The Rochdale Equitable Pioneers' Society, founded with a capital of £28 in 1844, is regarded as the prototype of the modern co-operative society in all of its various guises. The line of descent from this society leads directly to the modern high street Co-op shop, but this has often obscured the fact that the Pioneers are also the ancestors of contemporary industrial co-operatives. This is not to suggest that Rochdale was the first co-operative society - several such existed around Britain before 1844. As early as 1760, co-operative corn mills were built in Woolwich by dock workers in response to monopolistic mill-owners who charged high prices for often adulterated flour. The first recorded co-operative store belonged to the Weavers' Society at Fenwick, Ayrshire in 1769. At about the same time, mills and a bakery were opened at Chatham in Kent. All over Britain, working people struggled to find ways to overcome the harsh economic conditions as the 18th Century gave way to the 19th.
Who Were the Pioneers?
Although writers such as George Jacob Holyoake depicted the Pioneers as unemployed and destitute, many of the society's founders - while poor - were skilled or semi-skilled workers in regular employment. The failure of the 1844 strike of flannel weavers provided motivation for the Pioneers; several of the founding members were weavers, with others connected to the textile trade. As well as being working men, members of the original co-operative society were well versed in contemporary political, economic and co-operative ideas. Indeed, some of the founders - such as Charles Howarth and James Standring - had already been involved in attempts at co-operation for well over a decade. The Chartist movement, which aimed for political reform and the extension of voting rights, was also supported by several pioneers.
The number of founding pioneers has been debated. Although 28 - due to the £28 starting capital - is a popularly-suggested figure, more than 40 men have been named in various accounts. The Dictionary of National Biography says that 'thirty seems a fair enumeration'1. Some prominent founders include:
William Cooper (1822 - 68) - born in Rochdale, Cooper worked as hand-loom weaver before mid-1844. When the Rochdale shop opened in December 1844, he was appointed cashier and worked, unpaid for the first three months, on the shop floor. From the 1850s, Cooper was active in expanding the activities of the society to wholesale purchasing and in promoting co-operative ideas in other areas. Cooper worked for the society until his death.
Charles Howarth (1814 - 68) - born locally, Howarth has been linked with co-operative stores trading in Rochdale as early as 1833. As one of the three trustees, Howarth helped draft the rules of the society. He served as president in 1845, and was secretary several times.
James Smithies (1819 - 69) - born in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, Smithies worked as a wool-stapler's apprentice before becoming involved with the society. In 1844, he was a director of the society, and supervised the Toad Lane shop's opening. Smithies played an active role in extending the range of the society's activities: he promoted the sale of meat and textiles in the shop, supported the construction of co-operatively owned corn milling and manufacturing ventures and advocated the spread of co-operation across the nation.
What gives Rochdale a unique place in the history of the co-operative movement is the set of principles derived by the founders to govern their affairs as a society. The individual ideas had been tried before in earlier co-operative experiments. The originality of the Rochdale society lay, in part at least, in the combination of these principles into a single unified whole:
- democratic control ('one member, one vote')
- open membership
- limited return on capital ('labour hires capital')
- distribution of surplus in proportion to a member's contribution to the society
- system of dividend on purchases: shareholders received a portion of profits
- cash trading only
- selling only pure, unadulterated goods
- providing for the education of members in co-operative principles
- political and religious neutrality
It is these principles, with slight modification, which are accepted by the co-operative movement throughout the world as the basis of all co-operative activity.
The Rochdale Store
The property at 31 Toad Lane, Rochdale, Lancashire, was acquired for the society on 25 November, 1844, at a cost of £10 rent per annum. By early December stock was acquired, allowing the co-operatively run store to open for the first time on 21 December, 1844. Following its opening, the shop was open on Monday and Saturday evenings: by early 1845, it was open every evening except Tuesday and Sunday. In 1849, the society obtained ownership of the Toad Lane property and refitted the shop, at a cost of £200.
By the mid-19th Century, the society had 600 members and an annual turnover of £13,1802. Although not the first co-operative enterprise, its astounding success led to considerable influence outside Rochdale, with the society being held as a model for other co-operative ventures.
In 1931 the original Toad Lane store was converted into a museum by the Co-Operative Union. The store's international importance was confirmed when, in 1991, a replica shop was constructed in Kobe, Japan.
Today, the museum is still open to the public. Access can be easily obtained via the A58, which runs only a short distance away from Junction 20 of the M62. Toad Lane is located approximately 1km north of Rochdale train station. Opening hours and admission charges are available online.
They have acted upon Sir Robert Peel's memorable advice; they have 'taken their own affairs into their own hands;' and what is more to the purpose, they have kept them in their own hands.
- The History of the Rochdale Pioneers by George Jacob Holyoake.
The Pioneers did not derive their model from middle-class philanthropy. They were a truly working class group and their system of co-operation was designed to serve their own needs. Like many other places in Britain, Rochdale had experienced many serious strikes protesting against wage reductions, during the first half of the nineteenth century, but with no obvious success. The formation of the Equitable Pioneers' Society marks the abandonment of political struggle in favour of an alternative system of production and exchange. Their vision was a truly utopian one - they intended to recreate society, not reform it:
The objects and plans of this Society are to form arrangements for the pecuniary benefit, and the improvement of the social and domestic condition of its members, by raising a sufficient amount of capital in shares of one pound each, to bring into operation the following plans and arrangements.
- From: The Laws and Objects of the Rochdale Society, 1844.
- The establishment of a store for the sale of provisions and clothing, etc.
- The building, purchasing or erecting a number of houses, in which those members desiring to assist each other in improving their domestic and social condition may reside.
- To commence the manufacture of such articles as the society may determine upon, for the employment of such members as may be without employment, or who may be suffering in consequence of repeated reductions in their wages.
- As a further benefit and security to the members of this society, the society shall purchase or rent an estate or estates of land, which shall be cultivated by the members who may be out of employment, or whose labour may be badly remunerated.
- That as soon as practicable, this society shall proceed to arrange the powers of production, distribution, education and government, or in other words to establish a self-supporting home- colony of limited interests, or assist other societies in establishing such colonies.'
In their first objective, the Pioneers were completely successful, opening their first store in Toad Lane, Rochdale. It can be seen from the above statement of the society's objectives that the opening of this store was intended to raise the curtain on a much grander scheme. In 1854, the Co-operative Manufacturing Society was formed as an offshoot of the store. A mill for the manufacture of calico was opened. Shareholding in the new enterprise was open to both outside individuals and employees, with a higher dividend being paid on wages than on ordinary shares. The mill was a commercial success, and the need to expand meant an increasing reliance on outside shareholders for capital to fund the growth. Many of these shareholders had no interest in the values of co-operation, being more concerned with maximising the return on their investments. Employees began to be excluded from decision-making and by 1862 the mill had reverted to a conventional ownership structure.
Although it was not forgotten, the original vision of establishing a self-supporting home colony was allowed to recede into the background as members devoted their energies to their very successful retail stores. These stores became an end in themselves, leading to the eventual split between the consumers' and producers' co-operative movements later in the nineteenth century.
It is to be regretted that the Rochdale Pioneers are more widely known for having started the first 'modern' co-op shop than for their contribution to co-operative thought and practice. Every part of the co-operative movement owes something to the legacy of these 'working class heroes' - they devised a system of thought that can be applied to almost every area of economic activity. What began with a single store selling the most basic foodstuffs, gave birth to an international network of retailers, producers, credit unions and more. Through their Society, the Rochdale Pioneers empowered a community. Through their principles, the Pioneers have given dignity to millions more.