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Of course, it was objected that Owen's principles were erroneous and immoral because they wholly denied free-will, because he advocated the abolition of rewards and punishments as both unjust and unnecessary, and because, it was argued, to act on such a system would lead to a pandemonium of vice and crime. The reply to this is that, acting on the principle of absolute free-will, every government has alike failed to abolish, or even to any considerable degree to diminish, discontent, misery, disease, vice, and crime; and that, on the other hand, Owen did, by acting on the principle of the formation of character enunciated by him, transform a discontented, unhealthy, vicious, and wholly antagonistic population of 2500 persons to an enthusiastically favourable, contented, happy, healthy, and comparatively moral community, without ever having recourse to any legal punishment whatever, and without, so far as appears, discharging any individual for robbery, idleness, or neglect of duty; and all this was effected while increasing the efficiency of the whole manufacturing establishment, paying a liberal interest on the capital invested, and even producing a large annual surplus of profits which, in the four years 1809–13, averaged £40,000 a year, and only in the succeeding period, when the new shareholders agreed to limit their interest to 5 per cent. per annum, was this surplus devoted to education and the general well-being of the community.
In view of such an astounding success as this, what is the use of quibbling about the exact amount of free-will human beings possess ? Owen contended, and proved by a grand experiment, that environment greatly modifies character, that no character is so bad that it may not be greatly improved by a really good environment acting upon it from early infancy, and that society has the power of creating such an environment. Now, the will is undoubtedly a function of the character of which it is the active and outward expression; and if the character is enormously improved, the will, resulting in actions whether mental or physical, is necessarily improved with it. To urge that the will is, and remains through life, absolutely uninfluenced by character, environment,
or education; or to claim, on the other hand, that it is wholly and absolutely determined by them-seem to me to be propositions which are alike essentially unthinkable and also entirely opposed to experience. To my mind both factors necessarily enter into the determination of conduct as well as into the development of character, and, for the purposes of social life and happiness, a partial determinism, as developed and practised by Owen, is the only safe guide to action, because over it alone have we almost complete control. Heredity
, through which it is now known that ancestral characteristics are continually reappearing, gives that infinite diversity of character which is the very salt of social life ; by environment, including education, we can so modify and improve that character as to bring it into harmony with the possessor's actual surroundings, and thus fit him for performing some useful and enjoyable function in the great social organism.
Although most people have heard of New Lanark, few have any idea of Owen's work there or of the means by which he gradually overcame opposition and achieved the most remarkable results. It will
, therefore, not be out of place to give a short account of his methods as explained in his autobiography; and it will also be advisable to give a very brief sketch of the early life of one of the most remarkable, most original, and, in many respects, most truly admirable characters which has adorned the nineteenth century.
Robert Owen was born in 1771, and brought up in Newtown, a small town in Montgomeryshire, North Wales. His father was a saddler by trade; his mother a farmer's daughter. He was sent to the town school when about five years old, where the teaching was limited to what are now termed the three R.'s, and he learnt so quickly that when about seven years old the schoolmaster took him as an usher to teach the younger children, and for the next two years he learnt nothing more at school except how to teach. This, however, he appears to have taught himself to some purpose, as his after-life shows. At nine he entered the shop of a draper and haberdasher, a friend of his father's, where he went daily for a year, but taking his meals at home. He was a great reader, and being well known to all the inhabitants, and evidently much liked and admired, he had free access to all the libraries in the place, including those of the clergyman, doctor, lawyer, etc., and he says that he generally read a volume every day. He also thought much about all that he read, and at one time, having read many religious books, he wrote three sermons, which he afterwards destroyed. He also learnt dancing, of which he was very fond, and this led him to observe the characters of boys and girls, and also had an important influence on his views and practice of education.
At the age of ten, at his own request, he went to London, where an elder brother was engaged in a saddler's shop. Through his father's introductions and the recommendation of the draper in Newtown, he soon obtained an engagement with a haberdasher at Stamford, who had a large business in the finest qualities of goods, which he supplied to all the nobility and gentry in the country round.
The boy Owen was to have his board, lodging, and washing, no salary the first year, £8 the second, and £10 the third, and he tells us that from the time of entering this house he supported himself, and never applied for or received any pecuniary aid from his parents.
Here he remained three years, and the hours of business being comparatively short, by getting up early he was able to read five hours a day. He also learnt here to distinguish the different qualities of all the finest fabrics, which was of great use to him in after-life.
He then returned to London, and after a visit to his family in Wales, entered a large ready-money shop on Old London Bridge, where he had £25 a year, but was at work for fifteen or sixteen hours a day; so after a year he obtained another situation in a large shop in Manchester at a salary of £40 a year. Here he remained till he was eighteen, and a circumstance occurred which changed the whole course of his life.
A mechanic named Jones supplied the firm with wire frames for ladies' bonnets, of which large numbers were sold.
He brought a supply weekly, and it was Owen's duty to receive them from him, and being an intelligent man, they had some conversation together. Jones was full of the wonderful improvements then being made in machinery for cottonspinning. He had seen some of these machines at work, and was sure he could make them and work them if he had a little capital. At last he persuaded Owen to lend him £100 (borrowed from his brother in London), for which he was to have half the profits of the work. Owen accordingly left his employer after due notice, and rented a suitable machine shop, in which about forty men were soon employed making the newly invented "mules" for spinning cotton. Jones superintended the work, and Owen kept the accounts, paid the men, and saw that regular hours were worked, he being the first to enter and the last to leave the workshop. The "mules" were sold as quickly as made, and thus the small capital was made to serve ; but Owen soon saw that Jones had no business capacity, whereas Owen was, as he afterwards proved, one of the greatest organizers who ever lived. Не, , therefore
, watched the work closely, learnt all he could about it, and when an offer was made by another person with some capital to buy him out, he gladly accepted the offer which they made him, of six of the mule machines, a reel, and a makingup machine with which to pack the skeins of yarn into bundles for sale. He, however, only received three mules with the two other machines, and immediately hired an empty build. ing, set them up in one of the rooms, bought the cotton rovings ready for spinning, and hired three men to work the machines. The finished yarn was spun in hanks of one hundred and forty yards each, the hanks made up into bundles of five pounds weight, and wrapped neatly in paper, all which work was done by himself, and he then sold it to the agent of some Glasgow manufacturers of British muslins, then quite a new business. In this way he found he could make a clear profit of £6 a week.
A few months later he accidentally heard that a wealthy manufacturer, Mr. Drinkwater, had advertised for a manager for some new spinning-mills which he had just built and filled with the best machinery under the management of Mr. Lee, a civil engineer, who had unexpectedly left him, he himself knowing nothing of the business. Owen applied for the post, being then barely twenty years old, and looking younger. He asked £300 a year salary; and after a few inquiries as to character, seeing his little factory of three mules, and examining his books, Mr. Drinkwater engaged him, and about a week afterwards he was called upon to take charge of a large factory employing about five hundred workpeople. The former manager had left the day before, Mr. Drinkwater did not come to introduce him, and he was simply sent there as the new manager. His business was to purchase the raw material, to make the machines, for the mill was not nearly completed; to manufacture the yarn, and to sell it; to keep the accounts, pay the wages, and take the whole responsibility of the first fine cotton-spinning establishment by machinery that had ever been erected. Hitherto his life had been spent in retail shops, where he had learnt the qualities of various fabrics, and how to buy and sell, but till his short experience with Jones and with his three spinning-mules, he had never even seen any textile machinery or learnt anything about its construction.
He describes how he suddenly found himself in the midst of five hundred men, women, and children, who were busily occupied with machinery, much of which he had scarcely seen, and never in their regular connection so as to manufacture from the raw cotton to the finished thread. We can well understand his feelings, and how he said to himself, “ How came I here? And how is it possible I can manage these people and this business?” His description of how he did manage it, without ever showing his complete ignorance; how he not only superintended the completion of the mill and carried on the whole thing successfully, but in a very short time noticed imperfections in the thread, found out the defect in the machinery or in the mode of working that led to these imperfections, and then had these defects remedied; how the quality and selling value of the output steadily advanced; how the organization of the whole mill was perfected, and yet the