A one-year project to catalogue the correspondence of social reformer and early co-operator Robert Owen has now come to a close. Nearly 3,000 letters to and from Robert Owen, dating from 1821 to Owen’s death in 1858, were catalogued by Project Archivist Simon Sheppard, who pored over the documents at the rate of 15 per day.
Simon, who is based in the National Co-operative Archive at the Co-operative College in Manchester, said: “Even though I had tired eyes by the end of each day, the year has flown by. Every day has been different. I didn’t know much at first but I got a real sense of Owen.”
Robert Owen was a pioneering factory owner who introduced reforms such as shorter working days and workplace democracy. The correspondence collection shows that he was contacted by campaigners for the ten hour working day (although Owen wanted to go further and advocated an 8 hour working day). Owen set up a model community in New Lanark, Scotland and attempted to establish a co-operative community called New Harmony in the United States. Correspondents include other people setting up communities and people trying to sell Owen land. Owen also believed in the importance of education both for workers and children, and set up infant schools to help working mothers. The letters in the Robert Owen Correspondence Collection cover topics such as infant education, and refer to the early co-operative movement. Many are highly deferential – Simon says “I was confused because lots of letters were written to ‘dear father’, but he was seen as the father of certain social movements”. Some letters discuss the link between religion and socialism. Others contain invitations to meetings as, says Simon, “Owen had a really big pull”.
Inventors wrote to tell Owen about their ideas and plans, including one who sent a drawing of a contraption called a ‘life preserver’ he wanted Owen to back financially. Simon admits: “It looks like it was drawn by a child about two years ago – you would never, ever believe it was drawn 200 years ago.”
Only about 200 of the letters were sent by Owen, and these are primarily drafts or copies. Simon said: “At first I thought he was just a scruffy writer because there were lots of crossings out!” Owen wrote to dignitaries and sent petitions to government for schemes he wanted heard in parliament. Some of the correspondence indicated that Prince Albert was interested in what Owen said, but one letter warned that Owen’s petition would be heard during an afternoon session and the Lords drifted off in the afternoon so he shouldn’t expect much of a response! Simon noticed: “People got a bit sick of him sending petitions.” He added: “One thing I have learned above all is that some things never change. So many letters relate to topics which are relevant today.”
Simon became intrigued by many of the people who wrote to Owen. He explains: “It is quite surprising who the letters are from. So many people I came across lived varied lives and went around the world. They were fascinating individuals.” One correspondent was a vegetarian at a time when such a diet was almost unheard of. Simon was also surprised by the amount of letters that came from rural areas as well as big industrial centres such as Manchester and Birmingham.
Owen himself was well-travelled and visited Switzerland, America and Mexico among other places. Simon says: “Normal people wrote to Owen asking how they could go about emigrating to America and what to do when they got there.”
Simon continued: “Many letters were almost like a legal document, with a big preamble – you could quite often ignore the first two paragraphs, and sometimes even the first page, before the writer got round to saying what they wanted to say. It was almost like people wanted to prove they knew how to write.”
Simon was excited to discover how the Robert Owen Correspondence Collection came together during the year he spent working on the project, as previously this had been a bit of a mystery. In 1853, Owen decided to write his autobiography and wanted to get all his letters in one place as record of the achievements of his life. This proved costly as they had to be sent from New York, New Orleans and New Harmony, and others had gone missing, so his friends volunteered to help. Simon explained: “Owen never seemed to live in once place – he stayed at people’s houses or in hotels. These letters seemed to follow him around. Lots have five or six addresses on them which are crossed out.”
Owen lived in Sevenoaks in Kent towards the end of his life, when he was more or less blind and deaf. James Rigby, a close friend, acted as his agent, confidante and assistant, and Simon describes Rigby as Owen’s “eyes and ears for his last few years”. Simon said: “He wrote updates to Owen every Sunday night, and talked about things like the problems and cost of sending post to America.”
In 1900/1901 writer George Jacob Holyoake spent two years searching for Robert Owen’s letters, which were eventually found in a trunk, and going through them. They were given to the Co-operative Union in 1903 and eventually found their way to the National Co-operative Archive. Simon describes the letters as having layers of notes which have been added over the years.
The letters have all now been cleaned and placed in pockets. Simon said: “The letters are in surprisingly good condition. They should be here for another 100 years.”
Simon thinks the Robert Owen Correspondence Collection will be of interest not just to academics and researchers looking at aspects of co-operative history, but local historians.
The Collection is now listed on the Archives Hub at http://archiveshub.ac.uk/data/gb1499roc.