Robert Owen

A Supplementary Appendix to the First Volume of the Life of Robert Owen.... London: Effingham Wilson, 1858, Vol. I.A, Appendix I. No. 1, 1817.

Owen (1771-1858) was the son of a Welsh ironmonger and saddler. He left school when nine to become an apprentice in a London fabric shop and later as a sales assistant in a haberdashery. Moving to Manchester, he worked in a textile factory, saved his money, and began a partnership in a small manufacturing operation. By the time he was twenty he had become manager of a Manchester cotton spinning mill and then a partner in the enterprise. In that city he attended meetings of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society and presented papers on social issues.

His business took him to Glasgow, and there at the age of twenty-eight, he and partners purchased the New Lanark cotton mills from David Dale whose daughter Owen married. At New Lanark in 1800 Owen set about improving conditions for the workers. He increased wages, provided infant schools, and imposed restrictions on child labor. In 1813 he wrote his first reform tract, A New View of Society, advocating the factory reforms he had instituted at New Lanark as well as many other proposals. Four years later he prepared the report from which the extract below on new communities is taken.

In leading up to this aspect of his proposals, Owen first outlined the causes for unemployment and lack of demand for manufactured goods. During the Napoleonic Wars England's factories had become mechanized and turned out large quantities of manufactured articles. The end of the conflict in 1815 found England's capital plan overexpanded with resulting massive layoffs of workers. Owen asked how could "advantageous found for the poor and unemployed working classes to whose labour mechanism must be rendered subservient, instead of being applied?" His solution was the creation of many small communities with population of 500 to 1500. They were to be built by individuals, parishes, counties, or the national government. The occupants were to engaged in cooperative farming and manufacturing. Owen argued that his solution would eliminate existing programs for supporting the poor.

Owen's proposals received wide approval. Both the London Times and the Morning Post devoted news and editorial columns to his plan. On April 9, 1817 the Times printed the full text of his report, and on May 29 it published an illustration of one of Owen's proposed villages, a letter from Owen, and an editorial that, after applauding Owen for his efforts, stated: "[W]e are, therefore, most desirous that a trial should be made of his plan in at least one instance." This was not to be. At a public meeting in August, 1817 Owen's address included a vigorous denunciation of religion that resulted in equally vigorous denunciations of Owen. Others attacked his proposals because of their initial cost and because they might simply increase the number of unemployed poor by encouraging those already in that condition to have more children.

Owen attempted to create an ideal community based on the cooperative system in America when in 1825 he purchased Harmonie, an Indiana religious community founded by the German Lutheran followers of George Rapp. Owen thought of New Harmony as a first step toward creating a society where all property would be owned in common. When those living in New Harmony were ready for such a venture Owen promised to construct on high ground near the existing village an entirely new community consisting of a huge quadrangular structure. This was an elaboration on his original concept put forward in 1817 of a collectivist agricultural and industrial community build in the form of a large quadrangle.

For his American venture (and perhaps earlier) his architect, Stedman Whitwell prepared a drawing and a six-foot square model of the proposed community that Whitwell and Owen brought to America in 1825. Evidently this was on display in the House of Representatives chamber in Washington when Owen delivered a public lecture there on March 7. In his address Owen referred to "the model before you," and other sources state that the model was also on exhibit at the White House. Although in 1817 and later in 1841 Owen put the population of his model community at one to two thousand persons, in Washington he indicated that the population would be 20,000, stating: "The model represents a square of buildings, each side of which is 1,000 feet in length, and each side contains every domestic arrangement that can be required for 5,000 perons."

In 1830 Whitwell published a pamphlet that in text and drawing identified the elements of his version of the Owenite community whose model he displayed in Washington. Whitwell's pamphlet did not mention a population figure.

The effort to create a model society at New Harmony proved short-lived, and Owen returned to Britain. Nevertheless, he did not abandon his vision of ideal communities, for in 1841 Owen again put forward a proposal for creating quadrangular settlements as a kind of internal colonization program for Britain. This series of readings includes, in addition to Owen's first published proposal in 1817, Whitwell's essay of 1830, and Owen's revised version of his concept published in 1841.

Having been requested by you to draw up a detailed Report of a Plan for the general Relief of the Manufacturing and Labouring Poor, I have the honour to submit the following....

The drawing exhibits in the foreground, an establishment, with its appendages and appropriate quantity of land; and at due distances, other villages of a similar description.

Squares of buildings are here represented sufficient to accommodate about 1,200 persons each; and surrounded by a quantity of land, from 1000 to 1500 acres.

Within the squares are public buildings, which divide them into parallelograms.

The central building contains a public kitchen, mess-rooms, and all the accommodation necessary to economical and comfortable cooking and eating.

To the right of this is a building, of which the ground-floor will form the infant school, and the other a lecture-room and a place of worship.

The building to the left contains a school for the elder children, and a committee-room on the ground floor; above, a library and a room for adults.

In the vacant space within the squares, are enclosed grounds for exercise and recreation: these enclosures are supposed to have trees planted in them.

It is intended that three sides of each square shall be lodging houses, chiefly for the married, consisting of four rooms in each; each room to be sufficiently large to accommodate a man, his wife, and two children.

The fourth side is designed for dormitories for all the children exceeding two in a family, or above three years of age.

In the centre of this side of the square are apartments for those who superintend the dormitories: at one extremity of it the infirmary; and at the other a building for the accommodation of strangers who may come from a distance to see their friends and relatives.

In the centres of two sides of the squares are apartments for general superintendents, clergyman, schoolmasters, surgeon &c.; and in the third are store-rooms for all the articles required for the use of the establishment.

On the outside, and at the back of the houses around the squares, are gardens, bounded by roads.

Immediately beyond these, on one side, are buildings for mechanical and manufacturing purposes. The slaughter-house, stabling, &c., to be separated from the establishment by plantations.

At the other side are offices for washing, bleaching, &c.; and at a still greater distance from the squares, are some of the farming establishments, with conveniences for malting, brewing, and corn-mills, &c.: around these are cultivated enclosures, pasture-land, &c., the hedge-rows of which re planted with fruit-trees.

The plan represented is on a scale considered to be sufficient to accommodate about 1200 persons. 

Selected, scanned, edited, provided with headnotes, and formatted as a web document by John W. Reps, Professor Emeritus, Department of City and Regional Planning, West Sibley Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA. Tel: (607) 255-5391, Fax: (607) 255-6681, E-mail: 
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