The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers didn’t invent the idea of the co-operative, but the model established by the Rochdale Pioneers, as they became known, was to be the most enduring. Indeed, in time, it became the go-to model for would-be co-operatives around the world.
It all started towards the end of 1843, on one of those damp “and disagreeable days which no Frenchman can be brought to admire”, noted George Jacob Holyoake in his 1858 history of the Pioneers, Self-help by the people. “A few poor weavers out of employ… quite out of heart with the social state”, got together to see what they could do to better their lot.
They determined that they would “commence the battle of life on their own account”. They formed a little group, and for 2d a week (a sum “these Rochdale Rothschilds did not know how to pay”), you could buy a subscription. Of the original 28 members, many were skilled in shoemaking and cabinet making, for example – and flannel weaving, which was the trade of ten of its members.
What set the Rochdale Pioneers’ model apart from all those that had failed before them were The Rochdale Principles. You can see a full list of them here. In short, they outlined the basic principle that the co-operative would be run by its members and for its members (by committee at the Weavers’ Arms pub), and that trading and governorship would be always fair and honest. In time, they would own their own means of production (the mills, etc), right down to the selling of their goods to the consumer.
As with all pioneering ventures, their beginnings were humble. On 21 December 1844, the Pioneers had amassed enough capital, around £15, to open a little shop on Toad Lane in Rochdale, Lancashire (now the site of the Rochdale Pioneers museum). Their money didn’t buy much to begin with: some flour, butter, sugar and oatmeal – “the entire quantity would hardly stock a homeopathic grocer’s shop”.
Nevertheless, the little shop thrived. After a year’s trading, the subscription list had grown to 74 members, with takings amounting to £710. The shop didn’t sell the best quality goods, nor were they by any means the cheapest, but it achieved a loyal following, with people choosing to spend their money there. As Holyoake put it: “If there are to be moral sellers, there must be moral buyers.”