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February 11, 2009

The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers

The UK’s first successful consumers co-operative – a wee shop in Toad Lane, Rochdale, was opened in 1844 by 28 impoverished weavers – who couldn’t afford to eat properly. It’s an inspiring and timely story – because the community food movement is once again gathering momentum.

Julian Dobson, New Start

Human nature must be different in Rochdale. Nothing else, suggested the writer and activist George Holyoake, could account for the unique success of the town’s co-op.

‘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,’ Holyoake wrote.

By the time Holyoake wrote his history of the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers in 1858, they were already an international success story. Their modest shop in Toad Lane is considered the birthplace of a movement that now claims more than 800 million adherents worldwide.

To Londoners Rochdale may be little more than an outpost of Greater Manchester, but for social entrepreneurs outside the UK it carries a mystique -a French wine co-op uses the Rochdale label, the name is used by a driver-owned taxi fleet in Mexico, and an electricity co-operative in the US is branded Rochdale.

Worldwide influence was possibly the last thing on the minds of the 28 impoverished weavers who founded the Pioneers in 1844. They had a more pressing concern, which was that they couldn’t afford essentials like flour and butter.

Faced with the prospect of going hungry if they couldn’t obtain foodstuffs at reasonable prices, they banded together and set up their own store.

Pooling together a subscription of two pence a week, they raised £28, enough to open a shop selling a very modest selection of basics -so modest that another local trader boasted that he could turn up with a wheelbarrow and wheel the entire stock away. But within three months they had expanded their range, adding more upmarket goods such as tea and tobacco. The shop developed a reputation for selling unadulterated produce -in stark contrast to some of its competitors -and pioneered the dividend system, where customers received a share of the profits.

In 1846 the store opened a butcher’s counter, and the following year began selling fabric and clothing. A few years later it started its own shoemaking business, with three workers and an apprentice.

In 1849 the local savings bank in Rochdale went bust, and residents turned to the Pioneers, who offered interest on members’ capital- becoming, almost by accident, one of the first co-operative banks. A wholesale co-op was set up in 1852, supplying co-operative stores across Lancashire and Yorkshire; and in 1856 the Toad Lane enterprise opened its first branch in nearby Oldham.

In his Principles of Political Economy, John Stuart Mill put the co-op’s success down to ‘carefulness and honesty’.

But as Holyoake reported, the punters loved it: ‘… crowds of cheerful customers literally crowd Toad Lane at night, swarming like bees to every counter. The industrial districts of England have not such another sight as the Rochdale Co-operative Store on Saturday night.’

Although the starting point was to provide life’s necessities at affordable prices, there was always more to it than that. Rochdale’s wasn’t the first co-op, but it’s generally regarded as the first that worked. The idea of co-operatives had been mooted in the early 19th century by Robert Owen (see New Start, January 2009) and was just one strand of a flood of radical thinking emerging from what was to become the labour movement. Temperance, universal suffrage and socialism were the great causes of the time; all were directed towards improving the lot of the people who were suffering most in the heyday of industrialisation.

The Pioneers had more ambitious plans than simply to sell food and clothes to local people. Their original aims also included building and letting affordable homes, setting up factories staffed by unemployed people, buying and running fanns, and, ultimately, the creation of self- governing ‘colonies’ of working people.

Similar ideals drive today’s co-ops and social enterprises, who can trace their radical roots back to the thinkers and activists of two centuries ago. Ethical investment, fair trade, community self-build and concepts such as social returns on investment all stemmed from the ideas of people like Owen and Holyoake, and the practical experience of the Rochdale Pioneers and their less celebrated contemporaries.

By the 1850s there were more than 1,000 co-ops across the UK. In 1862, thanks in part to Holyoake’s book, the Toad Lane shop had a visitors’ book for its international pilgrims; and by 1867 the Pioneers had outgrown the premises, which were sold. By 1869 the Co-operative Union was a formally constituted national movement. The shop was later bought back by the Union and re-opened as a museum in 1931.

There are now plans to expand the building with a new visitor centre to make the most of the National Co-operative Archive, which includes Robert Owen’s correspondence, and the Heritage Lottery Fund has announced a grant of £136,000 to help work up the £2.3m scheme.