Robert Owen and New Lanark
Robert Owen and New Lanark

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Robert Owen and New Lanark

4.3 Business and enlightenment: Manchester 1789–99

Manchester's dynamic business environment, particularly that of the new cotton industry, presented many opportunities for enterprise, even to those with modest capital. By 1790 Owen had joined John Jones, probably another Welshman, making spinning machinery. The next logical move was into cotton spinning itself, and very quickly Owen had established a reputation as a manufacturer of fine yarn, selling as far afield as London and Scotland. When in 1792 one of the town's leading merchant capitalists, Peter Drinkwater (whose career replicated that of Dale), was looking for a new manager for his Bank Top Mill, Owen applied for and got the job. Others in the trade were incredulous when they heard that someone of the age of 21 had been appointed and at the huge salary of £300 per annum, comparable to a middle-class income (Owen, 1971, p. 29).

He may have joined the mercantile elite but Owen had enormous responsibilities: he was taken aback when he saw 500 workers, men, women and children, and all the new machines in Drinkwater's large modern factory. Not only was it one of the first to be driven by steam-power using a Boulton & Watt engine, but also its overall design had taken account of the latest thinking on fire-proofing, ventilation, light and hygiene (see Figure 4). While Drinkwater was no supporter of political reform he evidently took a paternal interest in the health and morals of his workforce, and this outlook must have influenced Owen, who had to implement his employer's orders. Owen was also to oversee Drinkwater's other mill, a water-powered factory housing Arkwright-type machinery at Northwich in Cheshire. He proved highly successful as a production and personnel manager, with a reputation for efficiency and innovation.

Owen's career in Manchester was further enhanced in 1795 when he left Drinkwater and joined the much larger Chorlton Twist Company. This had several other influential Manchester and London partners, substantial capital and potentially wide connections in the trade.

Thomas Slack, Pollard and Kennedy Mills, Ancoats Lane, Manchester, c.1830, Chethams Library, Manchester. This early nineteenth-century engraving shows two large steam-powered cotton mills of the type and scale managed in the 1790s by Owen for Peter Drinkwater and for the Chorlton Twist Company.
Photo: reproduced by courtesy of Chethams Library, Manchester ©
Photo: reproduced by courtesy of Chethams Library, Manchester
Figure 4: Thomas Slack, Pollard and Kennedy Mills, Ancoats Lane, Manchester, c.1830, Chethams Library, Manchester. This early nineteenth-century engraving shows two large steam-powered cotton mills of the type and scale managed in the 1790s by Owen for Peter Drinkwater and for the Chorlton Twist Company.

Exercise 4

Review the account of Owen's career to date. What skills could he highlight on his CV by 1795?

Discussion

In boyhood he accumulated a good all-round knowledge of the textile retail trade, some basic business skills and, perhaps most important, the necessary social skills to deal with people from a wide range of backgrounds. He subsequently proved highly entrepreneurial in his business dealings, embracing new technology and opportunities first in machine building and then in cotton spinning, in which he excelled. He gained considerable experience in personnel management and industrial relations in a factory environment. He progressed rapidly and although only in his mid-twenties was a partner in one of the leading spinning companies.

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