"To train and educate the rising generation will at all times be the first objective of society."
Robert Owen, 1830
Robert Owen was born in Newtown, Powys, in 1771. He is known as one of the most prominent social reformers of his period. As a pioneer of modern British socialism, he provided a source of inspiration to the co-operative movement.
The Robert Owen Group uses Robert Owen's name in respect of his pioneering achievements in educational reform and his ideas of co-operation.
Owen’s most famous work is the New Lanark Mills and village. Owen bought the mills in 1799 with the plan to modernise them and to improve the working and social conditions of its workers. Owen’s pioneering work at New Lanark Mills included shortening the working day and introducing a minimum age for apprentices. His work extended to improving the living conditions of the workers, including improving housing, introducing street cleaning, introducing a system of local government and opening a company store where profits went to fund the free village school.
Education was important to Robert Owen and he believed it was important in the formation of character. He believed that there was more to teaching than just reading, writing and arithmetic and introduced natural history, dancing, games and music into the New Lanark schools. In 1816, Owen opened the Institute for the Formation of Character at New Lanark. It was used as a school for the young and also as an adult learning centre for workers of all ages. He pioneered infant schools, introducing education to those below the age of 6. Owen and his sons took many of these ideas over to America in 1824 after they encountered difficulties in progressing the liberal model community of New Lanark. Owen set up ‘New Harmony’, a model cooperative community. After the collapse of New Harmony in 1828, Owen returned home to see his ideas of social reform practised in New Lanark spreading through the trade union movement and in 1834 the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union was formed.
Eventually the union collapsed and was seen to be the end of the popular mass labour movement which had grown around Robert Owen. But the idea of the cooperative movement was not lost and in 1844 the Rochdale Pioneers started a co-operative enterprise in Lancashire which developed into the modern Co-operative Movement.
In 1858 Owen died. The epitaph on the Owen Memorial reads:
"He organised infants schools. He secured the reduction of the hours of labour for women and children in factories. He was a liberal supporter of the earliest efforts to obtain national education. He laboured to promote international arbitration. He was one of the foremost Britons who taught men to aspire to a higher social state by reconciling the interests of capital and labour. He spent his life and a large fortune in seeking to improve his fellowmen by giving them education, self-reliance, and moral worth. His life was sanctified by human affection and lofty effort".
2008 marked the 150th anniversary of Robert Owen's death and the Robert Owen Group was honoured to be part of the commemorative event held in Newtown, laying a wreath at his grave side.
Further information about Robert Owen can be found at the Robert Owen Museum in Newtown, Powys.