The Rochdale Pioneers
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 corn mills 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.Principles
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:
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. The Pioneers in c luded weavers and other skilled artisans of various persuasions, such as Owenite Socialists and Chartists.
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:
They paid weekly subscrip ti ons of a few pence, and with the addition of a loan of 6 from the Weaver s ' Association, they amassed c a pital of 28 . With this mone y , the y rented the ground floor of a warehouse at 31 Toad Lane, Rochdale , at 10 a year for three ye a rs.
After making repairs and buying some simple fittings, there was little left over for stock, and they started out with 281bs of butter, 561bs of sugar, 6cwt of flour, a sack of oatmea l and some tallow candles; th e total cost of these goods was 16 l l s l l d. At the end of their fir s t year they had made a profit of 22. Progress was slow at first, and with some difficulty, they weathered the storm of a trade depression in 1847. They refused to allow credit, as this had led to the failure of the e arlier enterprise. Their original aim was to ensure that ordinary people got good value for the money they spent on e s sential goods.
"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.
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.
How the Co- operative Movement grew The Co-operative Movement dates its origins from the opening of theRochdale Pioneers' shop in Toad Lane in 1844, a century and a half ago.The Pioneers did more than simply establish a successful store; theirvision was much wider. By means of their activities, and through thewritings of their friend and adviser, G. ]. Holyoake (1817-1906), theRochdale Pioneers became internationally known. The Co-operativeMovement, based on the Rochdale principles, spread throughout theworld.