Robert Owen

2015 highlights: National Co-operative Archive

Gillian Lonergan of the National Co-operative Archive explains the significance of the slogan 'Labor and wait' as stamped on a co-operative plateMore than 100 different groups and individuals visited the National Co-operative Archive this year, from as far away as Valencia, North Carolina and Texas, to look at collections including Robert Owen and Woman’s Outlook magazine.

Visitors included local historians and family historians, as well as members of different teams at the Co-operative Group. The archive also hosted a group of art students from Manchester Metropolitan University, a party from a museum in Denmark and a group from Norway who were given copies of Norwegian posters from 1944 telling the story of the Rochdale Pioneers. In addition, members of Central England Co-operative visited the Rochdale Pioneers Museum to view archive materials.

Artefacts from the archive were used in a series of creative ‘Social Haunting’ workshops, which took place as part of a joint AHRC-funded project between the Co-operative College and the National Co-operative Archive.

Researcher in residence Pauline HadawayIn October, PhD student Jo Darnley embarked on a project looking at the visual and material culture of the co-operative movement, supervised jointly by Manchester Metropolitan University and the Co-operative College. The archive has also welcomed a researcher in residence, University of Manchester doctoral student Pauline Hadaway, who is considering women’s representation in the co-operative movement historically.

Finally, a new colleague, Elena Rowe, joined the team as Project Co-ordinator on the ‘Pioneering Funding Through New Governance Models’ project, funded by a grant from the Museums Resilience Fund.

Local, Loved and Trusted – Co-operatives Fortnight 2013

The theme of this year’s Co-operatives Fortnight, which will take place between 22 June and 9 July, has been announced as ‘Local, Loved and Trusted’, to show how co-operatives are local, loved and trusted and  ask customers and members to ‘choose co-operative’.

Co-operatives Fortnight is the UK co-operative sector’s national campaign to raise awareness of co-operatives. In 2013, Co-operatives Fortnight will focus on raising consumers’ awareness and understanding of the diversity and benefits of co-operatives.

Co-operative businesses and organisations will be provided with online and printed resource to encourage people to explore local co-operatives and find new co-operatives and services. The full set of materials will be launched at the end of February.

Activities will take place all across the country, and the week is an ideal time to raise awareness of co-operatives in your school and local community, through activities and events.

To find out more about why you should choose co-operatives for all your needs, from food to energy, visit

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.

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.


A letter from Ohio

On leaving New Harmony on the 28 June 1828 Robert Owen must have done so with a heavy heart. The community he established on the banks of the Wabash River was faltering, and Owen’s vision for community life, a “new empire of peace and good will to man”, may have seemed at that point nothing more than an impossible dream. And yet, just a month prior to leaving Owen’s spirits must have been buoyed somewhat when he received a letter from an individual named Samuel Underhill writing from Kendal, Stark County, Ohio.

In his letter Underhill, who describes himself a “practical devotee to the Social System”, tells Owen the Kendal community where he lives and holds a position on the committee is presently in a most “prosperous state”. He proudly reports that, following a shaky start, Kendal now finds itself in a position where “income exceeds our expenditure by a handsome balance”. He also notes the intention of the members to start a newspaper “devoted to the “Social System”, a topic which, he points out, recently the New Harmony Gazette has carried little or no news upon. Such is the pride Underhill feels for Kendal he invites Owen to visit them at their community which, he is inclined to believe, is the “best established of any of the New System”.

However, along with all the positive news of the progress at Kendal, the letter also highlights issues which may have given Owen pause for thought when he considered the struggles he encountered at New Harmony. Underhill warns Owen of the pernicious influence of men who are able to call on money from private means, stating they are a “curse” on community living, and should be considered as “bad timber” which, presumably, will rot and weaken the community and its ideals. Underhill spells out the seriousness of this when writing that “inequality in a community is much more a curse than in an individual society”.

In a return letter dated 20 June 1828, Owen indicates his pleasure in hearing of the progress at Kendal, and accepts the invitation to visit, saying he will spend “some days” in their community or neighbourhood. Unfortunately, this reply from Owen is the last piece of correspondence between the two in the collection, and so we are unable to establish if Owen kept his promise to visit Underhill and his community. What can be said for certain is, that despite Underhill’s positive report of the excellent progress of the community, it was only to be fleeting (if actually true at all as some there is some evidence to suggest otherwise ), and later in 1828 problems would beset the people at Kendal with members requesting to leave at a steady rate. On the 6th of January 1829 the last recorded meeting and the community at Kendal, Stark County, Indiana was held.

The community at Kendal was just one of a number of “Owenite” ones established in America in the 1820’s, whilst the idea became popular once again in the 1840s with 4 more being founded. Meanwhile, Owen returned to England and would later re-ignite his communitarian plans with the establishment of Harmony Hall, Queenwood, Hampshire.


A gallery of the images from the Underhill and Owen letters is included below. The letter from Underhill is in a particularly poor condition, with holes in the paper, numerous blotches and sellotape attached meaning it will require attention from a paper conservator in the near future.


Letter from Robert Dale Owen to Robert Owen, dated 15 May 1837

Robert Dale Owen letterThe first letter chosen to look at seemed particularly interesting when one considers the financial downturn currently being experienced worldwide detailing, as it does, a ruinous financial crisis which beset America and became known as the ‘Panic of 1837’. It not only provides an insight as to the devastating effects such a crisis can have to businesses and individuals, but also gives clues as to how, even in the harshest of times, some are able to secure a profit.

Robert Dale Owen, the second son of Robert, became a man worthy of his father. Following his father to America in the 1820s, he would make his home there and become a renowned speaker for the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage and free secular education. His endeavours would see him be firstly elected to the Indiana Legislature in 1836 and then to the House of Representatives in 1845.

In this letter Dale Owen writes to his father from New York, and, following a brief preamble discussing previous missives (a common feature in letters from this period), Dale Owen quickly moves to the crux of the letter – the enormous financial crisis besetting America. Dale Owen states that the commercial world is in a “frightful state” and bankruptcies in New York City alone have totalled some $250 million in the last three months. Few have been spared the devastating effects, and Dale Owen understands that two thirds or perhaps even three quarters of the wholesale merchants in the city have lost their businesses.

Such are the dreadful effects the crisis is having on America, Dale Owen is forced to concede to his father that even the severe financial downturn which occurred in 1816-17 must be considered “nothing to this”. It is a crisis “without parallel in the history of commerce” and how it will end seems “impossible to predict”. Further evidence of the severity of the crisis is garnered when Dale Owen explains that, for only the second time in the country’s history, American banks have been forced to suspended “specie payments”, a facility which allowed Americans to redeem paper money for metallic (usually) gold coins. Dale Owen is of the opinion that investment in property at a low value is the “most stable” of investments under the current hardship – although he does note that “very best houses” which were thought beyond the reach of “ill fortune” have suffered just as much as their [poorer] neighbours.

Despite the pervading doom and gloom, Dale Owen is able to see a silver lining to the dark clouds, at least for himself and his father. He notes that a “fortunate circumstance” of such a desperate situation ensures there has never been a “more favourable time” for the transfer of funds from England to America. To make the most of this, Robert Dale advises his father to ship sovereigns or, better still, arrange for a letter of credit made out in favour of Dale Owen through a bank of “unquestioned stability”, with Barings Bank being suggested as a possible choice. If they carry out this plan, Dale Owen is convinced they would be able to sell the letter of credit for a profit of 12 to 15% – a healthy return indeed!

One cannot help but wonder if Owen, a man who spent his life helping others, would have been interested in a scheme conceived, on the face of it, to make a ‘fast buck’ whilst others faced losing their homes or seeing their business go to the wall. Sadly, there is no reply from Owen to his son within the collection, and therefore we are unable to ascertain if Owen did indeed chose to play his part in the scheme. However, within the letter evidence can be found suggesting an attempt of a transaction along similar lines being made, as Dale Owen warns his father to ensure he does not repeat his previous error and draw up the letter of credit in pounds sterling rather than dollars (which presumably would render the scheme ineffective). The date of this previous transaction is not noted, and indeed may have occurred during more prosperous times, when such movements of cash across international boundaries was nothing more than an everyday method of transferring money. This is certainly something Owen would have needed to do having established a colony at New Harmony and also with numerous members of his family living in America.

The effects of the financial crisis lasted for a number of years and further details of can be found here

Robert Owen Correspondence Collection

Robert Owen statueApril 2011 saw the start of an exciting project to catalogue the Robert Owen Correspondence Collection. The project, funded through the National Cataloguing Grants Programme and lasting for 1 year, will see each of the 2964 items in the collection individually described, with the completed catalogue being placed on the Archives Hub (, granting access to this superb collection to researchers across the world.

Predominantly comprising letters sent to the great social reformer, and dating from around 1820 until his death in 1858, the letters are a rich resource, one which will provide researchers will valuable information across a wide range of subjects. Whether you wish to learn more about Owen’s views on reform, education or co-operation, or maybe ascertain who he was influenced by and among which ‘circles’ he moved; perhaps even who he had disagreements with. Whichever it is, it is pretty certain that this collection can provide you with at least some of the answers.

With the task now well underway, it seems an ideal time to provide a little more detail of a few of the interesting items that have come to light during the cataloguing of the collection and in a series of articles the aim is to point out some of the fascinating letters contained in the collection.