Recognised as the Father of Co-operation, Robert Owen would be 250 years old on May 14th 2021.

Very few people write or talk about Robert Owen without repeating his message in 1816 to the workers of the cotton mills in New Lanark, Scotland:

“I know that society may be formed so as to exist without crime, without poverty, with health greatly improved, with little, if any misery, and with intelligence and happiness increased a hundredfold; and no obstacle whatsoever intervenes at this moment –except ignorance- to prevent such a state of society from becoming universal”.

During his lifetime, he campaigned to improve the health, education, wellbeing and rights of working people. His driving ambition to create a better society for all took him around the world, and in that time he was known and admired the world over. He was equally reviled, ridiculed and criticised in his lifetime.

Born Newtown Wales May 14th 1771, his father was an ironmonger. Owen was an exceptionally bright child, helping teach other children when he was just seven years old. By 18, he was running a small cotton factory in Manchester. His success in running the factory so efficiently led him to meeting David Dale (1739–1806), who owned four factories in New Lanark, Scotland. Owen became close friends with Dale, and especially with Dale’s daughter, Caroline, whom he married in 1799. He went on to raise £60,000 from several businessmen in Manchester and bought his father-in-law’s mills.

Almost uniquely among mill owners, Robert Owen resolved to improve the conditions of his employees. He banned children from working in the factory till the age of ten and provided free health care for workers and their families. He opened a company store with fair prices, and used profits from the store to fund a community school. This was the first free infant school in the world: children from age two to six attended the Infant School, then graduated to the day school with (unusually for the time) enjoyable lessons and no physical punishments. Children aged 10 and above could still attend the night school, as indeed could adults listening to lectures and concerts at night, while also providing free creches for women workers with children. He also focused on improving the housing of the workers, keeping them clean and safe, and involved workers in running of the housing. His caring approach wasn’t just the right thing to do – it was productive too: his mills became some of the most successful in the world. In many ways, he was ahead of his time: he advocated sexual equality, marriage and divorce law reform a century or more before they were partly enacted. In others, such as his views on slavery and race, very much belong to the past.

Outside of his own workforce, Robert Owen campaigned to improve working conditions and making child labour illegal through lobbying Parliament. This, however, had limited success. Owen helped to set up and finance the early Trade Unions. When the Tolpuddle were arrested and transported to Australia in 1834, Owen with the support of many of his followers demonstrated about the transportation and eventually won the case in 1838.

Robert Owen was one of the first people we know of to use the term “Socialism” in 1822, used in 1827 in the London Co-operative Magazine. He and his followers called themselves Co-operators and Socialists, as one and the same.

His legacy was both immediate and long-lasting. The Rochdale Pioneers were Owenite Socialists and Chartists, and their combined legacy can be found in the over one billion people around the world who are members of co-operatives.

Robert Owen died near where he was born, in Newtown on 17th November 1858.