Robert Owen: Biography & Beliefs

Instructor: Erica Cummings

Erica teaches college Humanities, Literature, and Writing classes and has a Master's degree in Humanities.

Robert Owen was a social philosopher who wanted not just to reform but to transform the world! Read this lesson to learn more about his beliefs and whether he was successful in this pursuit.

A Social Reformer

Utopia. A community where everyone works for the common good. A society where everyone is equal. A place where peace and love prevail. Sounds great, doesn't it? But is it realistic?

A social reformer named Robert Owen certainly thought so. Throughout his lifetime (1771-1858), Robert Owen sought to transform society into this utopia, and he had minor success in doing so. Some people found his ideas inspired and transformative, while some found his ideas unworkable, naïve, and even destructive. Despite the controversy over his beliefs, there's no doubt that Robert Owen was a dreamer!

Robert Owen
Robert Owen

The Makings of a Reformer

Owen was born in Wales in the United Kingdom in 1771. At just 10 years old, he was apprenticed to a cloth manufacturer. As a young man, he became manager of a successful cotton mill. As he became more involved in manufacturing, he became appalled at the conditions of the factories, so he vowed to change them.

Working conditions in factories were quite abysmal at the time. Imagine having to work 12 to 14 hours in dangerous and dirty conditions for very little pay. This was true for people (including some children!) working in factories. Owen improved the conditions in his own factories, and he also pushed for factory reform bills in Parliament. While these reforms were not perfect, Owen's efforts helped make factory work more bearable.

Factory in early 19th century
Factory in early 19th century

Owen's philosophy for social reform became known as Owenism, which claimed that businesses and society, in general, could be transformed for the better by utopian socialist ideals. Owen, often called Britain's first socialist, believed private property, wealth, social class, competition, and ignorance created social evils. But Owen believed these social evils could be eradicated - not through religion or through individual responsibility as many people of the time thought, but through socialist ideals. As a utopian socialist, Owen believed that if a community shared everything and made communal decisions, they could create a utopia.

Education was key to Owen's plan for utopia. Owen believed that the environment people grew up in determined their character. So, if people grew up around crime and poverty, they were likely to perpetuate these same social problems. But if education was provided from an early age, a perfect society could be achieved.

In Pursuit of Utopia

Clearly, Owen had big dreams! Owen would devote his life to writing about and pursuing this utopia. In 1799, the same year he married Caroline Dale (with whom he would have 7 children), Owen bought the New Lanark mills in Scotland, where he would begin to implement these socialist reforms. A couple thousand people lived in the village of New Lanark, where crime and poverty were rampant. Where others saw just another factory, Owen saw an opportunity for utopia.

Owen made major improvements to the mills and the village itself in the next couple decades. He opened a school. He opened a store to sell quality products to the villagers. He improved factory and housing conditions. Leading by example, he even cultivated better morals in the village. There was less crime, less poverty, and less ignorance.

New Lanark was so successful that people from all over the world traveled to New Lanark to see what social reformation could really achieve. However, Owen's improvements were expensive, and some of his business partners were upset that Owen was acting more like a philanthropist than a business owner. But there was no doubt the situation at New Lanark improved overall.

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