|The Robert Owen Museum. Photo by "Indigo Goat" Some rights reserved|
From Draper's Assistant to Master Cotton Spinner
"I had not the slightest knowledge of this new machinery. I looked wisely at the men, although I really knew nothing. But by intensely observing everything, I maintained order and regularity throughout the establishment"
In the late 18th Century a major revolution was taking place in the textile industry and Manchester was developing as the centre of the cotton industry. Originally, cloth manufacture had been a cottage industry, but the invention of water powered spinning machines, such as Arkwright's water frame, Hargreave's spinning jenny and later Compton's mule, led to the development of the cotton mills.
In Manchester Robert Owen met Ernest Jones, a young engineer who convinced him that there was a future in the manufacture of new spinning machines. In 1789, he borrowed £100 from his brother and the two men went into business. Jones was a good engineer, but it was Robert Owen who ran the business.
The partnership did not last very long and Robert Owen set up as a cotton spinner with just three employees. This venture prospered and enabled him to obtain a job as manager of a large mill. As a young man of twenty, he found himself in charge of a modern steam powered mill employing 500 people. He soon mastered the art of cotton spinning and earned a considerable reputation as a producer of fine cotton. His career prospered and eventually he became a partner in the Chorlton Twist Company.
Robert Owen remained in Manchester for 13 years and became a respected businessman and a well known figure in the city's intellectual circles. In 1793, at the age of 22, he was invited to join the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society. Here he was introduced to new ideas and a different class of society and soon became friends with the leading intellectuals, including Dr. Percival - pioneer in public health reform, the poet Coleridge and John Dalton the chemist.
As an active member of the Society, Robert Owen took part in debates and presented papers on "the improvement of the cotton industry, the utility of learning, universal happiness and industrialisation and social influences on belief". These titles suggest that he was already forming his ideas on social reform and when the Manchester Board of Health was formed in 1796, he was asked to join the committee as a representative of the cotton industry.