Robert Owen’s letters recognised by Unesco’s Memory of the World Register

The Robert Owen Collection, which consists of 3,000 manuscript letters to and from the founder of modern co-operation, has been admitted into the UK Memory of the World...

The Robert Owen Collection, which consists of 3,000 manuscript letters to and from the founder of modern co-operation, has been admitted into the UK Memory of the World Register.

Unesco established the Memory of the World (MoW) Programme in 1992, on the principle that the world’s documentary heritage belongs to all – and should be preserved and made permanently accessible to everyone.

The UK Register, which includes artefacts such as Magna Carta, Churchill’s papers and key documents on Shakespeare’s life, admits collections every two years. On 21 June, the Robert Owen Collection and 10 other new items were added during a ceremony at the Welsh Assembly, hosted by first minister Carwyn Jones.

Robert Owen's letters are housed in a secure environment at the National Co-operative Archive
Robert Owen’s letters are housed in a secure environment at the National Co-operative Archive

Others included the Canterbury Cathedral collection (monastic archives 900-1540); the Declaration of Arbroath (6th April 1320, the key Scottish document from the Wars of Independence); and the Royal Institution Laboratory Notebooks of Michael Faraday (1791-1867).

He pioneered ideas well before their time – like fair working conditions, reduction in working hours, sick pay and the importance of education

Robert Owen was crucial in developing the ideas of co-operation that are the basis of the worldwide co-operative movement. The correspondence, which dates from 1821 until his death in 1858, detail these ideas and highlight the beginnings of the movement. The letters also give an insight into Owen’s involvement with Chartism and other labour movements in the UK and abroad.

“Owen was a revolutionary,” says Sophie Stewart, archivist at the National Co-operative Archive, who submitted the collection to MoW on behalf of the Co-operative Heritage Trust. “He pioneered ideas well before their time – like fair working conditions, reduction in working hours, sick pay and the importance of education in the formation of a person’s character.”

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Hometown schooling: the town based on Robert Owen’s co-op principles

Owen was born at Newtown, Wales, in 1771, to a working-class family who encouraged him to read and debate from an early age. When he was 10, he left school and became apprentice to a linen draper from Lincolnshire before moving to London, then Manchester, the epicentre of the Industrial Revolution, where he became a cotton mill manager.

Co-operative archivist Sophie Stewart
Co-operative archivist Sophie Stewart

While in Glasgow on a business trip, he met his future wife Caroline Dale, the daughter of David Dale, owner of New Lanark Mills, which Owen later bought. He planned to use the mills to create a model factory and community (‘New Lanark’), part of his wider theory of a “New View of Society”, where education was key to improving the lives of his workers.

“The premise was relatively simple,” says the Co-operative Archive’s description of Owen. “A person’s character was formed by the environment in which he existed – therefore if this environment was built on co-operation, forbearance and understanding the result would be harmony, well-being and ultimately the attainment of the ideal universe.”

Owen’s society was to be planned not on oppression but on mutual co- operation – and these radical ideas went on to inspire many who came after him, including the Rochdale pioneers.

After New Lanark, Owen’s life consisted of lobbying, development and setting up experimental communities in the UK and USA. In 1831 he was present when the First Co-operative Congress was held Manchester, at which delegates from co-operative societies gathered to resolve the best way of furthering the co-operative movement.

Robert Owen
Robert Owen

Owen started gathering together his correspondence in 1853, in preparation for writing his autobiography. One volume of this was published before his death in 1858. The papers were then thought lost – until, in 1900, George Jacob Holyoake, a British co-operator, newspaper editor and secularist traced them to a solicitor’s office in London. He found them in a tin trunk (known as the Hair Trunk as it contained a lock of Owen’s hair), still in the possession of the Archive. Holyoake, who chronicled his discovery in the Co-operative News, gave the letters to the Co-operative Union in Manchester, in 1903.

This marked the beginning of the Co-operative Union’s archive collections, which went on to form the National Co-operative Archive.

Today the Collection is housed in a locked room in a fireproof filing cabinet, where temperature and relative humidity are recorded on a regular basis, in a room equipped with flood alarms. In 2010, it was catalogued, cleaned and repackaged by a professional archivist to archival standards following a grant from the National Archives.

Ms Stewart says the Robert Owen Collection is the most significant of the National Co-operative Archive’s collections. “It shows the formation of the ideas upon which the co- operative movement is still based,” she says. “The collection is of worldwide importance for research into socialism, co-operation, education and nineteenth century working-class history – and the completeness of the collection gives an unparalleled overview of Owen’s life and ideas.”

New life in New Lanark as community activities launch

The 2,991 individual items in the collection touch upon the many different projects and causes Owen became associated with during his long and eventful life.

As well as co-operation, social reform, education, socialism and philanthropy, the letters frequently refer to the communities he established at New Harmony in Indiana and Harmony Hall (Queenwood) in Hampshire.

It gives a vital insight into the life of a man who is described by his contemporaries and followers as the father of socialism

“The collection demonstrates Owen’s enormous influence on those who followed him and how far his influence spread,” says Ms Stewart.

“It gives a vital insight into the life of a man who is described by his contemporaries and followers as the father of socialism. He is also credited with instigating the trade union movement, factory legislation, corporate social responsibility, infant schools, the UK secular movement and the labour movement.

“Owen corresponded with many other significant figures from the time such as Prince Albert, William Gladstone and Sir Robert Peel.”

As the chronicle of a man who became the catalyst for social change in the UK and across the world, as demonstrated in the setting up of model communities and co-op schools, the collection is vital, she adds.

“It gives an insight not only into Owen as a person but also of his enduring international influence.”

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