Utopia in the Nineteenth Century

On 14th May 1771, in Newtown, Powys the sixth of seven children was born to Robert Owen (local postmaster, ironmonger and saddler) and his wife Anne. The baby, also called Robert, was to grow up to have a profound influence on the thoughts and actions of people in Britain and America, affects that we still notice today.

In April 1825 this Robert Owen spent £30,000 on the purchase of 30,000 acres of land in America in order to start his plan for the creation of self-contained communities throughout the world. For his money he obtained a whole village recently vacated by a religious group with substantial buildings capable of comfortably housing up to a thousand people. The purchase of the settlement in Indiana, which was known as Harmony, and which had been founded in 1814 by the German evangelist George Rapp and his followers, also included industrial equipment. Owen renamed the community New Harmony and set about looking for people to occupy it and follow his grand plan for a 'New Moral World'.

Owen was advocating "co-operative villages or townships", where residents would live and work in harmony. He hoped these new villages would provide havens for the poor, to take them away from the manufacturing towns, which were "the abode of vice, crime and misery, while the proposed villages will ever be the abode of abundance, active intelligence, correct conduct and happiness."

He had formulated his plans whilst manager at New Lanark, where, to support the Cotton Mills, he built a model community with quality housing for his workers, a day nursery for pre-school children, a playground, a school, evening classes for adults and a shop which became the catalyst for the co-operative retail movement.

Owen believed passionately that the effects of the environment a person is brought up in formed their character. He was convinced that people were naturally good but were corrupted by the harsh way they were treated and by their dreadful surroundings. He was convinced he could produce rational, good and humane people if he created the right environment. These "co-operative villages" were such environments.

His research indicated that 500 to 3000 people was the best number for a good working community. While mainly agricultural, it should possess all the best machinery, should offer every variety of employment, and should, as far as possible, be self-contained. He believed that as these communities were founded and became successful, they would logically" increase in number, unions of them federatively united shall be formed in circles of tens, hundreds and thousands". He was convinced that in time they would spread throughout the world.

Reception of his plans was initally warm but as he started to add advice that communities should be 'non sectarian' he encountered hostility. Few people actually took up the challenge of founding communities. One project that did commence was at Spa Fields, Islington, London where a group of printers got together, and moved into a number of rented properties. The 21 families had their own private apartments but shared meals, all domestic services and childcare. They ran a printing press and pooled their wages which included income from community businesses and outside jobs. The project apparantly came to an end after three years in 1824, shortly before Owen went to America.

Whilst Owen was busy persuing his Utopian vision in America, his followers were taking notice of his teachings, and around the country a number of Co-operative societies were formed with the intention of raising money to found communities. One such was the London Cooperative Society which was set up in 1826 to form a community consisting of a number of adjoining farms up to 2000 acres within 50 miles of London. They would have self-government by majority vote and offer the women resident's freedom from the domestic drudgery of cooking and washing, which would be performed on scientific principles on a large economical scale. People would not work more than eight hours per day with all community dwellers undertaking some tasks in both agriculture and industry. The society never managed to achieve their object and was superseded by the British Association for Promoting Co-operative Knowledge, which became a propaganda organisation.

In Scotland, in 1825, a group of Robert Owen's followers set up a community that attained the nickname 'Babylon'. The 290 residents occupied a 291 acre site at Orbiston near Glasgow on which was constructed a 5 storey main communal building, school, apartments and communal dining facilities as well as an iron foundry. The community comprised blacksmiths, wheelwrights, joiners, cabinetmakers, printers, painters, shoemakers, weavers, tailors, seamstresses and harness-makers. 75 acres of their land was cultivated with an orchard and vegetable garden and the waste from the community sewage system was used as manure on the land.

Unfortunately after a very successful two years, the founder of the Orbiston community died and there was no satisfactory mechanism or agreement for passing control onto the community. The site was sold to a local landowner who ordered all trace of the community to be removed.

A similar story led to the demise of an agricultural community that was established on a 600-acre estate at Ralahine, Co Clare, Eire. The community was founded in November 1831 and it outlined its aims as

  • To acquire common capital or a common wealth, in order to protect its members against the evils of old age and sickness,

  • To achieve the mental and moral improvement of its adult members and

  • To educate their children.

Initially the community comprised twenty-two single adult men, five single women seven married men and their wives, four orphan boys, three orphan girls and five infants under the age of nine. This figure increased by 29 new members in a short space of time. Cottages and communal facilities were built for the community, a school and library established, weaving introduced as well as new machinery including the first mowing machine in Ireland.

The working day was from six in the morning till six in the evening in summer, and from daybreak till dusk in winter, with a break of one hour for dinner. The workers were paid with "labour notes" instead of money and were able to spend these notes in the co-operative store. This enabled the commune to be more self-sufficient as the members would be buying goods they themselves had worked to produce. If they needed to spend money outside the community the treasurer would change the labour notes into coins.

Like Orbiston the community ran successfully for two years before the landowner lost his fortune in a gambling transaction in Dublin, and fled in disgrace, unable to pay his debts. The persons who took over the estate under bankruptcy proceedings refused to recognise the community, insisted upon treating its members as common labourers, seized the buildings and grounds and broke up the Association. The members of the commune met for the last time in November 1833 and placed on record a declaration of "the contentment, peace and happiness they had experienced for two years …".

Robert Owen came back to England in 1828. The New Harmony community had split into ten different sub-communities and failure was apparent. He was kept busy with the role of establishing the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union, which was founded in 1834, and the Association of All Classes and All Nations in 1835 as well as the fledgling co-operative movement.

In 1839 a group of his followers set up a community on a piece of land at Manea Fen in Cambridgeshire. They produced a journal entitled 'The Working Bee' with the subtitle 'He who will not work; neither shall he eat' and from this we know much about the aims and workings of the community, so much in fact that I will save this information for a future edition.

Various other projects were established including a small community at Chat Moss, a large area of drained 'waste' west of Manchester. Owen also commenced the foundation of a new community at East Tytherley in Hampshire. However, like New Harmony in America, the experiments at Manea and East Tytherley came to an end after disagreements between members of the community.

Robert Owen went back to America for three years and although disillusioned with the failure of the communities, on his return to England continued to write and lecture on his vision of the 'New Moral World' until his death, at the hotel in the town of his birth, on 17th November 1858. To quote the historian W H Oliver 'He was an inspirer rather than a leader. He could never hold a movement together but he could always found a new one'.

© Maureen James 2005