Robert Owen (1771-1858) Reformer and Socialist, born at Newtown, Montgomeryshire, was the son of a Saddler and Ironmonger. He displayed genius at an early age, becoming the Manager of a Manchester Cotton Mill at 19 years old. He later persuaded Partners to join with him in the purchase of the New Lanark Mills in Scotland, where he settled pre 1800. As manager and part owner he married the daughter of the previous owner. He thus became responsible for around 2000 workers, whose welfare and that of their families along with education for their children were his great concern. He introduced the first infant school in Great Britain at New Lanark, along with a creche and a welfare scheme for those who were sick and unable to work. He also banned the employment of young children in the mill and reduced the length of the working day. His endeavours, looked on suspiciously by some of his contemporaries, paid handsome dividends, with New Lanark Mills thriving. He extended his scheme later in life to America, with the same benevolent principles, but not with success.
His four sons all became American Citizens and the eldest, Robert Dale Owen, served as a Congress Man. He was responsible for many reforms in his adopted country and during his career was appointed United State Ambassador to Naples.
Robert Owen was a man well ahead of his time and in the years to follow, his system was copied by men of similar ilk, not least in Ulster where the Linen Industry was becoming mechanised in Mill Villages such as Bessbrook in the County Armagh.
The philosophy and practice of ‘Owenism’ has fascinated the Japanese in modern times, with close parallels to their own ‘company system’. Japan now boasts the largest Robert Owen Society in the world.
The following poem was first published in the new Lanark Gazette.
AN APPRECIATION OF ROBERT OWEN AND NEW LANARK
Cascades of water forever falling at New Lanark on the Clyde,
Where a Spinning Mill was built to last there on the bank beside;
Impressive are those walls of stone, from when Cotton reigned as King,
Owner and servant answering the call, on hearing the tower bell ring.
Worn granite chiselled square sets carpet the paths around,
The Mill Race flows its channel deep, dangerous with no sound;
An arch of stone, with keystone proud, a shackle hanging there,
From when rope slings raised heavy loads suspended in the air.
Cornerstones by the Mason’s hand run from base to roof,
Meant to be no ordinary place such adornment is the proof;
Built to remain and service give, a monument to those men,
Who chose this exquisite leafy glade veiled within the glen.
The Water Wheels on shafts of iron, snug in their slots of rock;
Oh! A mighty torque produced for transmission to each block;
That still tower up to the sky, sentinel windows high and low,
On the banks of the River Clyde, where the oak and sycamore grow.
Iron wrought or cast, forged in fire, festoons each path and green,
Gantries buried in walls of stone, protrude here and there to be seen;
Reminding us of days in yore, when bales were raised aloft,
By the strength of the Labourer, who migrated here from the croft.
The Millworkers Row, haven of home, across the breast of the hill,
Families were reared, nourished and clad, from Mother and Father’s skill;
The Kirk now deserted, once it did thrive, on each Sabbath morn,
Creche and School, with learning for all, stands stark dark and forlorn.
Inside the Mill are machines still, the Mules now at their rest,
Reflecting glorious times gone by when they were the best;
An oil can sits on a window ledge, silhouetted against the sky,
A mechanic’s spanner abandoned and worn, in a corner to lie.
Iron stanchions stand to each roof, lined like soldiers on parade,
In those rooms of endeavours past, where cotton yarn was made;
Ceiling curved for added strength, support each floor from below,
Where spinning frames performed their task, erected row by row.
Steam Engines of iron, steel, bronze and brass, glitter in haughty display,
From when the rope drive and racing fly wheel came into the fray;
To drive carding machines and twist the thread as the spindles turned,
In long wide rooms of dextrous toil, the machinery happily churned.
Oh! Robert Owen your epitaph, must be your achievement with flair,
Along with love forever enshrined in your philanthropy and care;
For workers who were nurtured by you, in that secluded hollow,
Contained within a Scottish glen; an example for others to follow.
Monty Alexander 23.11.97