Robert Owen and the survival of things

Tonight, the University of Glasgow is opening its Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change. Owen was a great social reformer and utopian socialist, who had an enormous influence on radical movements in Britain and Ireland. He is popularly associated with Scotland (although not specifically with Glasgow) through New Lanark, an industrial village founded in 1786, and centred around a cotton mill, which Owen managed after marrying the owner’s daughter.

Owen had strong and clear ideas about education. The nature of his ideas is expressed in the name that he chose for the school and adult education centre at New Lanark: the Institute for the Formation of Character was formally opened on New Year’s Day 1816. Essentially, Owen thought of education as a training for citizenship: ignorance and community were, he thought, incompatible; his ‘new view of society’ depended upon a literate, sober, disciplined, physically active, hard-working and well-informed population.

For Owen, education was not only inseparable from social change but was its essential precondition. It is, then, entirely appropriate that the Welsh-born and Manchester-(adult)-educated Owen should lend his name to a centre which will study educational inequalities and promote educational change. Hats off to my colleagues at Glasgow for this initiative, and I’ll be looking forward to seeing the results of its work in the years ahead. Here, though, I want to draw attention to the contrasting fate of two Owenite communities: the village of New Lanark, and the settlement at Orbiston.

New Lanark is one of Scotland’s outstanding visitor attractions, which has been garlanded by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. It is indeed beautiful, sitting as it does in a valley below the Falls of Clyde, and comprising a group of solidly-built stone buildings. As manager, Owen insisted on well designed and equipped workers’ housing, as well as impressive public buildings designed to improve their spiritual as well as their physical needs. As well as believing that this would make the workers more productive, Owen hoped – rightly – that the village would also attract visitors, who would be persuaded by his views.

New Lanark stands to this day as an intensely physical symbol of progressive education, factory reform, humane working practices, and forward-looking town planning. But Owen also has another strong Scottish connection, through his association with the short lived co-operative community at Orbiston, now subsumed into the North Lanarskshire town of Bellshill. James Archibald Hamilton, radical landowner and military man, was keen to promote Owenite co-operative production, and in 1825 he gave over part of his estate at Orbiston for use by an Owenite community. The experiment lasted little longer than other Owenite communities in Britain and North America, and was wound up at the end of 1827.

Orbiston gives us at least as much of an idea of Owen’s thinking and its reception as does New Lanark. Like all such radical settlements, Orbiston was also a movement of learning, in two senses. First, it required educational institutions and practices in order to produce the new women and men of the new moral order; and second, it was a huge exercise in learning how to live otherwise. And as Ian Donnachie’s account makes clear, Owen also saw it as a demonstration project, from which the gentry would learn to change their attitudes towards the working class, and understand that crime and pauperism were the products of Old Society, with its inbuilt imposition of popular ignorance and disorder.

Nothing of Orbiston survives. Those who use Strathclyde Country Park are treading what was once Owenite land; the rest of us use the ferris wheel as a landmark as we drive past on the M74. One set of memories is enshrined in a world heritage site, the other set lies under a theme park. This is probably inevitable, but remember that the most imposing physical remains – planned villages, majestic castles, proud palaces and ruined abbeys – invariably distort our understanding of the past.

Alfred Russel Wallace, socialist and land grabber

Alfred Russel Wallace is being celebrated as Britain’s forgotten evolutionary scientist, the man who co-discovered the process of evolution through natural selection. The Natural History Museum is currently marking the centenary of his death with a series of events, exhibitions and conferences, while a project supported by David Attenborough has digitised much of his voluminous archive.

Historians of science admire Wallace as a naturalist, anthropologist, geographer and explorer. They have rather less to say about his political ideas. Wallace described himself as a socialist, and was a high profile campaigner for public ownership of the land. He was also, for at least two decades, a vocal supporter of the land colony as a solution to unemployment.

Wallace had a long standing interest in Robert Owen, the leading co-operative thinker and founder of the pioneering industrial settlement at New Lanark. By 1889, he was enthusing over the writings of Herbert Vincent Mills, Unitarian Minister and social reformer, who had written Poverty and the State, which Wallace praised as ‘one of the most remarkable and valuable little books of the day’.

In his presidential address for 1889, Wallace told the Land National Society that Mills’ proposals for settling industrial workers on communal village colonies would ‘prove that poverty and want of work are wholly landlord-created, and that, whether as individual independent workers or in co-operative association, our labouring classes, if permitted, can support themselves upon the land’.

In 1892, Mills led a small group of like minded friends onto a farm at Starnthwaite, near Kendal.  Here they settled down to a life of farming, weaving, tailoring, shoe-making, fruit-bottling, jam-making, and smithing. By autumn 1893, eleven men, five women and six children were living in the colony. Perhaps inevitably, Mills had clashed with secular socialists (or, as he saw it, the more idle settlers). The colony survived until 1900, when Mills handed it over to the English Land Colonisation Society.

Wallace continued to champion Mills’ ideas throughout and beyond the Starnthwaite experience. In 1893, he outlined detailed plans for a series of co-operative land colonies across Britain, each with a population of around 800 families, so that ‘there would thus gradually be trained up a body of men and women fit to carry out successfully a truly co-operative life’.  In 1897 he restated his proposals in a contribution to a collection edited by Edward Carpenter, republishing the chapter as part of Studies, Social and Scientific in 1900.

In 1908, by which time there were several Tolstoyan land colonies, Wallace wrote two articles for Socialist Review, which he later republished as a Clarion pamphlet, praising Mills’ idea of the land colony as a solution to unemployment. So neither Wallace’s political beliefs, nor his interest in labour colonies, were a passing whim. This can be rather embarrassing for historians of science, who prefer to focus on his contribution to natural science.

Wallace’s ideas, though, can be equally distasteful for some labour and socialist historians, who have scant sympathy for talk of industrial workers settling land, and recoil from Wallace’s interest in spiritualism, as well as his ideas on the workshy (he and Mills thought tramps and loafers should be required to attend a labour colony until they acquired the taste for work that was needed for life in a communal colony).

As we mark Wallace100 then, we can reflect that resistance to modern capitalism has taken many forms. Social democracy and state welfare are one of these, though some might argue that they have also developed their own inefficiencies and injustices. The more communitarian tradition of critique and action has often been marginalised, but it produced some fascinating experiments in communal ways of living, and has influenced modern environmental thinking. We should not dismiss it lightly.

For further information on Wallace100, see: