Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 42.djvu/451

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page needs to be proofread.
Owen
Owen
445


quickly that when seven years old he was made 'usher.' He had a passion for reading, and books were lent to him by the clergyman, doctor, and lawyer. He read the ordinary standard literature, including 'Robinson Crusoe' and Richardson's novels, and believed every word to be true. He afterwards read histories, books of travel, and biography. Some methodist ladies lent him a number of religious books, and he says that the study of controversies convinced him before he was ten years old that there was 'something fundamentally wrong in all religions' (own Life, p. 4). This early passion for reading disappeared under the pressure of business, and in later life he read little except newspapers and statistical books. He acted as usher for two years, and then became assistant in a small shop of grocery and haberdashery. He became anxious to see the world, and was allowed, when he had completed his tenth year, to join his eldest brother William, then a saddler in London. After a short stay in London he was placed with McGuffog, an honest and shrewd Scotsman, who had been a pedlar, and had started a successful business in Stamford, Northamptonshire. McGuffog had become famous for the sale of the finer articles of female wear, and Owen became a good judge of different fabrics. His master was kind and considerate, and he was able to spend many hours before and after his day's work meditating and reading in Burleigh Park. Seneca was a favourite author. The McGuffogs belonged to different churches ; and Owen now developed his early scepticism, and reluctantly abandoned Christianity. He had, however, previously written a letter to Pitt, the prime minister, "suggesting measures for better observance of the Sabbath. The publication a few days later of a proclamation in that sense was supposed by the McGuffogs and himself to be a consequence, though he afterwards perceived that it could be only a coincidence.

Meanwhile Owen's ambition was confined to business. After four years at Stamford and a brief holiday he became assistant in a haberdasher's shop on old London Bridge, where he received: 25l. a year, besides board and lodging. His employers were kind, but the work so severe in the busy season that he had only five hours for sleep. He was glad to accept an offer of 40l. a year for a similar situation with a Mr. Satterfield in Manchester. At this time the cotton trade was in process of rapid development. Owen formed an acquaintance with a mechanic named Jones, who made wire bonnet-frames for Satterfield, and was anxious to make some of the new machinery for cotton spinning. Owen borrowed 100l. from his brother, and took a workshop with Jones, where they soon had forty men at work. Owen had to keep the boots, manage the men, and look as wise as he could till he had learnt his new business. Affairs prospered till a capitalist offered to buy him out. He was glad to set up for himself, took a room, and began spinning yarn, which he sold to the agent of some Glasgow manufacturers. He formed an alliance with two young Scotsmen, James McConnell and John Kennedy (1769-1855) [q. v.], afterwards successful cotton spinners, about 1790, and was soon clearing six pounds a week. A Mr. Drinkwater of Manchester required a manager for' a large business. Owen applied for the post, and, though he was younger and demanded a larger salary than other applicants, Drinkwater was pleased by his manner, and appointed him. He had now charge of a mill employing five hundred persons, and filled with machinery of which he knew little. Drinkwater left the whole business to him. He studied the arrangements carefully, and mastered them thoroughly in six weeks. He had, he says, by this time learnt his great principle— that, as character is made by circumstances, all anger is out of place. His management of the workmen was at any rate successful, and they were soon distinguished for sobriety and good order. The knowledge of fabrics acquired at McGuffog's stood him in good stead. The mill produced the finest kinds of yarn, the cotton being spun into 120 hanks to the pound. Owen increased this by 1792 to 250, and afterwards to 300, hanks to the pound. He was among the first to make use of the Sea Island cotton, none of the North American cotton having been used previously to 1791, in the new machinery. Owen's skill greatly increased the profits of the business, while his own mind was being impressed by the reflection that more attention was generally paid to the 'dead' than to the 'living machinery.' During the first year Drinkwater proposed a new agreement with him, which he gladly accepted. He was to have 400l. for the second year, 500l. in the third, and a partnership, with a quarter of the profits, in the fourth. He was becoming known in Manchester; he was on friendly terms with Dalton the chemist, and became a member of the 'Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester.' He still spoke, he says (ib. p. 31), an imperfect mixture of Welsh and English, but apparently made an impression upon more cultivated minds. He records a dispute with John Ferriar [q. v.], says that he had the best of the argument, though the worst