National Equitable Labour Exchange note

Object: National Equitable Labour Exchange note   TUC Library Collections London Metropolitan University, UK
Date: 1832   EMu user since 2002
Measurements: 11x21 cms    

National Equitable Labour Exchange noteThe National Equitable Labour Exchange was founded in 1832 by Robert Owen (1771-1858). Owen owned cotton textile mills in New Lanark, Scotland and became interested in economic and social reform, co-operative production and distribution and trade unions. He was also interested in creating a new type of community at New Lanark. Owen believed that a person’s character is formed by the effects of their environment. He built a school in the village and stopped employing children under ten. In 1825, he also established the New Harmony community in Indiana, USA, based on the socialist ideas that he had developed over the years. In 1829, Owen returned to England to develop his interest in co-operation.

The idea for a National Equitable Labour Exchange came from the Exchange Bazaar, set up in London in 1830 to sell or exchange goods co-operatively produced. The Bazaar was itself based on an experimental Time Store set up in Cincinnati a few years earlier. The Exchange, originally located in Grays Inn Road, London, but from 1833 housed in Charlotte Street, operated as a depot where workers could exchange products they had made by means of labour notes representing hours of work. Value was determined by the cost of materials and labour time necessary for production.

Local tradesmen, London theatres and, it was said, even the toll-keeper at Waterloo Bridge were happy to accept the Notes. This was not considered unusual at the time. Not only did local banks issue notes for circulation in their own area, but large employers often paid their workers in their own printed currency or token coinage. Owen used his own token coinage at the New Lanark factory. Women workers at the Exchange, mainly needlewomen and shoemakers, were initially paid at a lower rate than men and many refused to sell their goods there unless they were offered equal terms.

The Exchange was initially successful and branches opened in South London and Birmingham, but disputes over the value of products and the time taken to make them led to the failure of the experiment and all the branches closed in 1834.

National Equitable Labour Exchange noteMost of Owen’s family moved to New Harmony, but Owen decided to stay in England where he spent the rest of his life helping different reform groups. This included supporting organisations attempting to obtain factory reform, adult suffrage and the development of trade unions. He expressed his views in his journals, The Crisis and The New Moral World.

Acknowledgements: TUC Library Collections London Metropolitan University