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A Journey Around the British isles …Part 88

In the week when we’ve said goodbye to two of the last principled men of the left in Britain; Bob Crow and Tony Benn; it seems appropriate to be visiting the birthplace of the first and, perhaps the greatest, of all of those who have stood up for the rights of the working people against the rapacious demands of capital. I’m in Newtown and in 1771 Robert Owen was born here, the son of an ironmonger.

Robert Owen

I feel blessed to have been born in the late 1950s and to have lived a life that has been a living history book. I’m old enough to remember a post war austerity. A Britain of traditional industries. Where education divided managers from workers at the age of eleven but where it was still possible to declare yourself a socialist, to glory in the achievements of the Attlee government and to take an active interest in the politics of the day. I am also young enough to have not only seen the second great industrial revolution, but to take part in it and to draw the benefits as well as seeing the darker side.

1771 was a pretty good year to be born if you wanted to see change and to be someone who wanted to make sure that change was for the better. Robert Owen achieved an enormous amount during his lifetime but his legacy has been much stronger. There is a statue of him in his hometown and a reproduction of this statue outside the Cooperative Bank in Manchester. A plaque in St Anne’s Square and a memorial in Kensal Green Cemetery are the modest way in which he is remembered officially. But we live in a country where education is provided for everyone, where we still have a health service to be proud of and where welfare and human rights have a strong place in society. We owe a great deal to Robert Owen. As I write this, the Cooperative bank and group are going through difficulties, but both have provided models of how to do things correctly and for the benefit of the people. They have been great civilising forces in a world that has often come close to sacrificing everything to the  pursuit of profit and a blind faith in market forces.

Owen left school at the age of ten and was apprenticed to a draper. Once out of his time he moved to  a drapery in Manchester and by the age of twenty one was managing a cotton mill in Chorlton. His great concern was with the health and working conditions of the factory workers. At this time Manchester was rapidly turning from a scattering of farms and villages into a major mill town. Thousands of properties were being built and most of them unplanned. Conditions for the mill workers were dreadful from the very beginning. The newly created Manchester oligarchs “made no bones about the fact that their first, in fact their supreme obligation was to the profitability of their business.” (Simon Scharma: A History of Britain). Owen, along with other members of Manchester Board of Health put human welfare above great wealth for the few.

On a visit to Glasgow he became acquainted with the Dale family who ran New Lanark Mills. New Lanark was started by David Dale and Richard Arkwright and was run on the principle of exploiting labour that all such factories employed. Owen was able to persuade his partners to buy the mills and as manager he organised a revolution in the way such factories were run.

He improved both working and living conditions. He promoted education (in doing so he opened the first infant schools in the world), health and even took on the infamous truck shop system, where workers were paid in currency that could only be used in the factory owner’s shops, where goods were of inferior quality and overpriced. In Owen’s shops,  goods were bought wholesale and in bulk and sold to workers for little more than cost price. These were the fore-runners of the Cooperative movement which was one of the great achievements of British socialism.

After a dozen years of running the huge concern in a way that produced quality goods, turned a profit necessary for wages and re-investment, and providing the best working and living conditions in Britain, he grew tired of the restrictions placed on him by owners who sought nothing other than profit. Instead of giving up or retiring on his successes, he persuaded new investors to buy-out the mills. These included utilitarian philosopher and philanthropist Jeremy Bentham and the Quaker William Allen. Bentham was a hugely influential figure in the nineteenth century and can take as much credit or blame for the victory of market forces as anyone. His concerns were with the poor and the exploited but his philosophy of “the greatest good to the greatest number”, though outwardly caring allows for terrible exploitation of minorities. He is celebrated today by having his dressed skeleton (complete with wax head – the real one was mummified and is kept under lock and key) preserved and sitting in a glass case in University College London.

Allen was one of the first great Quaker industrialists. Many firms of the industrial age were run by quakers and all of them took a greater concern for the welfare of their workers than was common. For reasons I have yet to uncover quaker industrialists were drawn to chocolate and are remembered today by the brand names; Cadbury, Rowntree’s and Terry.

Owen was in many ways a fore-runner of Chartism and of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. He abandoned his belief in conventional religion and developed a socialism that essentially sought to gain from each according to his ability and certainly to give to each according to their need. He saw education and health as being inextricably linked. That the future welfare of society is dependent on the present welfare of children. Bring children up to a world of conflict and hate and that is what they will grow up to promote. Bring them up to an awareness of their importance in the world and they will grow up to improve it.

His works attracted attention from all over the world. He inspired experiments in communal living in both Scotland and America. Neither were huge successes but this is as much down to the way they were carried out as as to faults inherent in the ideals. Owen’s son Robert, who became an American congressman describes the make-up of those involved in the schemes as “a heterogeneous collection of radicals, enthusiastic devotees of principle, honest latitudinarians and lazy theorists, with a sprinkling of unprincipled sharpers thrown in”.

Owen returned to Newtown and died there in 1858. He is buried in the churchyard. I spend some time here as a pilgrim; one who has lived a life that has been greatly influenced by the man. I sit near his statue and say three quiet cheers for a town in Powys that gave us one of our greatest Welshmen, one of our greatest Britons.

The following is taken from his memorial in Kensal Green Cemetery.

“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”.

Written in loving memory of Robert Owen and Tony Benn. If not working class heroes, then certainly heroes of the working class.

I’m indebted to fellow blogger Calmgrove for pointing out other firms and institutions with a Quaker history. These include:

Amnesty International, Barclays Bank, Bryant and May (matches), Carr’s Biscuits, Clark’s Shoes, Cornell University, Friend’s Provident, Fry’s Chocolate, Greenpeace, Huntley and Palmers (biscuits),  John Hopkin’s University, Lloyds Bank, Oxfam, Sony, Wedgewood (Pottery) and WD & HO Wills (Tobacco)