Robert Owen, Father of Co-operation making his mark in Belper!

Robert Owen, Father of Co-operation making his mark in Belper!

After a two year wait, due to the pandemic, we were able to celebrate Robert Owen's 250th Anniversary since his death with a unique clock on the Co-op Store's Belper Store in Derbyshire. Robert Owen 1771 - 1858

Along with the Belper Town Council the Northern Membership & Community Council and Andy Myers a local Artist, agreed that a clock to represent the work of Robert Owen would be fitting. This would be to celebrate his lifetime achievement of improving conditions in his own factories, reducing working hours, cleaning up accommodation and providing schools.

Robert Owen took over the New Lanark Mill and he refused to let children under the age of ten work in the mills, older children could not work more than 14 hours and he gave them time off for meals, despite protests from his business partners. The hours were reduced to 12 hours. Eventually, Owen was credited as the first person to introduce the 8 hour workday and proved production was just as successful on limited hours.

His slogan was Eight hours' labour, Eight hours' Recreation, Eight hours' rest.

The clock to commemorate his work has been designed to replicate his slogan and also his connection to the Mills.

The Robert Owen clock highlights the 3 portions of the day informing onlookers whether they should be working, resting or partaking in recreational activities. The portrait of Robert is visible on the hour. The red marker on the inner circles points to the minutes past the hour as on a traditional 12 hour clock and the long red hand points to the hour. The clock is also a brilliant piece of engineering a tribute to Andy Myers.

To celebrate we invited the community to come and join the launch.

We started with the Belper School Band who entertained us for 1 hour. They were absolutely brilliant and their Rock Band proved very popular and enjoyable for everyone attending. This was a great opportunity for them to perform and showcase their talent.

We also involved the Belper Youth Council to work on the project and they helped to design a bookmark which will be shared with other young people. Owen was devoted to the education of the young. In 1816, he opened the first infant school at at the New Lanark Mill. Under his management, children who would previously have worked in the mill were sent to school and received a full-time structured education.

A number of stall holders attended which included: the Co-operative Heritage Trust (Rochdale Pioneers' Museum) where they showcased Robert Owen's hat, along with the Co-operative College. Our local funeral team also had a stand alongside, Fleet Arts, Transition Belper, Community Police and Belper Community Energy.

The Launch was started by Councillor Katie Harris to welcome everyone to Belper and to give an overview of the project. Tanya Noon, Member & Community Relations Officer referred to the importance of recreational activities and how Central Co-op continues to provide such activities and the work in schools around fairtrade, healthy choices and the insights into a Co-operative model of business and without Robert Owen the modern co-operative movement would not have been born.

This was followed by the Vice-President, Richard Bickle, the Chief Executive, Debbie Robinson and finally the President, Elaine Dean giving their endorsement.

Richard spoke about the Co-operative Movement and the importance of co-operative communities and how we had been trading in Belper since 1891 with the Belper Pottery store being the first to the Emporium store on King Street to the present day store in Strutt Street.

Debbie referred to the importance of how Robert Owen inspired so much from reducing working hours in the mills, to providing free education for both children and adults to give them a good quality of life. Also, the importance of looking after the environment and he was a true visionary. She updated everyone on the strategy for Central Co-op to be a sustainable society referring to the investment in solar panels on stores, digital shelf edge labels, investment in keeping the colleagues safe. Also, about how fairtrade and the Malawi project had changed people's life and that a Malawi Co-operative Development fund helps others to set up co-operatives.

Elaine Dean, President wrote: I feel I have come full circle !

Many years ago in my dim and distant past I lived in the historic mill town of Belper for a few years. I very quickly found myself drafted in to be the Secretary of the Belper Strutt Bicentenary Fund raising money for a lasting tribute, a lamp I believe, in Belper Market Place. I remember organising a St Valentine's Day Grand Ball and it was non political and supported by all the political parties in Belper and by those with no political affiliation.
We raised a lot of money as the independent shops in Belper generously donated some excellent raffle prizes and the lamp was duly purchased. I haven't seen it in 30 years as I moved away from Belper to Derby.

 So returning as President of Central Co-op to declare a clock duly ticking in the centre of Belper on our lovely store was a real privilege and somewhat a sense of 'deja vu'.

The connection with the Strutt family extends to both Owen and the Co-op as George Herbert Strutt lent the original co-operators in Derby some money to get going. William Strutt was a contemporary of Owen who managed similar mills and decent homes and facilities for workers to those in Belper in the Long Row conservation area but his were in New Lanark just south of Glasgow.

Our Robert Owen clock is a joint venture between Northern Member & Community Council and Belper Town Council. A local artist, Andy Myers, was commissioned to create a unique clock commemorating Owen and the design incorporates Owen's vision ideal of 3 segments of 8 hours in each day: work, rest and play.

This was adopted in more progressive mills and is the basis of working hours even up to today. The clock provides a link between the co-operative movement set up in the mill town of Rochdale to provide decent food at fair prices for workers and the philanthropic mill owners who believed education and good health created better working conditions for their employees.

So I felt I had come full circle going back to Belper, starting with a tribute to Jedediah Strutt, visiting both Rochdale and New Lanark many times in intervening years, becoming the President of Central Co-op and unveiling a Robert Owen Memorial Clock back in Belper.

Richard Watson from the MCC Committee also referred to the publication of Owen's New View of Society which attracted great interest from Jedediah Strutt's sons William and Joseph. In Owen's autobiography he states: "of men of great practical knowledge who were (then) much interested in my views and practical measures were Mr. William Strutt and his brother Joseph, two men whose talents in various ways and whose truly benevolent dispositions have seldom been equalled"

This was the beginning of regular visits to Belper based upon mutual respect for William and Joseph Strutt.

In conclusion, Owen was a born leader - he believed that society could be transformed peacefully through improving the environment that people worked and lived in with the overall aim being human happiness through education, good health, decent living conditions and recreation.

Central Co-op is very proud to be part of this democratic movement and to celebrate Owen's vision with a thought provoking clock that will stimulate debate about our collective futures.

Blog written by Tanya Noon and Elaine Dean.