John Bellers

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John Bellers (1654—1725) was an English social reformer and cloth merchant, who had a considerable influence on Robert Owen.


Bellers was born in 1654 in London into a prosperous family, newly part of the incipient Quaker movement. His writings show him to have been well educated. After his father's death in 1679 he quickly became active in Quaker organisation, and this involvement lasted in various forms for the rest of his life. Records refer to him as cloth merchant, or simply merchant. His 1686 marriage to Frances Fettiplace brought him a Gloucestershire connection, and he may have had some responsibility for the establishment of the first Quaker workhouse in Bristol in 1696. From 1701 he seems to have lived partly in Gloucestershire and partly in London. His one surviving son, Fettiplace, became an Anglican in 1711. John Bellers became a member of the Royal Society in 1718 (joining his son). He died in London on 28 April 1725.[1]


Bellers's publications cover a variety of topics. They are all short, his arguments condensed, and his style terse.

Proposals for a Colledge of Industry

This, the first and best known of his writings, was first put out in 1695 and published more widely in an enlarged version in 1696. It is a scheme for tackling the problem of widespread poverty and adding to the wealth of the nation by establishing a self-sustaining communities which would provide a return to those who had provided the initial finance. A key feature would be that the workers making these communities would cover all necessary trades, and, vitally, agriculture. "In short, as it may be an epitomy of the world, by a collection of all the useful trades in it, so it may afford all the conveniencies a man can want and a Christian use." To mark this, the name Colledge was preferred to that of Workhouse. This proposal helped to inspire and influence Robert Owen. He was introduced to Bellers's work by Francis Place, the radical tailor, and had it reprinted.

Although Bellers assumed that the children in these communities would be educated, neither in his detailed list of personnel nor in the provision for instituting and governing the community did he make any provision for this to happen. And although he clearly believed in the importance of education he did not, in common with his time, want too much of it for the labouring classes. "A multitude of scholars is not so useful to the publick as some may think." "Tho' learning is useful, yet a vertuous, industrious education tends more to happiness here and hereafter."

What has impressed economists is the insistence, rammed home in later writings, on the role of work in creating value. "If one had a hundred thousand acres in land, and so many pounds in money, and as many cattle, without a labourer, what would the rich man be but a labourer?" "The Rich have no way of living but by the labour of others." Karl Marx in particular picked up on this as a forerunner of his labour theory of value. He referred to Bellers at least four times in Das Kapital, calling him a veritable phenomenon in the history of political economy.

Other writings on the poor

Essays about the Poor, Manufactures, Trade, Plantations and Immorality, and of the excellency and divinity of Inward Light contains brief essays, some of them very brief, starting with economic arguments for his colonies for the unemployed. He asserts that the way of living of poor people "is not much less loss to the nation than our wars", and goes on to calculate that "500 labourers can earn £3000 a year more than will keep them, at the rate the poor of England now live". This is followed by an argument that "500 thousand poor are capable to add 43 millions value to the nation", mainly by bringing more land into use. These calculations depend on there being no traders to take their cut of the proceeds of sale. Essays on a mix of topices follow, including purely religious ones, and Some reasons against putting of fellons to death, which is not a complete argument against the death penalty, but concentrates on its use for theft.

It is noticeable that Bellers had no interest in eliminating poverty as such, but saw every reason to try to eliminate worklessness.

Writings on health, prisons and other matters

In 1714 Bellers produced an An Essay towards the improvement of Physick. It contained proposals for the creation of London hospitals, to be centres of research as well as treatment, the hospital having the right to dissect anyone who died there. It also contained proposals for provision in the other parts of the country.

In 1724 he put out a paper urging Friends to visit those in prison, and another one addressed to criminals in prison. They were his last published writings.

Between 1696 and and 1724 he published papers on a wide variety of religious, political and philanthropic matters.[2]

Practical outcomes

The only known direct outcome of Bellers's proposals was that in 1701 London Quakers set up a workhouse at Clerkenwell. It combined giving work to those who were capable of it, the education of children, and provision for the elderly and infirm. It did not fulfil Bellers's vision, and was never able to be self-supporting, but it reduced the cost to Quakers of supporting their members in need. The institution survived and eventually evolved into the Friends' School, Saffron Walden.[3]


  1. Clarke, G (ed). John Bellers: His life, times and writings. Routledge and Kegan Paul. 1987. With additional information from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and Lloyd, A. Quaker Social History 1669—1738. Longmans Green. 1948.
  2. Clarke, G.
  3. Braithwaite, W. The Second Period of Quakerism. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press. 1961