Robert Owen nearly didn't make it to adulthood.

In the late 18th century the youngster almost died when he ate a spoonful of scalding hot flummery, and on another occasion was forced to flee from the path of an oncoming wagon pulled by a cream coloured mare as he crossed the wooden bridge over the Severn in Newtown.

During an age in which young people were seemingly perennially imperilled, either incident might have deprived the world of a social reformer, one of the architects of the cooperative movement, of an engineer of workers' rights and a socialist figurehead.

This Friday, May 14, marks 250 years to the day that Owen was born in the house above his father's shop in Broad Street in Newtown in 1771.

Robert Owen statue between Shortbridge Street and Gas Street in Newtown. Picture: Anwen Parry.

Robert Owen statue between Shortbridge Street and Gas Street in Newtown. Picture: Anwen Parry.

He was born into a town – and an entire region in the Severn Valley – that was enjoying considerable economic, social, cultural and linguistic changes.

Robert’s father was a saddler and retail ironmonger and would also serve as town postmaster and church warden while fathering seven children – two of whom died in infancy.

Robert, the second youngest, grew up alongside older brothers William and John and sister Anne and a younger brother, Richard in Newtown, "a neat, clean and beautifully situated country village, rather than a town, not containing more than 1,000 inhabitants with the ordinary trades but no manufacturers except a few flannel looms".

It wasn't to stay that way, The parish of Llanllwchairn became a thriving warren of industrial activity and teemed with small woollen factories and workshops while a growing population of workers set up home in cottages alongside the Severn river.

Newtown during the lifetime of Robert Owen. Picture:

Newtown during the lifetime of Robert Owen. Picture:

Robert was an enthusiastic scholar, attending school at Newtown Hall, then untouched since King Charles I had stayed under its roof for two days on his way to the Battle of Nasenby in 1645, where he earned a free scholarship as usher.

Forging a reputation as a bookish boy, he took advantage of the opening of Newtown library by reading many of the classics of the time which shaped his outlook.

Robert left Newtown aged around 11 armed with the memories of a childhood among a hard-working and religious minded shop-keeping family and, after spells as a draper in London and Lincolnshire, moved to Manchester, where he spent the next twelve years of his life, employed initially at Satterfield's Drapery in Saint Ann's Square.

Two years after becoming manager of the Piccadilly Mill at Manchester. in 1791, he went into partnership with other entrepreneurs to establish and later manage the Chorlton Twist Mills in Chorlton-on-Medlock.

Still his reputation grew. In 1793, he was elected a member of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, then became a committee member of the Manchester Board of Health, pressing for improvements in the health and working conditions of factory workers.

Then, on a visit to Scotland, Owen met and fell in love with Ann Dale, daughter of David Dale, a Glasgow philanthropist and the proprietor of the large New Lanark Mills.

After their marriage 1799, the Owen’s set up home in New Lanark, where he and his partners bought the New Lanark mill, one of Britain’s largest cotton-spinning operations, employing more than 2,000 people, including 500 children sent from poorhouses.

There, Owen tested his social and economic ideas, winning his workers' confidence and improving efficiency at the mill - including by establishing a factory truck store system which would come to form the principles of the first co-operatives.

Improved living conditions and child care further earned New Lanark a reputation as a workers’ utopia.

The community also earned an international reputation. Social reformers, statesmen and royalty, including the future Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, visited New Lanark to study its methods.

A picture of Robert Owen.

A picture of Robert Owen.

In 1813 he sold his shares in New Lanark and continued advocating improvements in workers' rights, child labour laws and free education for children Owen had communications with leading members of the British government, including its premier, Robert Banks Jenkinson, Lord Liverpool, and met many of the rulers and leading statesmen of Europe.

Owen embraced socialism in 1817, a turning point in his life, and began pursuing what he described as a New View of Society while recommending setting up self-sufficient communities of 1,200 people

His developed model envisaged an association of 500–3,000 people as the optimum for a working community. While mainly agricultural, it would possess the best machinery, offer varied employment, and as far as possible be self-contained.

Critics accused Owen of wanting to ‘imprison people in workshops like barracks and eradicate their personal independence’ while others had accused him of lacking any religious conviction as an atheist.

Undeterred, in 1824 he and his son William sailed to America to establish an experimental community in Indiana, buying an existing town of 180 buildings and several thousand acres of land which he renamed New Harmony, as a model for a Utopian community.

He addressed the US Government in 1825, outlining his vision for the Utopian community at New Harmony, and his socialist beliefs – with three former U.S. presidents, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, as well as the outgoing James Monroe, and President-elect John Quincy Adams in attendance.

Owen's Utopian communities attracted a mix of people, many with the highest aims. They included vagrants, adventurers and other reform-minded enthusiasts. In the words of Owen's son David Dale Owen, they attracted "a heterogeneous collection of Radicals", "enthusiastic devotees to principle," and "honest latitudinarians, and lazy theorists," with "a sprinkling of unprincipled sharpers thrown in."

In 1841, Owen secured capital from a consortium of capitalist friends and built a luxurious mansion, Harmony Hall, to house a community school which would train Owenites in a correct communitarian environment.

New Harmony. Picture by Timothy Hamilton.

New Harmony. Picture by Timothy Hamilton.

Although Owen made further brief visits to the United States, London became his permanent home and the centre of his work in 1828 and remained the head of a campaign to promote industrial equality, free education for children and improved living conditions in factory towns.

In 1854, aged 83, Owen converted to spiritualism after a series of sittings with Maria B. Hayden, an American medium credited with introducing spiritualism to England.

Owen claimed to have had medium contact with spirits of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and others and explained that the purpose of these was to change "prepare the world for universal peace, and to infuse into all the spirit of charity, forbearance and love.”

Owen returned to Newtown at the end of his life, declaring that he wanted to 'lay my bones whence I derived them'.

He died on November 17, 1858 in the Bear Hotel, next door to the house in which he was born and buried in the grave of his parents in the ruins of St. Mary's following an Anglican service at the new church.

The burial was not straightforward. Owen's social ideals were controversial and he was seen as a dangerous radical by many in authority while many mainstream church officials considered him un-Christian.

And while the local rector was amenable, there were protests against allowing the burial.

Robert Owens grave at the old parish church, Newtown. Picture by Percy Benzie Abery.

Robert Owen's grave at the old parish church, Newtown. Picture by Percy Benzie Abery.

Friend and fellow reformer George Jacob Holyoake would visit the town 40 years later – and was dismayed to find Owen's grave neglected and decaying, and decided that Owen deserved a memorial in keeping with his impact on the world.

Using his influence within the Co-operative Union, he oversaw the restoration of the plain table tomb and erection of a memorial.

The Co-operative Union paid for an ornate monument by Alfred Toft showing Owen surrounded by labourers and the slogan 'Each for All', part of the Co-op motto 'Each for All and All for Each'.

On the west side of the railings is an Owen quote,.

"It is the one great and universal interest of the human race to be cordially united and to aid each other to the full extent of their capacities."