James Rigby Correspondence Collection

Scope and Content

Letters, mainly to, and some from James Rigby. Most of the correspondents are writing to Rigby regarding the Co-operative League which he was Assistant Secretary of. The largest series' of letters are those from William Pare and Robert Owen. Rigby worked for William Pare in various capacities from 1845-1851 and much of the correspondence relates to his work. From 1853 until Owen's death in 1858 Rigby acted as Owen's agent in London. They corresponded at least weekly, sometimes daily, regarding tasks that Rigby carried out for Owen.

Administrative / Biographical History

James Rigby (1806-1862) was born in Salford. From the age of 7 to 14 he worked in a cotton factory owned by Jospeh Brotherton (1783-1857) and also attended the radical Sunday School provided by him. Many of Rigby's belief's seem to have been influenced by Brotherton who was a strict vegetarian and campaigned against child labour and for a ten hour day. Rigby also became interested in the promotion of working- class self-improvement through the influence of Rowland Detroisier. At the age of 16 he became an apprentice to the Salford plumber and glazier Jospeh Smith. In his spare time, Rigby started a school for young people. In 1824 Rigby married Mary Firth at St John’s church in Manchester. After attending a lecture by William Pare in Manchester in 1829 he became interested in co-operative views and joined with Joseph Smith to form the Salford co-operative store and school. Rigby attended the London Co-operative Congress in 1833 as a representative of Salford and consequently joined Robert Owen's National Regeneration Society. As a member of this society he became a full time lecturer for a year. Afterwards he returned to his employment in Salford with Joseph Smith and became involved in the Salford Social Institution in 1836. In 1837 he was appointed to its Central Board and became a social missionary in Leeds, Liverpool and Birmingham. In 1840 Rigby moved to Leeds with his wife Mary and two children.

In October 1840, Rigby became the Deputy Governor of Owen’s community in Queenwood, Hampshire. He was joined there by his family in 1841 with his wife Mary working as a domestic and nurse. He remained at Queenswood until its closure in 1845. In 1845 he became an employee of William Pare working for him in some capacity with the railways. This role ceased in late 1846. A short time afterwards Rigby gained a position as the London Agent of Finch & Willey, Windsor Foundry of Liverpool and also the London Agent of the Irish Engineering Company, the companies which Pare worked at. Rigby stayed in this role until 1851.The census records of 1851 confirm that Rigby was living in Camden Town with his wife Mary and son Thomas. In 1852 Rigby became the Assistant Secretary of the Co-operative League who met at 58 Pall Mall.The Co-operative League formed in 1852 and was intended as a forum for co-operative ideas, and held regular public meetings, at one of which Owen himself gave an address. A publication, Transactions of the Co-operative League was produced in three parts in 1852.

Around 1853 Rigby became Robert Owen's unofficial agent in London. At this time Owen had moved to Sevenoaks and Rigby became his eyes and ears in London. The tasks he carried out included posting Owen newspapers and journals, arranging for Owen’s Petitions to be delivered to various dignitaries in London and keeping Owen up to date with events around the world. Rigby would write to Owen every Sunday updating him on his progress. Around 1855 Rigby became involved, on Owen's behalf, in a scheme of Pierre Baume to set up a colony at Colney Hatch, London. The scheme was beset by protracted legal wrangling. In November 1857 Rigby was appointed the Secretary of the Social Science League when it formed in London. Rigby continued to be a faithful attendant of Robert Owen until Owen’s death in November 1858. Rigby was at his side, in Newtown, when he died.

In 1861 Rigby was still living in Camden Town with his wife and son and was working at a printer’s office [possibly the printing shop of John Kenny]. He died on 6 March 1862 and was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery on 11 March. John Kenny wrote to George Jacob Holyoake on the 9 March 1862 asking him, in the absence of a Minister, to say a few words at the burial. Holyoake duly did so. Records suggest that John Kenny also organised a collection for Rigby’s wife Mary. Rigby's name features on the Reformers' Memorial at Kensal Green Cemetery in London. Records suggest that Rigby was a dedicated vegetarian and died never having tasted meat.

George Jacob Holyoake later described Rigby:

Mr Rigby was one of the earliest, merriest, and pleasant speakers among the missionaries. His vivacity of illustration was remarkable. He had genuine imagination; not, perhaps, always well in hand. If he did not obscure the facts by the fecundity of fancy, he cast such a glamour over them that the hearer forgot to look for them. As an expositor of Socialism, he was the most fascinating of all his compeers. His vivacity, his graphic language, his brightness of imagination, his agreeable garrulity, always made him a popular speaker. He was long remembered for his happiness of expressing the immense hopes and prospects of the party without any sense whatever of the limited means which alone were at the command of social reformers to realise them. He first came into notice from the active part he took in the laborious agitation for the Ten Hours’ Bill. After the fall of Queenwood, he was associated with Mr Owen as a personal attendant, having charge of his manuscripts. He was entirely a communist, echoing literally Mr Owen’s material views on that subject; but when a semi-spiritualism came in after-days to be engrafted upon them by his master, Mr Rigby proved that, though he was a disciple, he was not a follower in the sense of departing from the ancient way. He was with us when we buried Mr Owen at Newtown. Among all who stood at that grave, none were so assiduous, so faithful, so wary, as he. When I went down to relieve him late at night, as he kept watch over his master’s tomb, it was with difficulty that he could be induced to go home, until I satisfied him that certain fears which he entertained were all anticipated, and that no unauthorised hands could disturb those honoured remains. His faithful fears dated as far back as the days of Julian Hibbert, at whose death Mr Baume interfered by virtue of some personal warrant which he was understood to hold, and his head was preserved for purposes of science. All his life Mr Rigby remained constant to the abstemious habits of his youth, and died at fifty-six years of age, without having tasted animal food. Up to the day of his burial no change from life was observable in his pleasant and placid counterance. Since I have often doubted whether he was really dead when I made an oration over his coffin. [Holyoake, The history of Co-operation, I, p.233.]


  • GB 1499- ROC/26/31/2
  • GB 1499- GJH/1142
  • GB 1499- GJH/1408
  • The History of Co-operation, by G J Holyoake
  • Robert Owen and the Commencement of the Millennium, by Edward Royle (1998)
  • Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America, by J F C Harrison (1969)
  • Co-operation and the Owenite socialist communities in Britain 1825-45, by R G Garnett (1972)
  • London Metropolitan Archives, All Souls Cemetery, Kensal Green, Kensington, Transcript of Burials, 1862 Jan-1862 Dec
  • 1841, 1851, 1861 UK census


Material is arranged in series by correspondent, and within the series level the individual items are arranged chronologically.

Access Information

The collection is open to any accredited reader, subject to the requirements of the Data Protection Act 2018.

Some files in this collection are subject to Data Protection legislation as they contain sensitive information and material under 30 years old is closed to access. It is advised that you contact the Archivist before visiting.

Acquisition Information

The collection was donated to the Co-operative Union by George Jacob Holyoake at the end of 1903. The Co-operative Union Archive was transferred to the Co-operative College on 1 January 2000.

Archivist's Note

Catalogued by Adam Shaw, Archivist, 2013.

Custodial History

The collection was held by the Co-operative Union Library with the Robert Owen collection.

Evidence from within the Robert Owen collection has revealed that Owen commenced gathering his correspondence together in 1853 so that he could reference it whilst writing his autobiography. This was not a simple task, as the letters were spread in locations as varied as New Orleans, New York, New Harmony and London, and Owen was obliged to accept the help offered by friends with the cost incurred.

Once the collection was gathered together Owen was assisted with the arranging of the material by his close friend James Rigby, who, at the same time, wrote the correspondents name and date of postage on the reverse of many of the letters. Also in 1853 Owen wrote of his intentions to appoint William Pare, Robert Dale Owen and Dr. Henry Travis as Trustees for the collection, as this would ensure its safe-keeping following his death.

By 1869 the letters were to be found stored in an iron trunk (which is referred to as the "Hair Trunk" as it contained a lock of Owen's hair) and located at Belle Sauvage Yard, London. Here they were inspected by William Pare, who noted having been given the letters by Owen's eldest son Robert Dale Owen in 1859 shortly after Robert Owen's death.

It would appear that the collection remained untouched for a number of years, until around 1900 when G.J. Holyoake sought to locate it. Holyoake, having been informed the collection was most recently in the possession of the late Henry Travis, made contact with the Executors of Travis' Will only to be informed by them that they were unaware of its whereabouts. For two years Holyoake carried out an investigation, until hearing "privately" they were to be found in the iron trunk located at Belle Sauvage Yard. With the permission from [William] Galpin, one of the Executors of Travis Will, Holyoake took possession of the letters and spent the next two years reading through them before donating the collection to the Co-operative Union at the end of 1903. On the 1st January 2000 the Co-operative Union Archive was transferred to the Co-operative College.


None are expected.

Related Material

GB 1499 ROC- Robert Owen Collection- contains the corresponding letters that Rigby sent to Robert Owen. Many of these letters match up with those in the Rigby collection.

Corporate Names