|Commemorating Orbiston in Strathclyde Park, the plaque reads |
"The Babylon Community, Orbiston (1825-1828)
The first experiment in communal living in Britain"
Since the beginning of civilisation, men have repeatedly attempted to build better societies than the ones they have known. The industrial revolution had changed both the prospects and livelihoods of the majority of workers, and rather than increasing their opportunities, they had led to greater uncertainties. The earliest communitarian movements attempted to transform this by forming religious and secular communities with participatory governments and to produce an equilibrium between the private and common ownership of property and work.
The word ‘socialism’ originates with the followers of Robert Owen who is still popularly regarded as “the father of British socialism”. It is not always remembered, however, that the socialism he advocated was co-operative or community socialism. Owen did not think along the lines of the later socialists. His approach was basically apolitical and he rejected the notion of class struggle as a means of social change. Instead, he believed in communitarianism as a method of social reform. Society, he argued, was to be radically transformed by means of experimental communities, villages of cooperation, and this he regarded as a valid alternative to other methods of effecting change, such as revolution or legislation. The foundation of communities was not a series of more-or-less accidental happenings, but the attempt to put into practice a coherent theory of social change. One such project was a Orbiston, later nicknamed Babylon by the locals, near Motherwell and not too far from the reknown New Lanark site. Owen subscribed £10,000, but ultimately withdrew from the scheme because of differences of opinion with other promoters. Instead Owen himself commenced another at New Harmony, in Indiana, America which is surprisingly better known than the Scottish attempt. A proposal by the British and Foreign Philanthropic Society for the first Owenite Community begn with the purchase of 600 acres of land, owned by Hamilton of Dalzell for the community. After 3 years of inactivity the Motherwell community never came into existence and the scheme was overtaken and in its place, in 1825, Archibald Hamilton and Abram Combe founded a community near Bellshill at Orbiston, the estate of Hamilton’s father.
Abram Combe was born in Edinburgh on 15 January 1775. In 1826, Combe's health began to fail; he suffered from a serious lung disease, which killed him on 19 September 1827 (11th or 27th of August according to other sources). His death spelled the end of the Orbiston co-operative. In 1820, Combe met Robert Owen and visited his co-operative community at New Lanark. Combe, a tanner by trade, was quickly converted to the cause of co-operation and became an advocate of Owen's principles. He wrote ‘Metaphorical Sketches of the Old and New Systems’ (1823), a critique of competition and exposition of co-operation. Combe influenced the Ricardian socialist economist John Gray, who paid tribute to him in an appendix of his book The Social System (1831). In Edinburgh, Leather Workers Community was a short-lived community experiment set up in Combe's Edinburgh Tanyard - the leather workers lived communally and operated a profit sharing scheme. The Practical Society was a co-operative venture set up in 1821 by Archibald James Hamilton in partnership with Abram Combe. The Society aimed to improve the lives of members and opened a store for the sale of goods to 500 families. A school was established and members were required to sign a pledge to abstain from drink, tobacco and swearing. At first successful, the Practical Society foundered within a year when the storekeeper appropriated Society funds. Hamilton and Combe proceeded with plans for a grander, co-operative experiment at Orbiston. Archibald James Hamilton (1793-1834) was the eldest son of General John Hamilton, 11th of Orbiston and 6th of Dalzell. Archibald was an idealist and social reformer, and was chiefly responsible for the establishment of an experimental socialistic community on Orbiston Estate. Hamilton's prospectus for establishing a socialistic community at Orbiston was based on Robert Owen's "Report to the County of Lanark of a plan to relieve distress etc ", 1820. Owen's report had been rejected by Parliament as too idealistic, but Hamilton was determined to pursue his dream of creating a community in which "the poor and working classes .. provide themselves…with the necessaries and comforts of life." His prospectus invited wealthy individuals to apply for shares in the Orbiston Community. Share-holders would form a company and could expect in return "full interest and the satisfaction of seeing poverty, and ignorance disappear from their neighbourhood." Funds for the project were not initially forthcoming, and it was left to Hamilton and Abram Combe to bring the project to fruition.
The Orbiston Community, dreamt of introducing a new social order to the world and was situated on 290 acres of land. Separate from Owen, Combe purchased land in cooperation with John Hamilton with the help of a bond issued by a joint-stock company, The Orbiston Company. The community did not see the immediate success that had taken place at New Lanark, nor did it predicate its existence on that model. In fact, Owen did not learn of its existence until months after the community was founded. Orbiston was built around the ideals of liberty, security, and knowledge. Combe was to instill this in the membership from the beginning. The commune was constructed around a series of community buildings at its center along a running stream, with a school being central to this plan. As with Owen, Combe tied the idea of education to personal and economic advancement. The main building consisted of a large center building with two wings for living quarters, containing some 120 private rooms. The community also included a theater for cultural advancement, a foundry and forge, and a press for printing its newspaper, The Register. Everything was whitewashed with blue slate roofs. The pearl white community was surrounded by scenic hills and had the appearance of utopia, even if it may not have reached that goal. Combe would work himself to sickness to see its success.
Orbiston was built to earlier plans though with modifications. The main building resembled the design advocated earlier in Relief for the Poor and the Report to Lanark. A classically styled central block (somewhat akin to both the Institute and Mill No. 3 at New Lanark) was to be four storeys high and be intended for community use. It would house the kitchens, dining rooms (to accommodate up to 800 persons), drawing rooms, ball room, lecture hall and library. The vast symmetrical L-shaped wings on either side were to provide private living quarters for the communitarians, with Orbiston was therefore built to earlier plans though with modifications. The last consisted mainly of workers who had fallen victim to the on-going slump following the end of the wars, particularly a group of hand-loom weavers, casualties of mechanisation. As in the original scheme the poor and unemployed were being assisted much as Owen intended. Among the educationists were Catherine Whitwell, and, for a time, Joseph Applegarth, another Owenite teacher, who later participated in the New Harmony community. Economic foundations, in common with the majority of the Owenite communities, were shaky, though as the design suggests, considerable thought had been given to the social and educational aspects of life.
290 members of the community nicknamed 'Babylon' worked as weavers, blacksmiths, joiners, cabinet makers, wheelwrights, printers, painters, shoemakers, tailors, seamstresses and harness-makers. They ran a successful iron-foundery on the 291 acre site that included a 5 storey main communal building, school, apartments & communal dining facilities. 75 acres of the land was cultivated with vegetable garden & orchard. The land being manured with waste from the community sewage system.
Orbiston community never became truly solvent and survived precariously as it constantly ran short of capital due to the little success it had in production and manufacturing in all areas of endeavor. This had to do with some of the inhabitants it initially attracted, more than a few of which were unsuited for the hard work and others who were idlers by nature. Locals came to call the place “Babylon” referring to the collection of rabble that flocked to the community from the surrounding area. The community spent its second year ridding itself of these and consolidating its membership around those that truly wanted to work toward the commune’s success. Orbiston’s internal government was a further trouble as the members were divided over the operation of the community. The division of income also became a matter of contention as well. The community originally was founded on a system of individual reward for labour, with economic equality to follow later. By integrating agriculture and industrial manufacturing it was believed that this would encourage outside capitalists to invest in the venture. When this did not materialize, the community was hard pressed to survive on its own capitalization.
Abram Combe produced a newsletter "The Register", which reported on progress being made within the community as well as on lectures, plays and other events organised for the edification of Society members. The first edition of the Register was issued on 10 November 1825. Abram Combe wrote of his perplexity at the pessimistic views on the commune's viability being expressed by two Orbiston Company members, who opposed moves to transfer proprietorship of the commune to the tenants, believing that the members were not up to the task. Combe was confident that a restructure of the community into departments was showing signs of success and that an audit of accounts for each department would produce a favourable outcome. Combe disapproved of the thoroughly communistic principles which were adopted in September 1826, after the scheme had been at work for a year. 1827 had begun as a period of hope and renewal at the Orbiston Community. The old payment system had been replaced by one of total communism: communal ownership of property, and equal distribution of wealth. The division of the community into 6 departments or companies was showing signs of success. Weavers were manufacturing cotton for shirts, trousers and jackets. Bookbinders and printers were gainfully employed, and the foundry and horticultural departments were planning to provide goods for the Glasgow market.
The community could satisfy certain personal goals, particularly of people who were in some way social misfits. It offered a solution to problems of personal deficiency or social maladjustment, and had an obvious appeal to those who sought security or escape from the world. Communities such as Orbiston collected their share of such types. Combe’s views of the earliest members of Orbiston were recorded in the Orbiston Register of 19th August 1827:
“A worse selection of individuals, men, women and children, could scarcely have been made — a population made up for the most part of the worst part of Society. The adults were steeped in poverty ; lazy, dirty and thriftless : the smell of tobacco in almost every house, and a dunghill beginning to rise under almost every window. The children and youths were no better ; they were quarrelsome, unmannerly”
It is clear that Combe believed that the poor folk seeking refuge at Orbiston were fleeing the designs and misery of the Old System, “rather than to seek the advantages of the New.”
The death of Combe in 1827, the single point of commonality for the community was lost and signalled the beginning of the end for the socialistic community at Orbiston. With the loss of Combe came a loss of direction. Funding for the community was becoming scarce. Pressure for repayment of a loan forced William Combe to announce the abandonment of the bold social experiment in December 1827. In November 1828, Thomas Lawrie from Edinburgh compiled a report on behalf of General John Hamilton advising on the value of the lands, and on the best method of dividing the estate for a sell-off. The proprietors soon suspended all further proceedings and disposed of the property after two years and the buildings were pulled down. The demise of the community at Orbiston was attributed more to a lack of interest and desire by its residents in its success, than to its economic failure. More to the truth was its problem with under capitalization. Profits could not overcome the community’s early over expenditures. At least one of Orbiston’s investors was placed in “debtors prison” for advances made to the community, and this fact cannot be discounted as a detriment to future undertakings.
The last remnants of the "Orbiston Community" experiment in social reform can be found in Strathclyde Park, North Lanarkshire; close to the park's Visitor Centre on the Bellshill side of the park. Stone pillars or Key Stones mark a spot near where the Orbiston Community was sited. Known locally as "New Babylon" on account of the unorthodox views and behaviour of residents, the lands and buildings of the Orbiston Community were sold on 7 December 1830, bought by Mrs Douglas, a local landowner who ordered all trace of the community to be removed. A housing estate now covers part of the site and the community is remembered in street names such as Babylon Rd., Community Rd., Hamilcombe Rd. and Register Avenue.
Pioneer socialist, John Gray, published a criticism of Combe's experiment, entitled: A Word of Advice to the Orbistonians, on the Principles Which Ought to Regulate their Present Proceedings. The co-operative, anti-capitalist nature of Owen's New System created tension between the administrators and the communitarian's themselves. And, although various trade persons and artisans were initially attracted to Orbiston, the community itself could not generate enough wealth to permit complete autarky and it began to borrow in order to remain buoyant. Internal factionalism and animosity began to tear Orbiston apart. His death marked the end of the scheme; the buildings were pulled down in 1828. Still, Orbiston came closer to success than some later communities would. But Robert Owen appeared blind to the eminent failure of Orbiston and in 1828 he wrote:
“It will gratify you to learn that the good cause is progressing substantially in all countries, and that your exertions, although not crowned with immediate success at Orbiston, have contributed essentially to make the principles known, and to prepare the way for their practice in many places.”
Some previously involved in the Orbiston project later become active in the trade union and Chartist movements, but most slipped back into what Owen had termed the Old Order.
Henry Jones, who was to become founder of Canada’s only Owenite community and perhaps the earliest avowed socialist in British North America, came to Scotland that year making a loan of £5,000 (approximately a third of his assets) towards its funds that was given to Hamilton Jones was already sufficiently involved in the Owenite movement to become a member of the society’s committee and became one of its auditors. In the summer of 1826, when Combe had to leave Orbiston temporarily because of illness, Jones took charge of it. But by 1827 the difficulties caused by the poor selection of members had made him apprehensive of its future. In a letter of 23 March he broached to Hamilton the matter of a return of his loan to the Motherwell community and accused him of an “Aristocracy of decision” in his “pronunciation respecting the identity of the friends of the New Views, – and the proper understanding of the principles of the System.” Nevertheless, Jones continued, “We may go on, separately, to exert ourselves in what we believe will best advance the object which we profess to have in view, and where we can, conjointly.” His forebodings were justified when the Orbiston community came to an end after Combe’s death in August. In later years the loan was to prove the cause of litigation that would consume much of Jones’s time and energy. Archibald James Hamilton had died in 1834 and for several years Jones was involved in complex litigation to get back from Hamilton’s estate the money he had advanced to the Motherwell community.
In 1827 Jones sailed to New York and travelled, mostly by water, to Lake Huron, where Jones found suitable land for a new cooperative community in Upper Canada near the mouth of Perch Creek, about 10 miles northeast of present-day Sarnia. Jones returned to Britain later that year. In 1828 he gathered together a group of settlers from the Glasgow area… the community, which he called Maxwell, reputedly after Robert Owen’s residence at New Lanark, Scotland. He hoped eventually to settle between 50 and 100 families. The first contingent of 20 people, which arrived early in 1829 accompanied by a surgeon, consisted mostly of former members of the Orbiston community, almost all of whom were Lowland Scots and unemployed hand-loom weavers. A log building was erected that year with Orbiston as a model, for there were individual family apartments and common kitchens and dining-rooms. A contemporary sketch shows the building, not entirely completed, occupying three sides of a rectangular green; there is a central, two-story block and the wings are single-storeyed. Jones also established a store and a school on Owenite principles.
In 1834 on 17 May after Jones had left on a trip to England and Scotland a fire started in the community house and, as Henry John Jones, his son, recorded, “in less than an hour Maxwell had disappeared – the greater part of the books and light furniture was saved.” The few people remaining in the community after the fire lived in the barn and above the stables until a new building was erected. Jones returned to Upper Canada some time after July 1843, he may have partly shed his Owenism and may have largely remained immune from phalansterianism. In 1840, after Owen’s presentation to Queen Victoria had resulted in vigorous criticism of his principles, Henry John Jones had noted that his father seemed “a little ashamed of ‘Socialism.’” He nevertheless appears to have remained a utopian thinker and planner and, in the sense of desiring a social change in the direction of voluntary association apart from the state, a kind of libertarian socialist. Henry John Jones, remarked in 1839, that his father became “further gone in Socialism than ever.” He bombarded his reluctant relatives in Canada with letters suggesting that they should form a kind of “family community” with the few settlers who remained at Maxwell. He talked “of bringing out another ragged regiment to form a community in case his own family shd fail to come to terms.” Jones’s days of activity ended. He found that the few people at Maxwell who remained from the original settlement had established their own households and had no interest in forming a new community. The family home at Maxwell had been burnt down in 1839 but was rebuilt in 1842 and there Jones lived the rest of his life. Nobody in Canada was influenced by his utopian ideas,
A study of Orbitson reveals the following:
The creation of a new community is likely to attract those who seek an immediate escape from the old order and interests are liable to conflict. And of course there can be no islands of socialism in an ocean of capitalism. The rules of finance still rule.