Owen and Philanthropy

Life PreserverRobert Owen was a man renowned for his philanthropic nature. Throughout his life he held a strong desire to help his fellow man and, armed with this knowledge, a number of individuals were encouraged enough to write to Owen in the hope of monetary assistance. Within the Robert Owen Collection there are a number of letters which provide evidence of the differing appeals that came Owen’s way; hopeful inventors hoping for a big break, men already celebrated for their creativeness, and those asking for money for others rather than themselves all wrote letters to the ‘Great Philanthropist’.

One interesting appeal to Owen’s philanthropy came on the 3rd January 1832 when an individual named John Hands sought backing for a scheme which would benefit mankind (and his own pocket, of course). In the letter Hands explains that, at his “sole expense”, he has been responsible for the design and building of a “Life Preserver”, a piece of equipment which he describes being of “vital importance”. In considerable detail, and with the aid of a charming sketch, Hands enlightens Owen as to the workings and perceived benefits of his Preserver, claiming it has been designed to save the “aged and infirm” and “most tender infants” from the ravages of fire. He also explains this can be done with the assistance of just three people are required to manoeuvre the Preserver from the local station to a fire some quarter of a mile away in just 5 minutes. Such is Hands confidence in his work, he invites Owen to see the Preserver at the Plough Inn, Casey Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, certain, that if Owen sees the Preserver with his own eyes, he will not fail to be impressed.

The sketch above shows that the Preserver consists of a base set on wheels on which is mounted a box-shaped ladder mounted able to be elongated to reach up to even the third floor of a town building. The ladder works in two ways; the old and infirm being lowered down through the centre of the structure with their movement controlled by means of a rope, while the “male branches” of the family are able to climb down the front and sides of the ladder and reach safety. A smaller inset sketch shows that the ladder can be easily folded away for ease of manoeuvre.

Alas, it would seem likely that Owen did not invest in Hands machine as no further correspondence between the two in found in the collection. A search of the internet also reveals no mention of John Hands or his Life Preserver, and it would appear that the development of fire saving equipment was destined to be left to others. And yet, it is possible, perhaps, to garner a small likeness, even from such a crude sketch, to more modern fire fighting equipment and thus not too great a leap of faith to hope that Hand’s Life Preserver somehow influenced the fire fighting equipment of the day, and Hands work was not totally in vain.

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