The Co-operative Movement

A Short History






The Rochdale Pioneers 1844

From humble beginnings to a world-wide movement

The modern Co-operative Movement started in Rochdale in Lancashire in 1844 when a group of impoverished weavers joined together to open a small shop in Toad Lane to provide basic foodstuffs and household goods for their members. The shop sold flour, sugar, tallow for candles etc.It is from this very humble beginning that the worldwide Co-operative Movement has its origin. In 1995 the United Nations estimated that the total number of Co-operators worldwide was 800 million with a further 100 million employed by co-operatives. Moreover because co-operative enterprises have an economic significance not only for their members and employees but also for their immediate families secure by co-operative enterprises is, about 3 billion i.e. half the world's population.

Economic conditions in the early 19th century

  At the start of the 19th century, the living conditions of working people in the UK were very poor. It was the era of child labour, exploitations and desperate poverty. Those who failed find work were forced to rely on meagre parish relief tor the poor or starve. Many did. The prevailing economic philosophy was that enunciated by Adam Smith in his book "The Wealth of Nations". He claimed that the untrammelled operation of the free market would automatically lead to the advancement of the public good. This would be achieved by the "hidden hand" of market forces. Human beings and their labour were just commodities like any other to be bought and sold on the free market. The poverty and starvation which accompanied unemployment were merely a part of the natural operation of the free market. There was Working conditions in Victorian England nothing that the workers could do about it, but others thought differently. Some thought that social injustices could only be rectified by the abolition of capitalism, preferable by revolution or other violent means. This perspective formed the basis of Marxism a few decades later. Robert Owen and his fellow thinkers did not accept this view and believed that capitalism could peacefully evolve into a "higher" form which they called Co-operation.

Robert Owen  
The founder of the Co-operative Movement was Robert Owen from Welshpool. Robert Owen was a successful businessman who had made his fortune in the cotton industry but he had known poverty in his early life. He wrote extensively on Co- operative matters and can be regarded as the intellectual founder of the movement, putting his ideas into practice at New Lanark in Scotland and in New Harmony in the USA. Both these mini-communities eventually failed. But from these experiments, Owen identified some of the profound underlying values of Co- operation as a means of organising economic activity; kindliness, toleration, co-operation, respect for youth and the belief that the right of full humanity should be available to all.

 Robert Owen
Dr William King  
A substantial contributionto the creation of the movement was also made by Dr William King a GP from Brighton. Dr King founded a magazine called "The Co-operator". Whilst Owen wanted to set up utopian communities, Dr King was more practical and saw the benefits of applying Owen's co-operative principles to small-scale local economic activities mainly food shops. In 1820, he was one of the founding fathers of the Brighton Co-operative Society now part of the Co-operative Group. Brighton remains the centre of all kinds of co-operative activity to this day.

 Dr William King
Why the Rochdale Pioneers succeeded  
The Rochdale pioneers did not invent co-operation but they were the first to make it work successfully. During the 1840s.there had been a series of strikes by the weavers in Rochdale but these had failed to have a lasting effect on their wages and living conditions. So the weavers turned to the ideas of Owen and King. They set up the Rochdale Equitable Pioneer Society with a shop at Toad Lane in Rochdale. It started in a very modest way supplying the basic necessities of life to their members i.e. butter, tallow for candles, soap, flour and blankets. The idea was to supply good quality goods cheaply and to return any profit to the members of the Co-operative. The guiding principles of their society were laid out in a 7 point mission statement later known as The Rochdale Principles.

 Toad Lane store
The Rochdale Principles - A New Beginning  
Previous attempts at setting up co-operatives had failed. But the Rochdale Pioneers introduced two new ingredients; cash trading and the distribution of any surplus in proportion to the amount of trade that any individual member had had with the society. Cash trading i.e. no credit, avoided any cash flow problems which had bedevilled previous experiments. The limited form of surplus distribution encouraged the members to trade with the society thus increasing its turnover. Despite attempts by the private traders to drive the society out of business, the success of the pioneers was incredible. By the 1870s, the UK co-operative movement had its own wholesale and insurance societies and an accumulated capital of £300,000. Today despite intense competition from the private sector, UK retail societies still have a turnover measured in billions and there has been a renaissance of interest in all forms of co-operation.

The International Co-operative Alliance [ICA] based in Geneva    
The co-operative movement spread rapidly all over the world. The International Co-operative Alliance was founded in 1896. Today co-operative principles are successfully applied throughout the world to a vast array of co-ops; fishing co-ops, agricultural, dairy and wine co-ops, manufacturing co-ops, retail co-ops, housing co-ops, health care, banks insurance, and credit unions. Co-ops specialising in IT and related technologies are being set up as the new Open Platform co-ops.