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Robert Owen and New Lanark
Robert Owen and New Lanark

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4 The making of a social reformer

4.1 Environment and education: Wales 1771–c.1782

Owen had a remarkable career even before he reached New Lanark. His kin and upbringing at Newtown in mid-Wales were highly influential. His parents were shopkeepers and his father was also the postmaster and a churchwarden. So the Owens possessed practical retailing and administrative skills, which they passed on to their offspring, including Robert, a precocious and clever boy. Newtown was located in one of the most profoundly rural parts of southern Britain, yet beginning to be touched by economic change radiating out from Shropshire to the east and Cheshire and Lancashire to the north. Set in the beautiful surroundings of the upper Severn valley, it was a small market town with a woollen industry and other crafts, a role model for a self-contained community of its time. People were highly religious and the Owens were no exception, though they seem to have adhered to Anglicanism rather than embracing Methodism, which had made a big impact (and caused sectarian bitterness) throughout this part of Wales. Newtown was also at something of a linguistic and cultural divide, a bilingual town surrounded by a Welsh-speaking hinterland. Owen was probably bilingual and later deployed his Welsh eloquence to good effect in writing and on public platforms. He evidently made such good progress at school that when he was eight or nine years old the master made him his ‘assistant and usher’ in return for free education for the rest of his schooling.

Robert seems to have played the role of monitor, created in early nineteenth-century schools modelling themselves on the ideas of educational reformers like the Quaker, Joseph Lancaster (1778–1838), and the Scot, Dr Andrew Bell (1753–1832), later adopted by Owen himself in the schools at New Lanark. This was mass production applied to education, where specially selected senior pupils passed on learning by rote to their juniors, sometimes in large numbers, in what became known in France as ‘mutual instruction’. So Robert ‘acquired the habit of teaching others what [he] knew’ (Owen, 1971, p. 3), and this experience probably gave him early responsibilities for the care, supervision and education of others. He also gained some knowledge of the elementary school curriculum, which he would revisit in his later career.

At the same time his education was carried beyond the schoolroom. ‘At this period’, he says, ‘I was fond of and had a strong passion for reading everything which fell in my way’, and his family's position in the community opened up to him the libraries of the learned – the clergyman, doctor and lawyer – ‘with permission to take home any volume’ that he liked. His reading matter, as a result, included many classics like The Pilgrim's Progress, Robinson Crusoe and accounts of Captain Cook's voyages (Owen, 1971, p. 3).

Robert apparently believed every word in the books to be true, which in the examples of The Pilgrim's Progress and Robinson Crusoe may have proved significant in shaping his views about religion and enterprise. Certainly as an adult he identified closely with the famous shipwrecked hero cast up on his desert island. Robinson Crusoe, of course, was more than just a romantic adventure likely to capture young Robert's imagination, for it was also a highly moral tale, with strong religious, environmental and economic messages. ‘We do not read it’, the literary scholar Angus Ross has observed,

only in order to escape into an exciting world of danger and triumph. We read it rather in order to follow with meticulous interest and constant self-identification the hero's success in building up, step by step, out of whatever materials came to hand, a physical and moral replica of the world he had left behind him.

(Ross, 1985, p. 7)

New Lanark, the place Owen was later to make internationally famous, became, in a sense, his ‘island’, much like Crusoe's. There, like his hero, he used what came to hand, both in the physical environment and in an apparently less than efficient labour force. Nor, given Robert's first-hand experience of shopkeeping, were Crusoe's financial and commercial dealings likely to have gone unnoted. Accounts of exploration, like those of Captain Cook, would also prove attractive, but whether or not the actual ideas of the Enlightenment, which underpinned such works, had any impact on his thinking at that age is impossible to determine.

We might just note in passing that Owen, who learned to play the clarinet, enjoyed music and dancing. Both ultimately featured strongly in his social and educational thinking and were given a prominent place in the curriculum at New Lanark and later Owenite communities in Britain and the United States.