The Collecting of Robert Owen’s Papers
Robert Owen was a man that did not stay in any one place for any great period of time. This soon becomes apparent when faced with letters addressed to him at numerous locations across England, Europe and America. Such was Owen’s haste moving around the country, many letters to him would require forwarding-on twice, three times, or maybe even four times before they would finally catch up with him. Each time the address from which he had departed being crossed out and replaced with his new location in a different town (or even country). Indeed, such was Owen’s energy in promoting his “causes”, that he would be well into his 80s before he finally ‘retired’ and deigned to spend a length of time in one place, with his last years being spent at Sevenoaks in Kent.
Owen’s unrelenting zeal and dedication to the “cause”, moving so rapidly from location to location, meant it was difficult to ascertain quite how the collection came together. It would seem highly improbable that Owen toted around his papers from place to place, his popularity and renown ensuring that he received mail in such great quantities this would be impractical, if not simply impossible. The previous assumption, and nothing more than a ‘best guess’, had been that following Owen’s death someone with a good deal of foresight had undertaken the task of gathering the collection together and preserving it until at least c1900, when we know that G.J. Holyoake took possession of it.
However, it appears that this assumption was off the mark, as evidence revealed during the cataloguing of the collection sheds new light on the matter. Through reading correspondence between Owen and his “Friends and Disciples”, it has been possible to substantiate that the collection was actually brought together around 1853, some 5 years before Owen died. Also revealed is the purpose for this, as Owen explains he wished to use the correspondence as a reference source while he was writing the first (and ultimately only part) of his autobiography. Of course, as we alluded to earlier, the letters were spread far and wide and this ensured it was no easy task to collect them together, and Owen was obliged to accept the kind offer of help from the “Friends and Disciples” to cover the cost incurred.
Letters were gathered from New Orleans, New York, New Harmony in America and added to ones in London by James Rigby, Owen’s loyal attendant in his latter years. Some form of arrangement was carried out by Rigby, though this has been lost over time, with the date the letter was written and name of correspondent annotated on the reverse of each item. Owen himself also being involved with this process, occasionally adding a brief note providing some context he must have perceived necessary.
Once the letters had been used by Owen whilst he wrote his Autobiography, it would appear that they were then placed in an iron trunk and passed into the custody of one, or more, of the three Trustees of the collection as appointed by Owen. Eldest son Robert Dale Owen along with Owen’s close associates Dr. Henry Travis and William Pare were charged with the safe-keeping of the letters, as in the event of Owens death they would provide the evidence of his achievements.
For the eleven years following Owen’s death in 1858 it would appear that the letters remained somewhat forgotten about, kept under lock and key in the iron trunk. This was until, and presumably prompted by an enquiry as to the contents, William Pare wrote in a letter dated 20 February 1869 of opening the trunk, “confided” in him in 1858 Robert Dale Owen, at the offices of the printers Cassell, Petter & Galpin, Belle Sauvage Yard, London.
Following this brief examination by Pare in 1869, the trail again goes cold until c1900 when G.J. Holyoake began his investigation into the whereabouts of the collection. Holyoake, having been informed they had most recently been in the possession of the late Henry Travis (Travis was the last of the three Trustees to die in 1884), makes contact with the Executors of Travis’ Will, only to be informed they have no knowledge of their whereabouts. Nevertheless, following a two year search, and assisted with information “privately” passed by an unnamed source, the letters were eventually located. Holyoake was then granted possession by [Thomas Dixon] Galpin, one of the Executors of Travis’ Will (who just happens to be a partner of Cassell, Petter & Galpin of Belle Sauvage Yard ), and told that he can “dispose of the them as he see fit”.
Holyoake scrutinised the collection for 2 years before donating it to the Co-operative Union in 1903 and on 1 January 2000 the Co-operative Union Archive was transferred to the Co-operative College. Now, with the help of money from The National Cataloguing Grants Scheme, the Robert Owen Collection has been fully catalogued and will very shortly be available to researchers across the world via the Archives Hub. Additionally, each item of correspondence has been cleaned of surface dirt, placed in a polyester sleeve and stored in a fire retardant cabinet to preserve them safely for generations to come.
Published On: April 16, 2012
Written By: Simon
Filed Under: Robert Owen