Vision of Robert Owen

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Towards the Welfare State

Robert Owen is famous for many things. He is one of the classic examples of a poor boy who has made good. A great captain of industry, he became the father of enlightened capitalism, whose establishment at New Lanark on the Clyde was the inspiration and forerunner of the Port Sunlights and Bournville’s of a hundred years later. He saw nothing wrong in making money and himself became rich when still a young man, but he was never tired of impressing on his colleagues and business associates that the wealthy had duties and responsibilities towards those less fortunate in life’s struggle.

His attitude towards his employees was that of a benevolent dictator, who was fully persuaded that he knew what was good for them far better than they could know themselves, and yet it is hardly possible to exaggerate his services to the cause of working-class emancipation, since he was a pioneer in the fields of co-operation, trade unionism, and the Socialist movement. He was also an educationist of the most enlightened type, far in advance of the thinking of his age, for no man had a firmer belief in the power of education to transform the world, and the human beings in it. The first infant schools, it may be remembered, were established at his works.

All these things entitle him to a proud place on the roll of human benefactors, and still there are other aspects of his extraordinary career that call for mention. Not the least of these is his advocacy of Factory Legislation, that is in the direct line of succession to the “Welfare State of to-day.”

When he was born in 1771, the factory system was in its infancy in England and in Scotland, and was practically unknown elsewhere. The first factories were worked by water-power, and they were established necessarily on the banks of rivers and streams very often in places far from the haunts of men. Labour supply in these circumstances was hard to come by, and it is not surprising that the manufacturers welcomed the opportunity of employing the little children that the workhouse authorities of London and Birmingham and other great cities wanted to get rid of.

For many years the workhouses exported their waifs to the manufacturing districts to serve as apprentices, which was a much nicer-sounding word than slaves. But slaves they were, as some of the cotton kings themselves admitted. ”There is abundant evidence on record”, wrote John Fielden, master of a great factory at Tod-morden, “that cruelties the most heartrending were practised upon the unoffending and friendless creatures who were thus consigned to the charge of the master-manufacturers; that they were harassed to the brink of death by excess of labour, that they were flogged, fettered, and tortured in the most exquisite refinement of cruelty; that they were, in many cases, starved to the bone while flogged to their work, and that even, in some instances, they were driven to commit suicide to evade the cruelties of a world, in which, though born to it so recently, their happiest moments had been passed in the garb and coercion of a workhouse.”

All this was well known to Robert Owen, and he accepted it almost as a matter of course. Not that he was ever a child slave himself, for although his father was only a saddler and ironmonger in a small town just over the border in Wales, he was so fortunate as to be sent to school from the age of four until he was nine, by which time he had learnt all that they had to teach. When he was ten he persuaded his parents to let him join an elder brother in London and was found a job in a draper’s shop, where he stayed three years, acquiring an intimate knowledge of stuffs and some understanding of that most difficult of all materials to understand, human nature. At twenty he was manager of a cotton mill in Manchester, and although he knew absolutely nothing of the business to start with, it was not long before he was acknowledged as one of the most expert and knowledgeable cotton spinners in the country.

In Manchester he gathered a vast amount of first-hand information about the human element in industry, but his testing-time came in 1800 when he became a partner in the famous firm of Dale and Arkwright and assumed the managership of their works at New Lanark, on the Falls of Clyde. Here he was put in charge of a labour force of some two thousand, men, women, and little children of both sexes. And what a dreadful lot many of them were! They had been recruited from anywhere and anyhow, and, since the reputation of cotton mills was such that no decent folk would accept employment in them save as a last resort, quite a considerable proportion of them were drawn from the dregs of the population. Most of them lived in a shanty town at the mill gates, and, as Owcn himself put it, they formed “a wretched society, in which every man did that which was right in his own eyes, vice and immorality prevailed to a monstrous extent, and the population as a whole lived in idleness, poverty, and almost every kind of crime, and were in consequence generally in debt, in poor health, and miserable”.

The only comparatively bright spot in the picture was the apprentice-house in which were housed the children who had been assembled from the poor-houses and charitable institutions of Edinburgh and Glasgow. There were between four hundred and five hundred pauper children on the staff, most of whom had been engaged at the age of five or six. They were well treated on the whole, since Mr Dale was one of the most benevolent of employers; but since their upkeep was expensive, it was deemed necessary that they should be made to work in the mill from six o’clock in the morning till seven in the evening, summer and winter. After their day’s work they were expected to attend evening school. However well intentioned, such a system was bound to have the most unfortunate results, and indeed many of the children became, as Owen recognized, “dwarfs in body and mind”. They had one chief object in life, to obtain their liberty as soon as possible, and it was a common event for children to decamp and make for the city, where they soon fell prey to the innumerable temptations and dangers of the place.

Owen was not daunted by the problems that confronted him, because he was not in the least surprised. As a boy he had worked out his own individual philosophy, and he stuck to it throughout his long life. Briefly stated, it is that human character is made by the environment in which the man or woman is placed. If we want to breed a race of decent people, then we must create decent conditions for them to breed in.

For sixteen years Owen strove at New Lanark to give his philosophy practical expression. One of the first things he did was to order the overseers to stop strapping and whipping the children who had made a mistake. Then he stopped the in-flow of pauper children from the workhouses, and refused to employ any child under the age of nine or even ten; he would have liked to make the age twelve, but the parents insisted that they must find jobs for their offspring at as early an age as possible. He opened village schools, and evening-classes for the adults. He improved the housing of the work-people, and opened shops in which they could buy the necessaries of life at cost price. He put severe restrictions on the sale of strong drink. He stopped thieving in the mill by an efficient checking system, and encouraged good work by keeping a careful record of each person’s conduct, in which a bad mark came to be regarded by the worker himself as something of a disgrace.

All those who thought they knew everything worth knowing about the art of manufacturing prophesied disaster, but Owen never had the slightest doubt that he was on the right track. What was wrong with his critics, he averred, was that they knew so little about human nature. People are rational creatures, he maintained; treat them like rational creatures and they will act rationally. That was what he did, or at least tried to do, and soon it had to be admitted that his belief was reaping a rich harvest in high profits and big dividends.

Not that this was any great satisfaction to Owen personally. He was not interested in making money, although of course he insisted that the business must pay its way. But he felt that he had proved his point, and now he contemplated carrying his gospel into the wider world. So in 1815, when the Great War with Napoleon had ended, he called a meeting of the Scottish manufacturers in Glasgow, and put before them a programme of two propositions: in the first place, to urge the Government to remit the heavy import duty on cotton, and secondly, “to consider measures to improve the condition of the young children and others employed in the various textile manufactures now so rapidly extending over the kingdom”.

The meeting was presided over by the Lord Provost of Glasgow, and was very numerously attended, for the “philanthropic Mr Owen” was now a nationally known public figure. The assembled manufacturers listened to what he had to say with deep attention, and when he put his first proposition to the meeting it was carried unanimously by acclamation. “I then proposed a string of resolutions to give relief to the children and others employed in cotton, wool, flax, and silk mills… and not one would second my motion.” Whereupon he declined to proceed with the business of the meeting, and it therefore came to nothing. “But I told them I should take my own course in both measures, independently of them.”

Very likely it was now that he realized that something more than an enlightened attitude on the part of individual manufacturers was required, that a good example, even such an excellent example as he had given over the years at New Lanark, was not sufficiently “catching”. He proceeded forthwith to London, and sought to interest some members of the Government in his proposals. “I waited personally on the leading members of both Houses, and explained to them my object, which was to give some relief to a most deserving, yet much oppressed part of our population.”

He received many promises of support, and among those who offered their assistance was Sir Robert Peel, a highly successful member of the manufacturing class who yet had been responsible in 1802 for an Act designed to improve the condition of child apprentices in mills and factories. This Act had proved to be quite ineffective in practice, and Peel was ready to try again. Owen had already prepared a draft Bill, but he was persuaded to leave the matter in Peel’s hands, and very soon he wished he hadn’t. Peel was full of sympathy and encouragement, but he was dilatory in action, with the result that the opposition among the manufacturers had time to rally and present their case. There ensued a great deal of lobbying, to use a modern term, and at length Peel, very unwisely, in Owen’s opinion, agreed to the setting up of a Select Committee to investigate the whole matter.

The Report of this committee is an historic document, and after the lapse of nearly a hundred and fifty years still makes fascinating reading. A large number of witnesses, manufacturers, workpeople, doctors, sincere philanthropists and busybodies, were called upon to give evidence, and much of what they had to say was deplorable. At this time, as Owen emphasized, children were put to work in the textile mills at six, and sometimes five, years of age; while as for the time of working, summer and winter, it was unlimited by law but was usually fourteen hours per day, although in some mills it was fifteen or as much as sixteen. In many cases, the mills were artificially heated to a degree highly detrimental to health, and the sanitary conditions were best left undescribed.

Owen gladly offered himself for examination on more than one occasion, and his evidence was characteristically authoritative and pungent. In the end it was decided that a case for legislation had been made out; a Bill was prepared, and went through the various stages of the parliamentary procedure without much opposition.

Owen might have been expected to have been pleased, but in fact it was far otherwise. The Bill was a sadly watered down version of his original draft, and it had been rendered even more ineffective as it passed through the House. His Bill would have prohibited children working in the mills under the age of ten, and he would have liked to have made it twelve, but the Act merely fixed the age limit at nine; he wanted to limit the hours of work for all under eighteen to ten and a half hours a day, exclusive of meal-times, but the Act forbade any young person to be employed more than twelve hours a day, exclusive of meal-times; he urged the appointment of properly qualified and State-paid inspectors to see that the rules and regulations were carried out, but the Act left the matter in the hands of the local magistrates, as had been the custom in the past; and whereas Owen had proposed that practically all textile mills employing more than twenty persons should be brought within the Act’s cover, it finally took account of cotton mills only.

Owen was bitterly disappointed; if only he himself had been in the House of Commons, he thought, things would have gone far differently. As it was, he was so disgusted that he washed his hands of parliamentary action, and henceforth gave his attention to what he thought might well prove to be a much more fruitful line of advance, by way of the infant working-class movement, trade unionism of the most comprehensive type, co-operation of producers and consumers, and (the bee that never stopped buzzing in his head, and buzzed to small purpose) the establishment of model villages or colonies in which employers and employed would be the same persons, with identical interests and activities.

But he need not have been so downhearted, even though his most gloomy predictions concerning the Act came to be realized, since its provisions were largely evaded, as those of the earlier Act had been. Even so, a beginning had been made, and there were plenty of able men in politics and industry who were determined that eventually the new legislation should be made to work.

There was something else, however, full of promise. When Owen had addressed that meeting in Glasgow, he had invited the assembled manufacturers to ask the Government “to consider measures to improve the condition of the young children and others employed in the textile factories”; and he lived long enough, he did not die until 1858, to see a vast extension of factory legislation covering not only children and young persons, the classes which had aroused his concern in the first place, and were always nearest his heart— but of women, and incidentally of the men who were employed alongside them in the mills.

Nor was this all. Very gingerly at first, feeling their way very carefully step by step, but with increasing momentum, the Legislature set about the regulation of industrial life in all its aspects. From textile mills they extended their activities to iron-works and potteries and coal-mines and all the other fields of labour. From enforcing good conditions of work they proceeded to improve the state of the towns and public health in general. Slowly there emerged something that we know as the national minimum, a standard of life below which no member of the community should be allowed to fall, and the provisions of which were laid down by Parliament and enforced through the courts. Altogether it is not too much to claim that the Welfare State of to-day may be traced back to that speech of Owen’s that evoked such a mixed reception. The little Welshman had builded better than he knew, or even had dared to hope.