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Winter 2019175 Years of Co-Operation

Saturday 21 December 1844: 28 local workers began trading as a co-operative at 31 Toad Lane, Rochdale, selling a simple selection of high-quality goods at honest prices.

This was the day the global co-operative movement was born 175 years ago, a day which would make history.

The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers began the world’s first successful consumer co-operative store, a business owned by its customers, formed to serve the community with goods they couldn’t usually afford.

Who exactly the Pioneers were is subject of much debate, as they never actually wrote down an official list, but some sources list all 28. Some were known co-operative enthusiasts and had been involved in earlier co-operative ventures in the town, whilst others were Chartists and idealists.

What is known is they were all working men: more than half were involved in the textile trade, ten of them were flannel weavers, whilst others were cloggers, shoemakers, joiners or cabinet makers.

Making a stand against the capitalist ideologies of the Industrial Revolution – a time when an increasing number of skilled workers were falling into poverty as their jobs were taken over by machines – the group wrote a list of simple rules of how they would run their co-operative.

The Rochdale Principles of Co-operation stipulated that provisions should be of high quality and sold at full weight, that there should be equality of the sexes in membership and that each customer would have a direct share in the business and its profits.

The Rochdale Principles formed the foundation of the principles still in use by the modern co-operative movement, which now numbers around 3 million Co-ops worldwide with 1.2 billion members.

With their rules in place, the Pioneers opened their store four days before Christmas in an old warehouse on Toad Lane, selling a basic offering of sugar, butter, oatmeal and flour, plus candles – which the Pioneers had to use to light the shop after their gas supply was switched off. The gas company didn’t believe the Pioneers would be able to pay the bills.

At first the co-op was open for only two nights a week, but within three months, business had grown so much that it was open five days a week.

By the 1860s, a new central store was needed, so purpose-built premises opened on Toad Lane in 1867, costing £10,000 to build.

It housed all the departments under one roof, as well as a boardroom and library. The top floor had a hall which could seat 1,500 people. The money used to build the central store came from the co-op’s profits. Any surplus profit was divided between members, just like it is today.

By 1900, there were 1,439 different co-operative societies and around two million members.

The Pioneers’ original store on Toad Lane, now widely regarded as the home of the co-operative movement, was rented by them until they moved away in 1867.

It was later purchased by the movement, and opened as a museum in 1931, telling the story of how the co-operative movement developed through self-help to increase productive employment and overcome poverty.

In 2019, it was named as one of Historic England’s ten historic industrial sites that shaped the country.

The building was extensively restored and refurbished in the 1970s, with the front ground floor room replicating the simplicity of the original store of 1844. The museum was closed for two years between 2010 and 2012 for a major development project to improve access, add an education and meeting space and renew the exhibitions.

Rochdale Pioneers traded independently until 1991, with name changes inspired by mergers with neighbouring co-operatives: as Pioneers from 1976, and Norwest Pioneers from 1982, based in Wythenshawe, Manchester, by 1991.

In 1991, then-Norwest Co-operative Society transferred its engagements to United Co-operatives, which was run from Rochdale, before being transferred to the Manchester-based national hybrid society, The Co-operative Group, in 2007.

These days, the Rochdale Pioneers Museum is part of the Co-operative Heritage Trust, set up in 2007, to inspire and educate people about the movement.

The museum houses artefacts and hosts exhibitions about the cooperative movement and hosts events and projects for visitors and the community.

In 2018, everything came full circle, with the Rochdale Pioneers Museum launching a volunteer-run co-operative pantry allowing residents to top up on their store cupboard essentials at a reasonable cost.

The Pioneer Pantry is member-owned, meaning members can vote on how any surplus profits are spent. This year, members voted to buy gardening equipment and now grow fruit and vegetables outside the museum, a scheme called ‘Incredible Edible: Toad Lane Allotments’.

The fresh food is then placed in the pantry for members to take away. Members have worked together this autumn to make chutney and jam using the fruit grown.

As part of the Heritage Lottery funded project ‘Young Roots: Pioneer Places’, the museum has also been working with a group of young people from across Rochdale to explore the town’s co-operative heritage and retell it in their own voice.

The group is currently working with a videographer to create a short film showcasing their findings and also have a podcast. ‘Pioneer Places’, which can be downloaded via all major platforms.