As I have said before, this blog is mainly not written by professional historians (more like talentless amateurs); we are interested in events, ideas, social struggles and rebellious personalities of the past, and try to spread what we learn, often as we learn it. Partly for inspiration, partly as it links to our own experiences, partly to keep memories alive. We don’t claim to be especially original, or even very dedicated in our research; to some extent we don’t have time.
Bearing that in mind, we freely admit that this post contains serious gaps, where we haven’t really had a chance to dig deep to discover what some might consider crucial facts. Because the personalities and ideas involved are interesting to us, here it is anyway. If anyone reading this knows more about the subject of this post, or where to find out more, we’d love to hear from them…
We start with a picture: the image above, which shows black anti-slavery activist, radical agitator, insurrectionist, and blasphemous preacher Robert Wedderburn, climbing onto a platform to argue with utopian socialist Robert Owen.
Despite some investigation, it’s uncertain to us whether this confrontation actually took place or not, or is a representation of an argument that took place in the pages of the radical press… If it did take place, it seems likely was either on the 21st of August 1817, during one of Robert Owen’s public meetings at the London Tavern, in Bishopsgate (the site today occupied by Nos 1-3 Bishopsgate).
Owen was touring the country propagating his ideas in a widely publicised series of public meetings, including a series of celebrated meetings at the City of London tavern in August 1817. A well-attended public meeting on the 14th had been ‘adjourned’ and re-assembled on the 21st.
Robert Owen had risen from artisan beginnings to become first the manager of succession of cotton mills in Manchester, before he found fame running the New Lanark mills in Scotland. Intelligent, self-taught (and somewhat convinced of his own importance) Owen turned New Lanark into a model factory and model village: the 1,300 workmen and their families and between 400 and 500 pauper children were made to adopt new living, working, sanitary, educational and other standards. Under his new regime, conditions in the factory were clean and children and women worked relatively short hours: a 12 hour day including 1½ hours for meals. He employed no children under 10 years old. He provided decent houses, sanitation, shops and so on for the workers, a school for the children (as long as the parents could afford for them not to work). He gave rewards for cleanliness and good behaviour and mainly by his own personal influence encouraged the people in habits of order, cleanliness, and thrift.
New Lanark’s factory and village became famous and by Owen’s count between 1814 and 1824 about 2,000 visitors a year came to observe what he had created.
Owen is often called ‘the father of English socialism’. He is also referred to as a utopian socialist, which is not inappropriate, in that like More’s Utopia, his vision of the ideal society was of an order imposed from above on a people who needed to be told how to live. In his view social change meant trying to create a changed working man. 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. But Owen was intolerant of criticism from below, becoming increasingly dogmatic and coming to regard himself as a prophet and visionary. He was more devoted to his ideals than to any human being and had a greater love for mankind in the mass than for any individual.
“the persons under him happen to be white, and are at liberty by law to quit his service, but while they remain in it they are as much under his management as so many negro slaves…” (Robert Southey, Journal of a Tour of Scotland in 1819)
Owen’s conception of socialism was a society based on a network of ‘Villages of Mutual Co-operation’, which he put began to put into practice in his US utopian colony’ New Harmony in 1825. French utopian socialist Fourier called his similar concept a ‘phalanstery’. Based on the practical developments of New Lanark, the villages were to be the “kernel of a rural community which would be self-sufficient through agricultural and manufacturing produce, a monumental square of terraced housing within which a green, tree-filled space was interspersed with communal buildings – schools, kitchens and a library. Radiating outwards in successive belts were the phalanstery gardens, manufacturing buildings screened by trees, and agricultural land…”
The village or phalanstery would organise labourers and poor people without work into communes of 1000-1200 people, either working in agriculture or in manufacturing; their labour would guarantee them “an ample supply of the necessities and comforts of life”. In addition an important element of the ethos of his communes was to be education in mutual co-operation, moral training and “economy in the lodging and living of people”. While the ethos of a “population united through ideological commitment” would be central to the project, Owen always saw the workforce in these ‘deal communities’ to be a passive mass, motivated by the need to survive. Just as at New Lanark he had run the mills as a “benevolent dictator”, each village would be directed by a Superintendent. His vision was always of a better world brought in from the top down, not created by the occupants of the communes themself. As he wrote in 1816, he believed that “Human character is often formed FOR, and not BY, the individual.” Since human character was the basis of social change as he saw it, he proposed to mould human character, removing the power to change the world from most of the humans involved. In reality, rather than being a utopian socialist, Owen was an originator of a strand of benevolent capitalism.
Owen always saw his socialism as preventing social upheaval and disorder, exerting control by ensuring “a population socialsied into dependence on capitalist benevolence”: “The people were slaves at my mercy; kiabke at any time to be dismissed, and knowing that, in that case, they must go into misery, compared with such limited happiness as they now enjoyed.” Thanks Rob!
An unsympathetic commentator (not a radical) remarked that this was “not far removed from a well-regulated parish workhouse”. Which is ironic, as Owen’s ideas bore fruit in many capitalist enterprises in the succeeding decades. While traditionally Owen’s greatest effect was seen to be his influence on the co-operative movements that spread out in the mid-19th century, the lessons of new Lanark and Owen’s ideas of ‘moral management’ can also be seen in the utilitarians’ developments of social control through architecture, surveillance and, benevolence and force (or at least pressure) mingled together. ‘Enlightened’ employers adopted Owen’s model in their plans for benevolent capitalist model villages like Saltaire; utilitarians drew up plans for coercive insitituions like asylums and prison, but with an eye to Owen’s model. Later still, Owen’s carrot and stick blueprint, the offer of better conditions for those wiling to submit to moral and behaviourial oversight was also integrated into the beginnings of social housing, the model dwellings… Into the 20th century and utopian architects were still drawing up plans for ideal communities in tower blocks.
Ironically, however, in 1817, and for much of his life, Owen’s plans were never taken seriously enough by many of the men of substance he hoped to attract to his scheme. Some because of their initial cost and because they might simply increase the number of unemployed poor by encouraging those already in that condition to have more children. Owen also made ‘a vigorous denunciation of religion’ as part of his address at the meetings, and also questioned the role of the traditional family; this in fact probably alienated more potential supporters, both among the movers and shakers that Owen concentrated on, and among the working class. Christianity was still fundamentally crucial to the daily life of most of the people of Britain (and beyond), drummed into all from an early age, (and if not always enforced, it was still then compulsory to attend church). If people thought Owen’s communes impractical or expensive, attacking religion was seriously shocking. On a purely tactical level, Owen had blundered by bringing god into it- but tactics were never Owen’s strongpoint.
Robert Wedderburn’s bone of contention seems not to have been primarily with Owen’s religious views though. Born in Jamaica, his father a white owner, his mother a slave, raped by his father and then sold after his birth… An ex-sailor, who arrived in London in time to take part in the Gordon Riots, he became a Methodist street preacher, but developed a fierce millenarian radical voice. He became a follower of communist Thomas Spence, who linked opposition to slavery with opposition to the enclosures of the commons in England. Spence was a prolific publisher and distributor of handbills, broadsheets, songs, tracts, pamphlets and periodicals; under his influence Wedderburn became a provocative and blasphemous publisher and agitator, founding a chapel in Soho where tumultuous meetings and theatricals were held… did time in Cold Bath Fields, Dorchester, and Giltspur Street Prisons for theft, blasphemy, and keeping a bawdy house.
He plotted revolution with radicals, former soldiers, and probably narrowly escaped joining his comrades the Cato Street Conspirators on the gallows… His most transcendental activity was publishing his Axe Laid to the Root, powerfully linking the suffering of African slaves in the colonies to the privations felt by the British working class during the establishment of capitalism, and identifying the overthrow of slavery and capitalism as one and the same. A beguiling, harrowing and intensely inspiring figure, Wedderburn represented everything about social change from below that Owen tried to control – insurgent, enraged and apocalyptic.
But did Wedderburn really intervene physically to attack Owen’s ideas? Is the image of him rising to challenge Owen on the stage a drawing from life? He certainly did in print, publishing a letter in the Forlorn Hope warning Owen that “the lower classes are pretty well convinced that he is the tool of the landholders to divert the attention of the public from contemplating on the obstinacy and ignorance of their governors.”
Perceptive, seeing the intimate connections that underlay the daily experience of the poor, knowing unlike Owen that the liberation he desperately saw was needed can only be created by our own hands, from below… Wedderburn hits the nail on the head. He wasn’t alone in suspecting Owen’s doctrines – for the next 40 years, through the early history of co-operation, Owen’s flirtation with trade unionism in the 1830s, and his increasingly wacked out later career, Owen’s dictatorial and messianic approach would divide and alienate even his followers.
This article owes much to Patrick Eyres, Et in Utopia Ego: Social Control: the architectural legacy of Robert Owen, explored through the model villages of Saltaire and Quarry Hill, published in the magnificent New Arcadian Journal (no 28).
For more on the brilliant Robert Wedderburn, a good start is chapter in Peter Linebaugh, The Many Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, or Iain McCalman, Radical Underworld, Prophets, Revolutionaries, and Pornographers in London, 1795-1840.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online