Robert Owen Collection

Scope and Content

The collection consists of 2991 items of correspondence, the bulk of which is letters written to Robert Owen and date from the period 1820 through to his death in 1858. A wide variety of subject matter is touched upon, mapping well with the various projects and causes Owen became associated with during his long and eventful life. Key subjects discussed are those of co-operation, social reform, education, socialism and philanthropy. The communities established by Owen at New Harmony, Indiana and Harmony Hall (Queenwood), Hampshire are also frequently referred to, while a large number of the items relate to the period following Owen's return from America in 1829 and his subsequent involvement with the working class movements.

James Rigby and Dr. Henry Travis were three of Owen's closest allies, and this is represented within the collection with the combined total of items of correspondence from these three alone totaling over 450. During his later life these three individuals would carry out many of Owen's tasks on his behalf.

There are around 200 items written by Owen, these consist mainly of copies of letters and drafts of letters sent by Owen to British and European dignitaries as he sought to get his ideas recognised by those in power. Other letters written by Owen are those to family members, particularly his wife and eldest son Robert Dale Owen.

Within the collection there are around 300 items which were sent to Owen but are not attributable to any one individual; circulars, notices, advertisements, receipts and pamphlets relating to a variety of subjects are included and are these are found under the collective title of ephemera at the end of the collection.

Administrative / Biographical History

Robert Owen (1771-1858) was born at Newtown, Wales to a working family, his father being employed as the local postmaster. From an early age Owen was encouraged to read and debate, and using this knowledge he was able to mentor the younger children at his school. Aged just 10 he left school and was apprenticed to a Mr James McGuffog, a linen draper from Stamford, Lincolnshire, and, according to his Autobiography, he was independent from his parents from this point onwards.

By 1784 Owen had moved to London and was employed at Flint and Palmers, a busy store on London Bridge where prices were both fixed and cheap. However, after just a year Owen moved on to Manchester to begin work for a Mr Sattersfield, whose ran a business whose custom was mainly drawn from the upper middle class clients. This move proved crucial to the development of Owen's experiences and ideas. In 1785 Manchester was the epicenter of the Industrial Revolution, and also a hot bed of intellectual and philanthropic discourse and Owen was often present at the meetings of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society where he was able to expand his knowledge on a number of subjects.

In 1789 Owen set up a spinning business with a man named Jones, with capital borrowed from an elder brother of Owen's. They were an unlikely pairing; Jones having no knowledge of business and Owen having none of machinery, and in 1790 the partnership was dissolved. However, both continued spinning with their share of the machinery and by 1791 Owen had turned a profit.

Owen was clearly a man not lacking in confidence, and on hearing of an opportunity arising in 1791 to manage a fine-spinning mill owned by a rich merchant named Drinkwater, Owen decided to apply. Drinkwater agreed, hiring Owen at a salary of £300 a year with Owen soon proving successful; by 1793 the mill had doubled the fineness of its cotton and also become one of the first mills to use "American Sea Island" cotton from the United States.

Owen left in 1794 and became a partner of a new venture named the Chorlton Twist Company. Whilst in Glasgow on business trip for this company, Owen met Miss Caroline Dale who was the daughter of David Dale, owner of New Lanark Mills. Miss Dale offered to show Owen her father's mill, an offer Owen was happy to accept. Owen was highly impressed with the mills, writing in his Autobiography, "I should prefer this [place] in which to try an experiment [in an ideal community] I have long contemplated".

In 1789 David Dale agreed to both the engagement of his daughter Caroline to Owen, and to sell his New Lanark mills for £60,000 (Owen's valuation) to Owen and partners of the Chorlton Twist Company. Owen took over the management of the New Lanark mills in 1790, aiming to create a model factory and community. The provision of education was considered by Owen as a vital if the lives of his workers were to be improved and in 1809 he proposed the building of schools, playgrounds and lecture halls at Lanark. Additionally, Owen made the radical suggestion that all children under the age of ten should not work, but these proposals did not sit to well with his partners who were of the opinion that business exists to make profit, and baulked against any investment in intangibles such as education. Arguments followed, and eventually a new set of partners was found which included Jeremy Bentham and several wealthy Quakers, all of whom were more acceptable to Owen educational proposals.

During his time at New Lanark Owen was essentially testing his theories, which he subsequently called the "New View of Society". The premise was relatively simple, a man's character was formed by the environment in which he existed, therefore if this environment was built on co-operation, forbearance and understanding the result would be harmony, well-being and ultimately the attainment of the ideal universe. Society was to be planned not on oppression but on mutual co-operation.

In 1824 Owen was pushed out of New Lanark by his partners largely as a result of his atheism. This led Owen to purchase land in Posey County, Indiana, USA, in 1825 on which he would establish a community called New Harmony. Owen advertised for tradesmen of all kinds to join him in his venture, and set sail for America along with his sons (his wife and daughters remaining in Scotland). After just 3 years the community had failed and Owen returned to Britain.

On his return to England in 1829 Owen found that his ideas had achieved popularity with the masses. It was a time when the working classes were attempting to assert themselves and in Owen's ideas saw opportunities to improve their circumstances. Owen appreciated the collective strength of the working classes, but had little time for their small schemes and instead set about trying to organize them in line with his own plans. In 1831 he was present when the First Co-operative Congress was held Manchester, at which delegates from co-operative societies gathered to resolve the best way of furthering the co-operative movement; in 1832 he help found the National Equitable Labour Exchange in London, which was established with the purpose of providing the producer co-operatives with an outlet to trade the goods they produced at a price which equated to their value expressed in labour notes. A further exchange was established in London, and a provincial one in Birmingham, but by 1834 they had failed.

In 1834 Owen became the Grand Master of the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, and within just a few weeks over half a million members were said to have enrolled causing alarm to spread amongst the propertied classes. However, the Grand National power was fleeting having been rendered ineffective following its failure to overturn the sentence passed on the six Tolpuddle labourers for being members of a Union.

Despite his recent setbacks Owen was not a man to quit, and in May 1835 he founded the Association of All Classes of All Nations and in 1837 at the Manchester Congress the National Community Friendly Society. From 1839 the two societies were united and formed into the Universal Community Society of Rational Religionists, which aimed to establish a community run on Owen"s ideals. To this end missionaries were appointed to visit the branches of the Society to encourage them to subscribe money to a Community Fund. Eventually enough money was raised to secure property at East Tytherley, Hampshire which was named Harmony (or Queenwood). The community at Harmony began in 1839 and at first progressed well. However, problems with administration and finance, and a lack of agreement at the purpose of the community soon beset the project and by 1845 the experiment was coming to an end.

Owen lived out the last years of his life at Sevenoaks in Kent. With both his eyesight and hearing failing, he relied on close associate James Rigby to carry out tasks in his behalf in London and Rigby would write to Owen on a weekly basis and send him newspapers and journals to keep him updated on world events.

Owen died in 1858 in Newtown, Wales having been an inspiration to many.


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

Each of the items in the collection carries a stamped number which was added some time after the collection was gathered together. These are numbers which have previously been used when referencing the collection, and thus have been noted within the 'Note' field to ensure consistency.

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.

Alternative Form Available

Copies of the documents are available.

Archivist's Note

Catalogued by Simon Sheppard, Project Archivist, in 2011/2012 as part of a 1 year project funded by the National Catalogue Grants Scheme.

Custodial History

Evidence from within the 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 0248 UGD 42/9 Photographs of New Lanark Mills

GB 1499 Papers of Robert Owen including records relating to New Lanark Mills (Co-operative Union Archives)

GB 2051 William Allan's account book for New Lanark Mills 1814-1816 (Glaxo Wellcome Heritage Archives)

GB 237 D 6 110 New Lanark Institution Cash Book (Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections)

GB 243 TD 66 Plans of mills and villages (Glasgow City Archives)

GB 0248 UGD 42 Records of Gourock Ropeworks Co Ltd