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Robert Owen and the Co-operative movement

Robert Owen has been called the 'father of English Socialism'. He was the founder of the Co-operative movement and believed in worker control although he was a high capitalist himself. He was the product of self-help and a very practical man who concentrated on the 'means to the end'. He believed that if the working man ever was to achieve equality, then the man must change first - in attitude. Also, the working man had to know of, believe in and be equipped to fight for the cause, according to Owen. This is very much the self-help ethic. Owen became convinced that the advancement of humankind could be furthered by the improvement of every individual's personal environment. He reasoned that since character was moulded by circumstances, then improved circumstances would lead to goodness. The environment at New Lanark, where he tried out his ideas, reflected this philosophy.

A London Co-operative Society had been started in 1824 with rooms in Burton Street, Burton Crescent, where discussions were held. Later it transferred to Chancery Lane where John Stuart Mill, Charles Austen and others had hand-to-hand fights with the ‘Owenites’. The Co-operative Magazine was started in January 1826 and gave accounts of the New Harmony community. It was published during the next three years as a sixpenny monthly. In 1830 it was replaced by the British Co-operator, the Co-operative Miscellany and other journals that expounded Owen's theories.

Also in 1826 the London Co-operative Society was formed, with William Lovett as storekeeper. Similar societies were formed elsewhere, and the British Association for Promoting Co-operative Knowledge was founded. All failed within three to four years because funds had no legal protection although much of this happened when Owen was in New Harmony. After 1829 Owen took over the development of Co-operatives, and pursued three lines of development:

  1. education
  2. storekeeping
  3. production - the heart of Owenism.

The idea failed in the short-term, but was better organised after 1844. Many societies were started and Owen began to spread his ideas through lectures and by promoting various associations: he gave Sunday lectures at the Mechanics' Institute in Southampton Buildings until people objected. He then moved to the ‘Institute of the Industrious Classes,’ and to Burton Street. In 1832 he started the Labour Bazaar. He believed that the maldistribution of wealth was the result of expensive and unnecessary middle-men who were barriers between producers and consumers. He advocated 'labour exchanges' and 'labour bazaars' to eliminate middle-men. Owen preached two types of co-operation:

  1. co-operative exchange
  2. co-operative production

Since 14 April 1832 Owen had published a penny paper called The Crisis; in June he announced the formation of an association to promote the exchange of all commodities upon the ‘only equitable principle’ of giving ‘equal values of labour.’ To carry out this, an ‘Equitable Labour Exchange’ was opened on 3 September 1832 at a building called the Bazaar, in Gray's Inn Road. It had belonged to a man called Bromley who had pressed Owen to use it for a new society. Owen had thought it suitable for his experiment, which had already been partly set going elsewhere. Any goods might be deposited in it; ‘labour notes,’ which had been elaborately contrived to avoid forgery, were given in exchange, and the goods deposited might be bought in the same currency. The system was extremely crude and scarcely intelligible. There was, however, a rush to the exchange. A large amount of deposits was made and the example was imitated, especially in Birmingham.

Difficulties soon arose. Bromley made exorbitant claims for rent though Owen thought that he had offered his premises free of charge. It was decided to move the exchange to Blackfriars. In January 1833 Bromley forcible entered the premises and Owen paid large sums to settle the matter. Bromley tried to appropriate the scheme himself, but soon failed. The exchange was moved to Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square, where Owen, helped by his son Robert Dale Owen, continued to lecture for some time, and a new constitution was framed. It only survived for a short time; Owen made up a deficiency of £2,500 for which he held himself to be morally, though he was not legally, responsible.

Owen's activity continued for several years, and had a great effect in stimulating the co-operative movement in the country, though exciting comparatively little public interest. He took part in the seven co-operative congresses which met between 1830 and 1834; he also took part in the succeeding fourteen ‘socialist congresses’ (1835-1846).

The Rochdale Pioneers

On 24 October 1844, the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers was registered under the Friendly Societies Act. It was set up by seven flannel weavers who knew about poverty, unemployment, goods on credit, truck and poor quality and/or adulterated food. Early in 1844 they rented the ground floor of a warehouse in Toad (t'owd) Lane for three years at £10 p.a. They opened the store on 21 December 1844 and it grew steadily into the Rochdale Equitable Co-operative Society Ltd. By 1851 about 13 co-ops existed, with a membership of 15,000 and in 1863 the English Co-operative Wholesale Society was set up.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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