It would be reasonable to ask how, out of all this chaos, mistrust, ill treatment and double-dealing, Rochdale could be regarded as the home of Co-opertion. The fact is that it was this very chaos which stimulated some people in Rochdale to look for a different way. It had become clear to working people in Rochdale and their enlightened supporters among the middle-class that, if things were going to get better, they could not expect help from either the government or their capitalist employers. The government was resisting all efforts towards universal sufferage and the capitalists were insulating themselves against the boom and bust nature of the marketplace by squeezing their workforces. The way forward for working people lay in self-improvement. The workers needed to build associations that would provide them with education and improved living conditions.
Robert Owen was born in 1771 in Newtown in Wales. At the age of 16 he moved to Manchester to take up a position with a wholesale and retail drapery business. Owen was a fast mover. At the age of 19 he borrowed £100 to set up a company to manufacture spinning mules. Two years later he moved on to become manager of Drinkwater's large spinning factory in Manchester. Exercising the 18th century equivalent of "networking", he got to know David Dale the owner of the Chorton Twist Company in New Lanark, Scotland, at the time Britain's largest cotton spinning business. The two men became good friends and in 1799 Owen married Dale's daughter. With financial assistance from other Manchester business men, Owen paid Dale £60,000 for his four textile mills in New Lanark.
Here is where Owen's reputation as a social engineer began. He was of the opinion that all people were basically good and that the more negative aspects of their behaviour were forced upon them by the difficulties they faced in life. He believed that in the right environment people would be rational, good, and humane. He also saw education as a vital part of this process. In his New Lanark mills he changed the practice of children as young as 5 working 16 hours days. He introduced a minimum age of 10 and provided nursery and infant schools for the under 10s. He also provided a secondary school for his older child employees. He banned physical punishment in the mills and the schools.
Owen travelled the country talking about his ideas, wrote books and even sent his proposals on factory reform to Parliament. He advocated the setting up of new communities, which he called "Villages of Co-operation". He believed that in time such a movement would eliminate capitalism and replace it with a "Co-operative Commonwealth".
Robert Owen was a very influential figure in a Britain in which trade-unionism and Co-operative movements were developing. However, his wasn't the only voice. Dr. William King of Brighton was a Co-operator but his views were somewhat different from Owen's. He saw a Co-operative store as central to a process that would provide the working-class with an opportunity to help themselves. He was proposing a shop that would sell a limited number of products to members of a co-operative. As profits provided capital, it would be used to subsidize production of products by members. Eventually, this would lead to the establishment of factories and hence Owen's Co-operative Commonwealth.
In 1832 the weavers founded the
Friendly Co-operative Society and in 1833, inspired by the enthusiasm
for Owen's ideas, they actually opened their own shop at 15 Toad Lane.
This first shop only lasted two years before it was forced to close.
1. Democratic control, one member one vote and equality of the sexes.
2. Open membership.
3. A fixed rate of interest payable on investment.
4. Pure, unadulterated goods with full weights and measures given.
5. No credit.
6. Profits to be divided pro-rata on the amount of purchase made (the divi).
7. A fixed percentage of profits to be devoted to educational purposes.
8. Political and religious neutrality.
With money raised from the original 28 subscribers, a shop was founded in a warehouse at 31 Toad Lane and it was equipped and stocked. The shop opened on the 21st of December, 1844. By 1848 the Co-operative had 140 members. However, when the Rochdale Savings Bank collapsed in 1849, due to the fact that one of its underwriting mill owners George Howarth had embezzled the funds to prop up his own failing business, people turned to the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society so that their money would be in safe hands. The society's membership went up to 390 that year, but by 1860 it had sky-rocketed to 3,500.
The Rochdale style of consumer Co-operative became the norm and the model for others to follow. The principles were applied in neighbouring towns and then across the country. By 1880 the national membership of consumer societies had reached over a half a million people and by the turn of the century 1.5 million.
The two images of Robert Owen, shown on this page, are displayed with the permission of John Hatton Davidson, Hon Curator of the Robert Owen Museum in Newtown, Powys, Wales.
The image of the Co-op shop at 31 Toad Lane is shown with the permission of Jeff Mills.