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'The Father of Co-operation' – Robert Owen statue returns

I was honoured to speak at a ceremony marking the return of a statue of Robert Owen outside The Co-operative Bank's head office on Balloon Street in Manchester city centre.

The statue had been stored for safekeeping during extensive trams works in the area and during the refurbishment of the office premises.

I joined the event to commemorate the return of the Robert Owen statue alongside The Co-operative Bank's Chief Executive, Andrew Bester, Gillian Lonergan from the National Co-operative Archive at Co-operative Heritage Trust and a number of Co-operative Bank colleagues who have been in service at the bank since the statue was originally installed outside Balloon Street in 1994.

I was asked to say a few words at the ceremony, which I wanted to share here.

The Father of Co-operation

In the early nineteenth century, Robert Owen cut the hours of his cotton mill workers from 17 hours a day to 10, and banned the employment of children. Over four years, the business made a profit of £160,000 and a return on capital of 5%.

Robert Owen himself, was born in Newtown, the sixth child of seven, worked from the age of eight, covering his school costs by working as a teacher's assistant. Around the age of ten he left for London to find work as an apprentice.

He made his way in Manchester during the early days of the Industrial Revolution. On January 1st 1800, a propitious date, he started work as manager and partner of New Lanark in Ayrshire, Scotland.

Owen focused both on the engines but also the ‘living machinery’ of the workforce and community of New Lanark. In the mills, cotton dust choked the lungs, open machinery was an ever present danger to those working by them. The rules and regulations Owen drew up were shaped by his time in Manchester.

The minimum age that a child could work in the mill was set as ten (taken up later in factory legislation) and from the age of five, children could attend the school for free. Among other innovations, his was the world’s first crèche. 

The spirit of co-operation was summarised by Owen’s instructions to the infant master, former weaver James Buchanan and his assistant Molly Young: “on no account to ever to beat any one of the children or to threaten them in any word or action but… always to speak to them with a pleasant voice and in a kind manner.”

Every worker contributed to a friendly society operating as a sick fund, to cover time off, and Owen started a savings bank, which flourished with deposits from the workforce of £3,000 by 1818.

Owen is considered the father of co-operation (of which there are many mothers too, such Hannah Gebhard in Finland, whose grave I visited on a recent visit to meet with a new generation of technology coops in the country). 

Twenty thousand people came to visit New Lanark, now a world heritage site, between 1815 and 1825. This was in a period of post-war poverty and change for which co-operation, as Owen saw it, was the cure.

In his words, “in this new world, all will know that far more happiness can be obtained by union, than by disunion.”

The statue of Robert Owen can be found on the corner of Balloon Street and Corporation Street in Manchester city centre.

Find out more about The Co-operative Bank's work to implement co-operative values and ethics.

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Updated: 18/12/2018