What we can learn from Robert Owen

It is a pleasure today to talk at a Blue Plaque going up near Kings Cross in London to Robert Owen, the great social reformer and co-operative advocate of the early 19th century.

The man is historical, but his ideas remain contemporary, and ones that we can still learn from.

In the early nineteenth century, he cut the hours of his cotton mill workers from 17 hours a day to 10, and banned the employment of children. Over four years, the business made a profit of £160,000 and a return on capital of 5%.

Robert Owen was fascinated by the potential of a more co-operative culture. In 1812, he wrote the first of his “Essays On The Formation Of Character”. As he described it, character is a set of habits, behaviours and beliefs that are shaped by the environment in which we find ourselves and in which we have grown up.

Owen set out to make character visible. Black, blue, yellow and white were the daily colours assigned by Owen to workers in his pioneering mills at New Lanark. Black was bad behaviour, blue indifferent, yellow good and white was excellent – a shared and open form of feedback.

For children, Owen invented the world’s first workplace nursery, or crèche – the New Institution for the Formation of Character – which opened on January 1st, 1816, financed out of company profits. As soon as children could walk, they came to the creche and, at the age of three, they entered the infant school.

The teachers were specifically instructed to be kind and encouraging in order to instil self-confidence. If you encourage a co-operative culture, then you build the opportunity for participation and well-being.

“Any general character,” Owen commented, “from the best to the worst, from the most ignorant to the most enlightened, may be given to any community, even to the world at large, by the application of proper means.”

In an age of inequality, we can still learn from the ideas of Robert Owen.

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