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.
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.
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.