Robert Owen, social and co-operative entrepreneur

Phil Beardmore writes today’s guest blog

We promised more about co-operatives — and today’s informative guest blog comes from Phil Beardmore, the secretary of Co-operatives West Midlands, a sustainability consultant and social entrepreneur.

Today he writes about the great co-operative and socialist pioneer, Robert Owen.

Robert Owen, social and cooperative entrepreneur by Phil Beardmore

Like me, you may have recollections of learning about Robert Owen in history at school, and his attempts to build a utopian community at New Lanark in Scotland. I didn’t really know much more than that until I recently visited New Lanark, now a world heritage site that brings to life the role of Robert Owen as a pioneer of social enterprise and cooperation, mostly through the words of children who lived in the village.

Robert Owen was a wealthy individual from Wales who in 1786, along with David Dale, set up a model village on the banks of the Clyde with a mill, housing, shop, and a school. It was progressive in many ways – shorter working hours, better working conditions, schooling, health care, housing quality – compared to the condition of the working class elsewhere at the time.

Robert Owen was a social entrepreneur, not merely a philanthropist — New Lanark was a business with a social purpose, not a charity. The business traded for a profit, and used the profit for social purposes such as providing decent housing, health care and a shop that sold food and essential items at prices that working people could afford.

If you get the chance to visit New Lanark you will hear how Robert Owen was viewed as quite remote by his workers — they regarded him as having strange ideas which they didn’t understand, but they felt that he was “on their side”.

Robert Owen (1845) by John Cranch

There was no involvement of the workers either in terms of economic or democratic ownership of the enterprise. In this sense New Lanark was not a cooperative in the sense that we later came to understand it, as defined by the Cooperative Values and Principles.

Unsurprisingly New Lanark was subject to a great amount of hostility from those who saw it as too radical. Owen decided to sell the business and move to the United States, where he saw more opportunities to achieve his goals. There, Owen met like-minded people, and he aimed to use the proceeds from selling New Lanark to set up a new model community in Indiana. The new community, provisionally entitled New Harmony, did not see the light of day, as Owen and his would-be collaborators could not agree on a number of issues.

Owen wrote extensively on his experiences and got involved with other movements, including early trade unionism. His reflections greatly influenced the Rochdale Pioneers – who created the first modern cooperative in Rochdale in 1844. What made Rochdale different from New Lanark was the implementation of what we now know as the second and third Cooperative Principles – Democratic Member Control and Member Economic Participation — which today characterise every cooperative in the world, making them a distinct form of social enterprise.

The Rochdale Pioneers, and generations of cooperative entrepreneurs since, have been greatly influenced by Robert Owen’s evolution. Both the New Lanark way of doing things, and the Rochdale way of doing things, are still relevant. As Birmingham proudly celebrates being recognised as a social enterprise city, we should be recognised as both a social enterprise and a cooperative city.

Phil Beardmore
Secretary, Cooperatives West Midlands

My trip to New Lanark was organised by Central England Cooperative — I am an elected member of one of its Membership and Community Councils.

Find out more about what co-operatives are doing in 2018 — take a look at Co-operatives UK, the national representative body for co-operative enterprise, Co-operatives West Midlands, the co-op representative body for the region, or The Hive website and online forum for co-operators.

Birmingham UK. Freelance research, evaluation and policy consultant specialising in social enterprise and the third sector. I maintain the BSSEC blog and website
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