On October 24, 1844, twenty-eight weavers of Rochdale, a town on the outskirts of Manchester, founded a small co-operative society with the aim of running their own store of basic products (flour, candles, vegetables, tea, clothes…). Members could buy what they needed while getting some benefits too. It was not the first time workers founded a cooperative. The history of the working-class movement includes many attempts towards cooperatives at the beginning of the 19th century, most of them in the UK. But the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, which is the full name of this society in Rochdale, was the first cooperative sharing benefits among its members, so it is the pioneer society for future cooperatives.
The beginning of this venture was rather hard: it was difficult to get money to set up a store among poor textile workers. After twenty-two calls to its members, there was not enough money to buy a sack of flour. But people soon realised that investing their savings into such society was a good business because this way they could buy good-quality products at affordable prices and, by the end of the year, they could share benefits (a patronage dividend). Soon, this society reported 5% benefits to its members, which is a good interest rate. However, Rochdale weavers could not easily understand what 5% stands for, so they forgot about percentages and rates and started talking about getting 5 extra pounds out of every 100 pound invested. All clear!
By the end of 1844, they could open a store at Toad Lane, and soon, as this society developed, they took the whole building and set up other stores in Rochdale. In 1849, there were 390 members and a capital of 1,193 pounds. In the following year, its membership got doubled and by 1893 there were 12,570 members. This was the onset of the cooperative movement.
At first, the Equitable Pioneers set up a mill (to control the whole process from grains to selling flour), a slaughterhouse, a butcher’s, stables and even a mutual fund. They opened other branches and they helped other cooperatives to develop. In 1863, following Rochdale’s success, there were more than five hundred cooperative stores around the UK. And in 1943, just one century afterwards, the cooperative movement had nine million members in this island.
The key to success for this cooperative was not only sharing patronage dividends, but also caring for education. From the very beginning, when there was not even enough money to buy flour, 2.5% benefits were invested in education. Soon, they could have a library, a bookstore and a newspaper room. In 1850, soon after its foundation, the bookstore had 200 books every week. On the second floor at Toad Lane, every evening and every weekend there were conferences and courses on science, history, politics and economy. Thanks to the promotion of education and culture, Rochdale workers could make the best of their skills, favouring the cooperative management, people’s involvement and participation and the spreading of their principles.
The “28 people” in Rochdale who set up a dim store in the outskirts of an industrial town more than 150 years ago have now become an icon of the cooperative movement. Most of their principles are still valid. Therefore, it was a very significant milestone in our history, but most people never heard about it.
At school, when we talk about crucial moments in our history, we always refer to battles, treaties and scientific or geographic discoveries, but we rarely talk about such social landmarks. Maybe we should give more importance to people and movements changing our society and working towards justice and social welfare.
- Most information in this post is taken from George Jacob Holyoake’s book The History of the Rochdale Pioneers: http://www26.us.archive.org/details/historyofrochdal00holyuoft
- Rochdale, on the outskirts of Manchester: http://www.rochdale.gov.uk/
- The onset of the working-class movements: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utopian_socialism
- About the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rochdale_Society_of_Equitable_Pioneers
- Rochdale principles: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rochdale_Principles