Academic journal article Utopian Studies

"A Monument of Union": Social Change and Personal Experience at the Manea Fen Community, 1839-1841

Academic journal article Utopian Studies

"A Monument of Union": Social Change and Personal Experience at the Manea Fen Community, 1839-1841

Article excerpt


This case study uses the nineteenth-century community of Manea Fen as an example to explore the differing ways community was viewed and the issues this raised. Manea Fen was one of a number of British communities influenced by the communitarian ideas of Robert Owen. The study first considers the national context, locating Manea Fen and its founder, William Hodson, in the debates on community within the Owenite movement. It then focuses on the individuals involved in the community, considering their expectations of community life and their reaction to its realities. By focusing on two families whose lives, most unusually for rank-and-file Owenites, can be traced for many years after Manea Fen, the study attempts to show the failed venture's value and place within their broader life histories. This examination of a single community reveals the dual nature of a community, at once inward and outward looking, a blend of social engagement and more personal motivations.


In autumn 1839 George Dunn found himself traveling across the rain-swept open fen land of Cambridgeshire. His journey south from Warrington had taken fifteen hours, and he was now nearing his destination, a farm on the banks of the Old Bedford River. The flat, exposed landscape must have seemed particularly desolate in such weather, and while he was no doubt glad to be reaching his destination, Dunn's thoughts turned to the Slough of Despond. (1) That he should have recalled a passage from Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress may have been particularly apt, not only for the dismal weather but for what lay at his journey's end. Dunn had traveled all this way to join Manea Fen, a community established along lines laid out by Robert Owen. Dunn was to be among those members still living at Manea Fen when the community collapsed in 1841. He was joined there by men, women, and children from across the country. Like all of those involved with the Owenite movement, they faced the central question of how Owen's vision was to be made reality and what they hoped establishing a community would achieve. Dunn's choice of reference echoes Owen's frequent use of millennial language to describe a communitarian society and may suggest that he saw Manea Fen in the same light, as his own New Jerusalem. Yet Dunn was joined in the community by others with their own interpretations of what community meant and with their own expectations as to the lives they would lead there.

I. Motivations

The Manea Fen community was established in January 1839 by William Hodson, a local Cambridgeshire landowner. It was one of a number of communitarian ventures, of various forms, begun in Britain between the 1820s and the 1850s. The dominant influence for these projects was Robert Owen. Community lay at the center of Owen's plans for the reform of society. It was, he believed, only in community that man could lead a truly rational life, and it offered the ideal form of social relationships and economic arrangements. Through the establishment of communities, the way was opened to complete social reform and the transition to the ideal society, or in his phrase, the new moral world.

Owen's writings carried many descriptions of the ideal community. He advocated arranging communal buildings in a parallelogram, with hundreds of inhabitants and costing thousands of pounds. Depictions of these communities showed elaborate buildings nestling in sylvan landscapes. Owen himself, however, offered little guidance on how to establish one such community, let alone a fully communitarian society. This question faced all those attracted by Owen's ideas. The bulk of Owen's support came from the working classes in Britain's industrial areas, a group that not only lacked the financial means to build a community but also brought its own ideas and concerns to the debate over community. As an Owenite movement developed in the 1830s, a wide range of community proposals and schemes emerged. …

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