THERE can be few of us who do not from time to time want a better world. Utopian blueprints are regularly written, discussed and then generally forgotten. One that was actually put into practice in Hampshire in the 1840s led to a massive building programme in open country which can still be traced.

It was the product of an atheist visionary and a budding Roman Catholic architect and its relics survive near Broughton – an impressive walled garden, a fragment of an imposing semi-basement, a couple of fine houses and especially a working farm.

It was the brainchild of Robert Owen, a Welshman who made a fortune in New Lanark on the Clyde, where the legacy of his cotton spinning business and new town is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Much later he promoted an extraordinary project in Hampshire –the last of a succession of visionary schemes – in co-operation with architect Joseph Hansom, the man who invented the horse-drawn cab.

The story surfaces in a new book Robert Owen and the Architect Joseph Hansom by Dr Penelope Harris, education officer of the Robert Owen Museum in Powys. It gives a fascinating account of a succession of hare-brained schemes of Owen a “self-styled prophet and quasi-religious guru, [with] a complex personality that defies analysis”.

Unlike many businessmen, Owen’s aim was not merely to make money, but to create communities that exhibited “a new existence of universal goodness, wisdom and happiness”. He tried his hand in the USA with New Harmony, which failed, and then came back to England to pursue other ideas.

After many largely futile projects Owen focused on Harmony Hall, which started when he bought Queen Wood Farm and several hundred acres of land in East Tytherley from local landowner Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid, who had previously supported a number of short-lived schemes, including one involving London printers, the Co-operative and Economical Society.

Owen envisaged bringing down hundreds of people from the north of England to work the thin flint-ridden land that Goldsmid must have been glad to yield. It was variously described as ‘near Stockbridge’ (9 miles away), ‘near Broughton’ (2 miles) and later, when the Romsey-Salisbury line was built ‘near Dunbridge Rail Station’ (4 miles).

Originally the scheme was put into the hands of others, but eventually Owen himself took charge. At huge cost with the designs of Hansom he constructed an imposing and lavish building in the expectation of creating a community of 800 people. As most people, predicted, it was a huge failure.

Describing Harmony Hall, Dr Harris writes: “Every facet of the three-storeyed building, even down to the use of hand-made nails, was of the highest quality, and included gimmicks such as a conveyor belt for dishes between kitchen and dining room, another engineering feat for Hansom.

“It could provide sixteen dinners at a time, and was intended to surpass London hotels. Even the kitchen had ornamental columns. The dining room and adjacent ballroom…were decorated with richly finished ceilings and wainscoted with mahogany.”

The difficulty of reaching Harmony Hall was treated with some hilarity by George Holyoake, who coined the word ‘secularism’, promoted the co-operative movement and was in fact an advocate for Owen, though he regarded Harmony Hall as “an unforgivable mistake”.

In his Sixty Years of an Agitator’s Life, 1892, he describes taking a train from Nine Elms station (the precursor to Waterloo) to Winchester in October 1843 in an open carriage and then walking nine miles to Stockbridge, staying the night and then walking on to Broughton.

As it happens, Owen’s vision was not entirely wasted. Although the concept of a band of happy farm workers in a loving community in the countryside did not work, there were signs that some form of school would do so. But it was too late for Owen: more than £40,000 had been spent on the scheme and the Universal Community Society of Rational Religionists who had spear-headed the scheme was bankrupt.

Fortunately, there was a happier ending, as in 1847 an enlightened and progressive educator the Quaker, George Edmondson, left a successful establishment in Preston, Lancashire, and took over the building, which for the next half century housed Queenwood College.

This was a Public School with a difference, as it had a curriculum more like a technical college, in which science and a variety of practical subjects – such as book-keeping, chemistry, surveying and engineering – were to the fore. In keeping with these aims, it had a purpose-built laboratory, albeit at a safe distance from the main building!

An extraordinary feature of the school was that amongst its science teachers were some who went on to distinguish themselves nationally, including John Tyndall, Edward Frankland and Thomas Archer Hirst. Frankland was later knighted and all three elected to the Royal Society. Edmondson made a great success of the school until suddenly in 1863 he died.

His place was taken by Charles Willmore, who came with the endorsement of eight Fellows of the Royal Society. But he lacked the drive of Edmondson. Researcher David Bottomley of Curtin University, Perth, Australia, describes him as “a friendly headmaster with great empathy for his students who would be cheering his boys at a school football match…but not a salesman”.

Queenwood College therefore petered out and at the end of his life Willmore lived on in the building with others who ran a poultry farm. Everything came to a terrible end on June 9, 1902, when the former Harmony Hall was consumed in flames. Several of the occupants escaped but Willmore was trapped inside and died. Ironically, a month later George Holyoake unveiled a memorial to the social reformer that might have been, in Newtown, where the Robert Owen Museum continues to showcase his life.

The great tragedy of Queenwood College is that, if Owen had chosen a more central location, and if Willmore had been more ambitious, British education might have truly embraced science and technology much earlier.

Robert Owen and the Architect Joseph Hansom is published by Brewin Books ( and stocked by P & G Wells, Winchester. The Hampshire Record Office holds much material on Harmony Hall and Queenwood College and there is much more on Hampshire at: www.