The Rochdale Equitable Pioneers' Society, founded in 1844 by a group of artisans in the north of England, 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 cornmills were built in Woolwich by dockworkers 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.
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
- 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 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 during the first half of the nineteenth century in protest against wage reductions 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 vision -- 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.
- 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, but 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 maximizing 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 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.