Dominic Barron-Carter (Manchester Metropolitan) on the local impact of the Orbiston Owenite Colony

My research uses the geohistorical concepts of space and place to contextualise and interpret the activity and importance of four neglected sites of radical democratic protest activity during the nineteenth century.

The ‘Pillars of Orbiston’, the last surviving parts of the Orbiston building near the site of the community in Strathclyde Park, Motherwell. Click for larger image

Thanks to the generous bursary program offered by the SSLH, I was able to undertake a six-day research trip to the North Lanarkshire Archive (NLA) in Motherwell, Scotland. The NLA is a key archive for my project as it houses the most complete set of material regarding the Owenite community of Orbiston, one of the four case studies that constitute my thesis. My research argues that despite their myriad differences, the four were important sites of democratic protest activity which nurtured infant radical groups and or sustained existing movements during the nineteenth century. Although this approach has been successfully applied to areas such as Manchester or Leeds, which have long been understood as centres of democratic radicalism, my study applies them to sites that have received substantially less attention from labour historians.

Unlike the other three sites, Orbiston was designed from the outset to be a testbed for a new society, based on mutual cooperation rather than competition. The experience of Orbiston was intended to produce a manifest change in the inhabitants who could then serve as quasi missionaries to the outside world. Despite the attempts of the proprietors and more committed inhabitants, such a manifest change in the character of most inhabitants could not be brought about, and this, combined with the exhaustion of funds, caused the experiment to collapse. Previous studies assert that, after the community failed, all but the most committed and influential of Orbiston’s inhabitants returned to ‘Old Society’ disillusioned with Owenite Communitarianism. This is corroborated by several first-hand accounts of the community which were reported in the Owenite New Moral World during the 1830s.

A description of the Orbiston bakehouse, set up and run by Smith. Orbiston Register, no.33, 11 July 1827. Click for larger image

However, my research at the NLA challenges this account of the post-community feelings and activities of the Orbistonians. The most significant piece of evidence was contained in a folder of correspondence to John Hamilton (1829-1900), 1st Baron Hamilton of Dalzell and son of Orbiston’s leading proprietor, Archibald James Hamilton (1793-1834).  In a letter, dated 1891, Mr William Smith of Bellshill identifies himself as the young baker from Motherwell of the same name who was occasionally mentioned in the Orbiston Register as a member of the community. Smith speaks fondly of A.J. Hamilton and the Orbiston Community, noting that it and the various other welfare programs instituted by Hamilton had endeared Hamilton and co-operation to the local inhabitants. The letter ends by warning Lord Hamilton that his attempts to block public footpaths in and around Motherwell will damage the eighty-year bond between the people of Motherwell and Dalzell House.

William Smith letter, NLA: U21/250/A20. Click for larger image

This demonstrates that, contrary to the standard account, the community had a positive impact on its inhabitants despite their return to ‘Old Society’ and continued to influence relations between different local groups even after its dissolution and demolition. Within the framework of my project, this is an example of an area’s ‘placeness’, that is the ability of buildings or neighbourhoods to encapsulate and convey democratic ideas to its inhabitants, who continued to associate a given site with those ideas even after the former’s destruction. Often such associations, as Smith’s letter to Lord Hamilton establishes, continued down the generations and continued to indirectly shape later radical democratic movements.

My research trip shed new light on the Orbistonians’ post-dissolution feelings and activities, uncovering evidence such as William Smith’s letter that suggests the experience of the community had positive long-lasting effects even on rank-and-file members. This is important for my overall argument as it demonstrates how new interpretations and readings of important sites or events in the history of the British labour movement can be generated by employing the geohistorical concepts of space and place to understand such sites or events.

I am extremely grateful to the SSLH for enabling me to conduct this research.

Dominic Barron-Carter is a Masters Scholar and PhD Student for the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at Manchester Metropolitan University

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