Robert Owen was born in Newtown, a small market town in Montgomeryshire, Wales, on 14 May 1771, to Anne (Williams) and Robert Owen. His Father was a saddler, ironmonger, and local postmaster; his mother was the daughter of a Newtown farming family. Young Robert was the sixth of the family's seven children, two of whom died at a young age. His surviving siblings were william, Anne, John, and Richard.
By the early 1790s, Owen's entrepreneurial spirit, management skills, and progressive moral views were emerging. In 1793, he was elected as a member of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, where the ideas of reformers and Philosophers of the Enlightenment were discussed. He also became a committee member of the Manchester Board of Health, which was instigated, principally by Thomas Percival, to promote improvements in the health and working conditions of factory workers.
While living in Manchester, Owen borrowed £100 from his brother, william, to enter into a partnership to make spinning mules, a new invention for spinning cotton thread, but exchanged his share of the Business within a few months for six spinning mules that he operated in a rented factory space. In 1792, when Owen was about twenty-one years old, mill-owner Peter Drinkwater made him manager of the Piccadilly Mill at Manchester; however, after two years of working for Drinkwater, Owen voluntarily gave up a contracted promise of partnership, left the company, and went into partnership with other entrepreneurs to establish and eventually manage the Chorlton Twist Mills in the Chorlton-on-Medlock area of Manchester.
In July 1799 Owen and his partners bought the New Lanark mill from David Dale, and Owen became the New Lanark mill's manager in January 1800. Encouraged by his success in the management of cotton mills in Manchester, Owen hoped to conduct the New Lanark mill on higher principles than purely commercial ones. David Dale and Richard Arkwright had established the substantial mill at New Lanark in 1785. With its water power provided by the falls of the River Clyde, the cotton-spinning operation became one of Britain's largest. About 2,000 individuals were associations with the mill; 500 of them were children who were brought to the mill at the age of five or six from the poorhouses and charities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. Dale, who was known for his benevolence, treated the children well, but the general condition of New Lanark's residents was unsatisfactory. Over the years, Dale and his son-in-law, Owen, worked to improve the factory workers' lives.
Robert and Caroline Owen had eight children, the first of whom died in infancy. Their seven surviving children included four sons and three daughters: Robert Dale (1801–77), william (1802–42), Ann (or Anne) Caroline (1805–31), Jane Dale (1805–61), David Dale (1807–60), Richard Dale (1809–90) and Mary (1810–32). Owen's four sons, Robert Dale, william, David Dale, and Richard, as well as his daughter, Jane Dale, followed their Father to the United States, becoming U.S. citizens and permanent residents of New Harmony, Indiana. Owen's wife, Caroline, and two of their daughters, Anne Caroline and Mary, remained in Britain, where they died in the 1830s.
Owen raised the demand for an eight-hour day in 1810, and instituted the policy at New Lanark. By 1817 he had formulated the goal of the eight-hour workday and coined the slogan: "Eight hours labour, Eight hours recreation, Eight hours rest."
In 1813 Owen authored and published A New View of Society, or Essays on the Principle of the Formation of the Human Character, the first of four essays that he wrote to explain the principles behind his reform minded and socialistic philosophy. Owen had originally been a follower of the classical liberal and utilitarian Jeremy Bentham, who believed that free markets, in particular, the right of workers to move and choose their employers, would release the workers from the excessive power of capitalists. However, Owen developed his own, pro-socialist outlook. In addition, Owen, a deist, criticised organised religion, including the Church of England, and developed a belief system of his own.
In 1817 Owen publicly claimed that all religions were false. In 1854, at the age of 83, Owen converted to spiritualism after a series of sittings with Maria B. Hayden, the American medium who is credited with introducing spiritualism to England. Owen made a public profession of his new faith in his publication The Rational Quarterly Review and in The Future of the Human race; or great glorious and Future revolution to be effected through the agency of departed spirits of good and superior men and women, a pamphlet that he also wrote.
Owen's work at New Lanark continued to have significance throughout Britain and in continental Europe. He was a "pioneer in factory reform, the Father of distributive cooperation, and the founder of nursery schools." His schemes for the education of his workers included the opening of the Institute for the Formation of Character at New Lanark in 1818. The institute and other educational programmes at New Lanark provided free education from infancy to adulthood. In addition, he zealously supported factory legislation that culminated in the Cotton Mills and Factories Act of 1819. Owen also had interviews and communications with the leading members of the British government, including its premier, Robert Banks Jenkinson, and Lord Liverpool. Owen met with many of the rulers and leading statesmen of Europe.
Owen and his son, william, sailed to America in October 1824 to establish an experimental community in Indiana. In January 1825 Owen used a portion of his own funds to finalise the purchase of an existing town that included 180 buildings and several thousand acres of land along the Wabash River in Indiana. (In 1824 George Rapp's Harmony Society, the religious group that owned the property and had founded the communal village of Harmony (or Harmonie) on the site in 1814, decided to relocate to Pennsylvania.) Owen renamed it New Harmony and established the village as his preliminary model for a utopian community.
Social experiments also began in Scotland in 1825, when Abram Combe, an Owenite disciple, attempted the development of a utopian experiment at Orbiston, near Glasgow, but the project failed after a trial of about two years. In the 1830s additional experiments in socialistic cooperatives were made in Ireland and Britain. The most important of these were that at Ralahine, established in 1831 in County Clare, Ireland, and at Tytherley, begun in 1839 in Hampshire, England. The former proved a remarkable success for three-and-a-half years until the proprietor, having ruined himself by gambling, had to sell his interest in the enterprise. Tytherley also failed.
Other utopian experiments in the United States included communal settlements at Blue Spring, near Bloomington, Indiana; Yellow Springs, Ohio; and the Owenite community of Forestville Commonwealth at Earlton, New York, as well as other projects in New York, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. Nearly all of these experiments ended before New Harmony was dissolved in April 1827.
Although Owen made brief visits to the United States, London became his permanent home and the centre of his activities in 1828. After an extended period of friction with william Allen and some of his other Business partners, Owen relinquished all of connections to New Lanark. He is often quoted as comment Allen at the time, "All the world is queer save thee and me, and even thou art a little queer". Having invested most of his personal fortune in the failed New Harmony communal experiment, Owen was no longer a wealthy capitalist; however, he remained the head of a vigorous propaganda effort to promote industrial equality, free education for children, and adequate living conditions in factory towns. In addition, he delivered lectures in Europe and published a weekly newspaper to gain support for his ideas.
Until a series of Truck Acts (1831–1887) required employees to be paid in Common currency, many employers operated the truck system that paid workers in total or in part with tokens. The tokens had no monetary value outside the mill owner's "truck shop," where the owners could supply shoddy goods and charge top prices. In contrast to other employers, Owen's store offered goods at prices slightly above their wholesale cost. He also passed on the savings from the bulk purchase of goods to his workers, and placed the sale of alcohol under strict supervision. These principles became the basis for the cooperative shops in Britain, which continue in an altered form to trade today.
In 1832 Owen opened the National Equitable Labour Exchange system, a time-based currency in which the exchange of goods was effected by means of labour notes; this system superseded the usual means of exchange and middlemen. The London exchange continued until 1833; a Birmingham branch operated for only a few months until July 1833. Owen also became involved in trade unionism. He briefly served as the leader of the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union (GNCTU) before its collapse in 1834.
Socialism first became current in British terminology in the discussions of the Association of all Classes of all Nations, which Owen formed in 1835 and served as its initial leader. Owen's secular views also gained enough influence among the working classes to cause the Westminster Review to comment in 1839 that his principles were the actual creed of a great portion of them. However, by 1846, the only long-lasting result of Owen's agitation for social change, carried on through public meetings, pamphlets, periodicals, and occasional treatises, remained the co-operative movement, and for a time even that seemed to have utterly collapsed.
Owen was ahead of his time as a social reformer. He offered his vision for a communal society that others could consider and apply as they wished. In Revolution in the Mind and Practice of the Human Race (1849), Owen further elaborated that character is formed by a combination of Nature or God and the circumstances of the individual's experience. Citing the beneficial results achieved at New Lanark, Scotland, during his thirty years of work in the community, Owen concluded that a person's "character is not made by, but for the individual," and that nature and society are responsible for each person's character and conduct.
As Owen grew older and more radical in his views, his influence began to decline. Owen published his memoirs, The Life of Robert Owen (1857), a year prior to his death.
Although he had spent the majority of his life in England and Scotland, Owen returned to his native village of Newtown at the end of his life. He died at Newtown on 17 November 1858, and was buried there on 21 November. With the exception of an annual income drawn from a trust established by his sons in 1844, Owen died penniless.
Spiritualists have claimed that after Owen's death his spirit dictated to the medium Emma Hardinge Britten in 1871 the "Seven Principles of Spiritualism," which the Spiritualists' National Union used as "the basis of its religious philosoply."
Owen felt that human character is formed by circumstances over which individuals have no control. As a result, individuals cannot be praised or blamed for their behaviour or situation in life. This principle lead Owen to the conclude that the secret behind the correct formation of people's characters is to place them under proper environmental influences – physical, moral and social – from their earliest years. These principles of the irresponsibility of humans and of the effect of early influences on an individual's character formed the basis of Owen's system of education and social reform.
Josiah Warren, one of the participants at New Harmony, asserted that community was doomed to failure due to a lack of individual sovereignty and personal property. In describing the Owenite community, Warren explained: "We had a world in miniature — we had enacted the French revolution over again with despairing hearts instead of corpses as a result. ... It appeared that it was nature's own inherent law of diversity that had conquered us ... our "united interests" were directly at war with the individualities of persons and circumstances and the instinct of self-preservation ..." Warren's observations on the reasons for the community's failure led to the development of American individualist anarchism, of which he was its original theorist. Some historians have attributed the demise of the New Harmony experiment to a series of disagreements among its members.