Born at Newtown in mid-Wales in 1771, Owen moved to Manchester as a youth. He quickly found his feet in the burgeoning textile city and was soon a master cotton spinner. Although far from wealthy, he made such an impact on the town's society that in 1793 he was elected to the prestigious and influential Literary and Philosophical Society, and it was here that his ideas on social reform began to take shape.
Three years later, he joined other Manchester entrepreneurs in forming the Chorlton Twist Company, and in 1799 he moved North to manage David Dale's New Lanark Mills, which the Manchester firm had bought out. There, he met and married Dale's daughter.
Owen knew from instinct and experience that workers responded more positively to consideration and kindess than to cruelty, and now he began to put into practice his reforming ideas. He built a model community with quality housing for his workers, a school, a day nursery for pre-school children, a playground, evening classes for adults and a shop which was the forerunner of the co-operative retail movement.
Owen's A New View of Society was published in 1813, and in it he expounded his theory that environment had a major influence on character, and berated the church for failing to fight against the evils of capitalism.
By 1816, Owen had opened the New Lanark community's Institute for the Formation of Character, which served variously as a school, religious meeting place, dance hall and community centre - another step, he considered, towards his dream of a classless society.
The following year, he outlined his plans for "co-operative villages", where residents would live and work in harmony in a "new moral commonwealth." He estimated the cost of building such a community for a population of 1,200, drawn from the surplus population of the manufacturing towns, would be high - about £90,000. But set against that, he argued that it would quickly abolish the need for poor rates.Such towns, he claimed, "are the abode of vice, crime and misery, while the proposed villages will ever be the abode of abundance, active intelligence, correct conduct and happiness."
Although the Government rejected his appeal for financial help, Owen did go on to form several "Owenite" co-operative communities, including one at New Harmony, Indiana, in 1825 and others at Orbiston near Glasgow the following year,
THE mills at New Lanark on the Clyde - in its day, the biggest
cotton-spinning complex in the world
PLAN of Owen's co-operative community at New Harmony
None of the communities was a success, however, New Harmony lasting only three years. Owen himself fell out with his New Lanark partners and sold out in 1828. Five years later he organised the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, an attempt to combine unionism with co-operative principals, but this foundered the following year, and he devoted the rest of his life to campaigning for a variety of causes.
On his deathbed in 1858, he said: "I gave important truths to the world, and it was only for want of understanding that they were disregarded. I have been ahead of my time."
Friedrich Engels described him as "a man of almost sublime, childlike character," who was, nevertheless, "one of the few born leaders of men." He added: Every social movement and real advance in England on behalf of the workers links with the name of Robert Owen."
The New Lanark complex eventually fell into decline, but recent work has restored it and it is now open to visitors.