Street and Gas Street in Newtown. Photo: Anwen Parry.The Robert Owen statue stands between Shortbridge Street and Gas Street in Newtown. Photo: Anwen Parry.

What other Welsh political icon could claim to have such profound and wide-ranging influence and impact than Robert Owen?

Would the creation of an annual Robert Owen Day spur us to action in creating a co-operative education system for the co-operative Wales we wish it to be?

It would certainly be a step in the right direction.

David Smith & Chris Hall are Secretary and Chair, respectively, of Co-ops & Mutuals Wales.

If you value The National's journalism, help grow our team of reporters by becoming a subscriber.