Reading #34 Co-op History Reading/Discussion Club August 26, 2012

[When reading the history of our cooperatives we often see that the 
Amalgamated Housing Cooperative can trace its roots to the experiment in 
cooperative organization started in 1844 by the Rochdale Society of 
Equitable Pioneers. The following article is the first part of an essay 
looking back in history to trace how the Rochdale cooperative got started 
and perhaps why a cooperative movement today of over one billion people 
worldwide bases itself on this 168 year old experiment in cooperation. The 
essay was written in 1994 for the 150th anniversary of the founding of the 
Rochdale Cooperative.]

                   The Meaning of Rochdale 
   The Rochdale Pioneers and the Co-operative Principles
                                       by Brett Fairbairn, 1994

Rochdale, England, is known by millions for one reason: a handful of 
labourers established a co-operative there in 1844 known as the Rochdale 
Society of Equitable Pioneers. That co-operative was adopted as the 
inspiration and model for a movement that now includes nearly 700 million 
people around the world. As this paper is being written, co-operators 
around the world are preparing to celebrate the 150th anniversary of its 
birth. But what did Rochdale mean? Why is it considered so important?

Symbols and Reality

Rochdale is part myth. There was also a concrete historical reality, 
accessible to us through documents and first-hand accounts and modern 
books that interpret those old sources. But entirely apart from the 
historical reality, Rochdale is a living, active symbol that influences 
understanding of co-operatives in countries around the world today. The 
myth of Rochdale has to do with twenty-eight impoverished weavers who 
started a shop in Toad Lane in 1844; a shop that became the first 
successful co-operative in the world; a co-operative that defined the 
principles for all later co-operatives to follow. Each of those three 
contentions, by the way, is largely false: that Rochdale was opened by 
starving weavers, that it was the worlds first successful co-operative, 
that one need look only at its statutes to find the true co-operative 
principles. But no matter, the myth has its own kind of truth, and such 
myths and such truths are to be respected. This myth is a good and 
constructive one and contains elements that are true by anyone's 
definition. Rochdale is a historical reality, and it is an icon or totem 
for the world cooperative movement, an object of belief and inspiration 
for millions. What does it mean? The important thing to remember is that 
the meaning of Rochdale is constructed by each generation to meet its own 

The problems of 1844 in some ways resemble those in developing countries 
and less developed communities today. The solutions in Rochdale look 
something like the modern idea of socially sustainable development: in the 
most general terms, Rochdale stands for development in the long-term 
interests of people and communities' development controlled by the people 
it affects. Rochdale is a vision of participation in social change. This 
is a good reason to look closely at the meaning of Rochdale. But what one 
finds may not be simple. . . .

                        Part One: 
            The Historical Reality of Rochdale

The labourers who organized the Rochdale Pioneers, 150 years ago, were 
people suffering from the social dislocations of the industrial 
revolution. They struggled to survive periodic unemployment, low pay, 
unhealthy cities, and dangerous workplaces. They had no social benefits no 
insurance or health care or pensions from their employers or from the 
state. They were dependent on merchants who were sometimes unscrupulous, 
who exploited the helplessness of the poor by selling at high prices, by 
adulterating goods, or by trapping them with offers of credit. And the 
Rochdale labourers faced these challenges in a time and place when they 
had no vote, no democratically elected government to represent them, no 
interventionist state to protect them. Their answer to daunting social 
problems was a special kind of self-help: mutual self-help, in which they 
would help themselves by helping each other. It was a small start to a 
large international movement.

    The Social and Political Context

Rochdale was a textile-based manufacturing town whose chief industry was 
in decline due to the industrial revolution. For centuries Rochdale had 
been a centre for the manufacture of flannel; but in the early decades of 
the nineteenth century, handloom weavers faced competition from the power 
loom and lost markets due to American tariff policies. Discontent in 
Rochdale centered among the weavers. There was repeated labour unrest, 
including violent strikes in 1808 and 1829. After the first of these 
incidents, troops were stationed near Rochdale until 1846. The town was 
also an important centre of working-class, radical politics. Workers from 
Rochdale played important roles in the trade-union movement, in the 
massive but unsuccessful campaign of Chartism to obtain the vote for 
ordinary people, and in the Factory Act movements for regulation of 
industry and protection of workers. In 1819 some thirteen thousand people 
attended a reform meeting in Rochdale, where one of the speakers was Tom 
Collier, uncle of the later Rochdale Pioneer John Collier. Famous 
reform-oriented, liberal politicians were also associated with Rochdale: 
John Bright was from there, and Richard Cobden was for a time Rochdale's 
member of parliament.

Crucial to the later success of the Rochdale Pioneers was the fact that 
Rochdale had for years been a centre of co-operative activity. The Rochale 
Friendly Co-operative Society had been formed in 1830 by about sixty 
flannel weavers. It had a retail store from 1833-35 at No.15 Toad Lane, 
just down the street from the premises used after 1844 by the Pioneers. 
Several later Pioneers were associated with this early venture: Charles 
Howarth, James Standring, and John Aspden. In other words, even the 
Rochdale Pioneers, whose success in retrospect seems almost magical, were 
the result of decades of hard work, failures, and disappointments.

The Owenite movement was also strong in Rochdale and made a lasting 
impression on many of the founders of the Pioneers. Owenism, named after 
maverick industrialist and reformer Robert Owen, was a philosophy that lay 
at the origins of socialism, trade unionism, social reform, and 
co-operation, in a day when these ideas were not distinct from one 
another. Perhaps Owens key social criticism of his age was that workers 
were denied the full value of their labour, toiling in poverty for the 
profit of others. Owen had no high opinion of the moral and cultural 
values of the poor, but saw economic and educational improvement as 
essential for creating a better population. In order to capture more of 
the value of their labour, Owenite workers banded together to form 
associations for mutual aid and education. They aimed to increase wages by 
collective action and by starting their own worker-owned enterprises; they 
aimed to raise the standard of practical education and by practical they 
meant especially knowledge of politics and economics through libraries and 
courses; and they aimed to extend workers purchasing power through 
co-operative buying. Owenites were active in Rochdale in the 1830s, and in 
1838 an Owenite branch was formed which took over a pub, The Weavers Arms, 
and set it up as The New Social Institution, a centre of Owenite activity. 
Owenite speakers gave lectures every week. One visitor noted that Rochdale 
stood out in its Owenite zeal: Almost every night in the week is devoted 
to the cultivation of the mental and moral faculties. Moreover, at the 
time the Rochdale Pioneers were founded, the last great Owenite community 
project at Queenwood was underway, and the struggles and debates related 
to Queenwood probably energized the Rochdale Owenites in their efforts to 
bring about the creation of a new co-operative association. Briefly, one 
of the issues at Queenwood was the ability of the Owenites to pursue their 
ideals regardless of Owen. The reaction of activists against Owens 
meddling did not save Queenwood, but it energized a number of experiments 
like Rochdale that Owen would not have sanctioned. The Owenite movement 
had struggled to find its own dynamism independent of Owens grandiose and 
poorly guided projects. Rochdale was one result.

But Owenites were identified as socialists a newly coined word and 
persecuted. Their posters and building were vandalized. Perhaps because 
the Owenites were controversial and marginalized, it was not the Owenite 
movement as such that created Rochdale, but a core of Owenite activists 
working in conjunction with other groups. Charles Howarth, who had been 
the local leader of the Owenite branch, was a leading figure in the 
Pioneers, and James Daly, one of the Owenite branch secretaries, became 
the first secretary of the new co-operative.

  The Founding of the Rochdale Pioneers

William Cooper, another Owenite among the original Pioneers, said in 1866 
that the failure of a weavers strike early in 1844, and the subsequent 
attempt to form a flannel weavers production society, were part of what 
precipitated the formation of the Pioneers. The 1840s were a bitter decade 
in Rochdale and many other parts of Europe, associated with poverty, 
hunger, and unemployment. No group was more desperate than weavers. 
However, the role of weavers in setting up the Rochdale Pioneers has been 
exaggerated by many casual writers. A close reading of the founding 
documents shows that weavers made up a large proportion of the first list 
of subscribers who supported the creation of the Pioneers. However, by the 
time of the founding meeting on 15 August 1844, many of the weavers had 
dropped out perhaps because they were too desperate or too destitute to 
invest time or money in a co-operative venture. The creation of the 
Pioneers is better seen as a kind of partnership between a group of 
Owenites, the weavers, some ex-Chartists, and some temperance campaigners. 
Of thirty names of identifiable founding members, fifteen were Owenite 
socialists, including many of the leading activists in Rochdale. Only ten 
were weavers. Arnold Bonner suggests that most of the founding members 
were not starving and desperate, but were comparatively well-paid skilled 
artisans... Idealism, the vision of a better social order, not hunger, 
inspired these men... There is sometimes a tendency, perhaps an 
inclination, to forget that the Pioneers commenced business with the 
purpose of pioneering the way to a new and better social order.... Without 
an ideal there would have been no Co-operative Movement.

The founders of Rochdale were of course poor compared to their social 
superiors. They lacked real economic or political power, or high social 
status. And the poverty and misery surrounding them in Rochdale were 
undoubtedly a large part of their motivation for creating a co-operative. 
It is, therefore, reasonable to say that the forces of poverty and need 
inspired the formation of the Rochdale co-operative. But they did so 
somewhat indirectly, mediated by the agency of idealism and critical 
social thought, and by the activists of Owenism, Chartism, and other 
social movements. The Rochdale Pioneers did not rise spontaneously from 
need, but were organized consciously by thinkers, activists, and leaders 
who functioned within a network of ideas and institutions. The same can 
probably be said of all successful co-operatives in all times and places: 
they arise from need when some activists, institutions, or agencies 
consciously promote and organize them. Also, while co-operatives have 
frequently been tools for the relatively poor or marginalized, there is 
evidence that (just as in Rochdale) they are rarely led by the very 

The founders in 1844 were looking for a mutual self-help organization that 
would advance their cause and serve their social objectives through 
concrete economic action. They called their new association the Rochdale 
Society of Equitable Pioneers, a name that rang with overtones of Owenism. 
Equitable had been one of Robert Owens favourite words as in his plan for 
Equitable Labour Exchanges that would allow workers to exchange goods and 
services directly with each other, bypassing employers and middlemen. To 
Owenites, Equitable signified a society that would eliminate 
capitalist-style exploitation, and that would exchange goods and reward 
labour fairly according to Owens ideas. The word Pioneers might have been 
inspired by the newspaper The Pioneer, which had been the organ first of 
the Operative Builders Union, an early trade union, and later of Owens 
Grand National Consolidated Trades Union. To choose a name like Equitable 
Pioneers in 1844 was a social and even political statement, and implied 
that the Pioneers were consciously taking a place in the movement for 
social reform and the advancement of the working class and its interests.

The new Rochdale society had pragmatic economic purposes, but within the 
context of an activist working-class culture and a visionary ideological 
outlook. The connection between ideology and pragmatic action is apparent 
from the first article of their statutes, in which the Pioneers laid out 
the objects of their society. 
             Objects of the Rochdale Pioneers
                  From the Statutes of 1844

                       Law the First

The objects and plans of this Society are to form arrangements for the 
pecuniary benefit, and 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 of 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 and 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 united interests, or 
assist other Societies in establishing such colonies.

That, for the promotion of sobriety, a temperance hotel be opened in one 
of the Society's houses as soon as convenient. 

Some observations come to mind. First, the Rochdale Pioneers existed for 
the financial benefit of their members, but also for the improvement of 
their social and household condition. The Pioneers combined economic and 
social purposes and evidently saw no conflict between them. Second, the 
Rochdale Pioneers were conceived as what we might now call a multipurpose 
co-operative that would undertake a variety of different kinds of economic 
activities on behalf of their members. The founders did not intend that 
the Pioneers would operate stores only. And there was a sequence to these 
economic activities. First the Pioneers would open a store; it would 
mobilize the purchasing power of members, and begin the accumulation of 
capital. Then, using the accumulated share capital and surpluses from 
store operations, co-operative housing would be undertaken, and 
co-operative production in which the society would provide employment to 
its members. Products from employment of members could be marketed through 
the society's stores. Finally, they would create a utopian community 
(self-supporting home-colony) in which nonexploitive social and economic 
relationships would be achieved.

Co-operative housing, worker co-operatives, even collective agricultural 
co-operatives, can all look back to the original Rochdale plan for 
inspiration, for they were all pieces of the Pioneers vision. In 1844 
these pieces were not separate, for consumer co-operation had not yet 
become split from producer co-operation, nor one sector from another, to 
the degree that has become common in the twentieth century. The Rochdale 
Pioneers conceived in one association of what would now make a 
multicultural co-operative movement. The complementary half of this 
multicultural vision is that it was a localized vision: integrated 
co-operation within a geographically compact community. The Pioneers 
imagined their association growing in terms of diversification and 
integration what we might in the twentieth century call horizontal and 
vertical integration. In aiming at integrated community-scale 
co-operation, the Pioneers were undoubtedly reflecting the culture and 
practical experience of working-class organization in Britain. 
-----------------------to be continued--------------------------

The History Club began reading this essay in August, 2012. You can see the 
whole article at:


or on the History Club webpage at: