A History of Rochdale

As you drive along the A664, Edinburgh Way, on the outskirts of Rochdale, Lancashire, you pass under a blue railway bridge. The sign on the bridge welcomes you to Rochdale "birthplace of co-operation".

The town is famous around the world as the home of the co-operative movement, and it would be reasonable to assume that this is a town founded on harmony. The truth is that this co-operation did not come easily. In fact, it was only achieved after a tumultuous one hundred years of sometimes chaotic action during which the world order was forever changed.

The so-called "Rochdale Pioneers" opened their famous Co-operative shop on Toad Lane in 1844.

To observers in the 21st century, it might be easy to assume that this represented a stage in the development of the retail industry. In fact, it was an important step in the social and political change that was taking place throughout Europe, and in which the people of Rochdale can justifiably claim to be leaders.

In the period between 1750 and the opening of the shop on Toad Lane, three major forces were instrumental in bringing about change in Rochdale and across the country. These forces were the Industrial Revolution, the church, and the campaign for universal sufferage, the right, it must be added, for every male to vote in parliamentary elections.

As Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caeser, "There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune" and for Lancashire that flood was the Industrial Revolution and for some it was a time of great fortune. Rochdale was forever changed by this tide, but that isn't where its history began.

The Early Years in the Parish of Rochdale

Just how old the Rochdale community is remains to be shown, but under the name of Recedham it was mentioned in the 1086 Domesday Survey. St. Chad's, the Rochdale Parish Church, had its first vicar appointed in 1194, but there is physical evidence that a "church" existed on the site long before the present one. In 1251 the town was granted a market charter. Rochdale is indeed a town of some antiquity.

The status as a market meant that Rochdale became a trading centre for the predominantly rural population that lived on the surrounding moorlands. The introduction of sheep into the local agricultural economy started a woolen industry founded on farm-based hand spinning and weaving.

The trading of wool and cloth took place in public houses throughout the town on market days. Local weavers produced a range of woolen cloth including: kerseys, "a coarse woolen cloth of light weight and often ribbed"; baizes, "a coarse woolen stuff of plain colour with a nap on one side, used for table covers"; and most importantly, flannel, "a soft loosely woven cloth". Most of the cloth woven in the Parish of Rochdale went for export to Europe and the Americas. If Manchester can be hailed as the place where "Cotton was King", then Rochdale was the place where "Flannel was King". Cotton didn't become the dominant textile in Rochdale until 1830.

The change from a hand-operated cottage-based industry to a machine-operated factory-based industry brought great wealth and a lot of misery to the area.

The first textile mills used water-power and in some cases were converted corn mills located by the rivers that rushed down off the surrounding hills. The first chimney went up in Rochdale on Hanging Road in 1791 and heralded a change to steam power. It was soon joined by many others and the pollution of the air was only surpassed by the squalor in which the growing population lived.

The mechanization of the woolen industry was slower than the "progress" seen in cotton. Consequently, the way in which Rochdale developed was somewhat different from some of its neighbours to the south and to the north in the Rossendale Valley.

As the farmer-weavers upped stakes and moved into town, to take advantage of the opportunities for trade weavers, cottages sprang up around Rochdale. Master weavers built these three storey buildings with a characteristic array of windows on the top floor. The windows provided the light required by journeymen weavers, employed on a piecework basis, who operated the looms located on the top floor.

The move into town saw Rochdale grow from 14,000 in 1801 to 23,000 by 1821.

The Struggle for Universal Sufferage

During the early years of the 19th century, when Rochdale was thriving as a textile manufacturing centre, all was not peace and harmony. At this time the inhabitants of the town and surrounding area could be divided into three groups or classes. There were the members of the upper-class, the wealthy land owners, the Tory gentry, who were members of the Anglican Church. These people had the ability to wield real power through their connections in the church, the magistrature, and by casting a vote in elections. The middle-class, the nouveau-riche entrepreneurs who were ambitious, self-made men, saw themselves as the engines of this economic boom but completely disenfranchised since they were unable to vote in elections. Many of the members of this group belonged to one or other of the diverse non-conformist churches that had sprung up in the area, Politically, they were Whigs and later Liberals and they were determined to wrestle power away from the traditional ruling class. At the bottom of the heap economically and politically were the working-class who made up 96% or the population of Rochdale.

The industrialization of the textile industry led first to the concentration of formerly rural people into Rochdale. The population exploded and by 1841 there were 68,000 people in a town that just 20 years earlier had 23,000. Living conditions in the overcrowded, squalid and increasingly polluted town were dreadful. As mechanization increased and prices for cloth fluctuated, the wages paid to factory workers and the prices paid to independent handweaves spiraled ever downwards. As local medical practitioners at the time commented "the labouring classes in the Borough of Rochdale......are now suffering great and increasing privations. That they are unable in great numbers to obtain wholesome food in sufficient quantities to keep them in health; and that they are predisposed to disease and rendered unable to resist its attacks.....In this respect the population amongst whom we practice are in a much worse state now than they were five or six years ago."

It was in this climate that Rochdale as a town developed, and the drama played out in the meeting halls and on the streets of the town over several decades. Driven by a thirst for wealth and power the middle-class clashed on ideologal grounds with the ruling upper-class Tories. Meanwhile, the working-class fought to stave off starvation and learned how to organize their considerable numbers against the overwhelming power of the rich and powerful who controlled every aspect of their lives.

The political battle that ensued at the beginning of the 19th century was no simple struggle. The often competing goals of the various classes were inevitably intertwined. I will endeavour to unravel them but apologize in advance for any oversimplification.

In 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon's army was defeated and the Twenty Years War came to an end. Having won the war, England faced a serious problem at home. In fact, the country teetered on the brink of revolution. Even before the war there had been unrest in the country . It was in every respect a period of repression in which the condition of the poor had steadily deteriorated. Exploited in factories by the new capitalists and on the land by the old aristocracy, the frustrations of the poor often manifested themselves in violence, notably bread riots in Rochdale. In 1791 a riot was put down by the militia, on the order of magistrate Thomas Drake, resulting in two deaths. Falling wages precipitated attacks on weavers' cottages, and in one incident in 1808, an angry crowd liberated several men, who had been arrested, and burned down the "lock-up" on Rope Street. In reaction to the unrest Rochdale became a barracks town giving it a permanent military presence ready at a moments notice to put down any riots.

The move to reform the existing parliamentary system dominated the political mood of the country. A party of reform minded men, equipped with blankets to keep them warm on overnight stops, set off from Manchester on March 24, 1817 to present a petition to the Prince Regent in what became known as the March of the Blanketeers.

The same year a large political reform meeting was held on Cronkeyshaw Common outside Rochdale. 35,000 men and women marched through Rochdale to the Common, and amongst the crowd at the meeting was Samuel Bamford, a reformer/radical from Middleton.

                    Peterloo Massacre

Two years later Bamford led a party of Middleton people to an assembly on open ground near St. Peter's Church in Manchester, where they hoped to hear Henry "Orator" Hunt speak.

"They wore their Sunday suits and clean neckties; and by the side of fustian and corduroy walked the coloured prints and stuffs of wives and sweethearts, who went as for a gala-day, to break the dull monotony of their lives, and to serve as a guarantee of peaceable intention. Such at least was the main body, marshalled in Middleton by stalwart, stout-hearted Samuel Bamford, which passed in marching order, five abreast down Newton Lane, through Oldham Street, skirted the Infirmary Gardens, and proceeded along Moseley Street. each leader with a sprig of peaceful laurel in his hat."

There is a memorial to Samuel NBamford in the churchyard in Middleton, where he is buried.

Among the throng on St. Peter's Field it was reported that some banners were seen saying "Bread or Blood", "Liberty or Death" and "Equal Representation or Death". Hunt had barely made it onto the stage when the 15th Hussars, dispatched by magistrate the Rev. Hay, later the Vicar of Rochdale, rode, with sabers drawn, into the crowd . Eleven people were killed and 400 injured in what became known as the Peterloo Massacre.

The government of the day finally addressed the parliamentary reform issue in 1832, by passing the Parliamentary Reform Act. Unfortunately, for the majority of the people in Rochdale and around the country nothing changed. The Act abolished "Rotten Boroughs" and gave their seats to new towns including Rochdale. It extended the franchise but only on the basis of wealth to £10 householders in boroughs and £50 tenants in the counties. In Rochdale this meant that 687 out of a population of 28,000 could now vote.

Rightly or wrongly, the mass of the working-class saw the right to vote as a chance to influence government policy (something that continues to be almost impossible, even with universal sufferage) and to improve their miserable lot. A national movement known as Chartism grew up to address this working-class discontent. It derived its name from the six point charter that set out the demands of the organization, demands which some were prepared to back with force if necessary:

1. Universal (male) sufferage.
2. Annual Parliaments.
3. Vote by (secret) ballot.
4. Abolition of property qualifications for M. P.'s.
5. Payment of M. P.'s.
6. Equal Electoral Districts.

In Rochdale one of the prominent figures in the Chartist movement was Thomas Livsey. Livsey was a local lad, the son of a blacksmith, who was educated until the age of 15 in Rochdale. Livsey also worked locally on such issues as shortening working hours in the mills, restricting child labour and fighting the Poor Laws that introduced the despised workhouses. Livsey was an affective interlocutor between the middle-class and the working-class and a strong advocate for the latter. He was also involved in the development of the local Co-operative movement.

The struggle for acceptance of the Charter raised passions and for a while there were real concerns that it could lead to an armed insurrection. Plans to organize a period of sustained protest across the country in 1839 collapsed in disarray. By 1842 when the Charter was still a dream, it began to be apparent to a lot of people that the way forward for working-class people lay not in electoral reform but in self-improvement, a decision which in Rochdale led to Co-operation.

The middle-class fought for parliamentary reform because they wanted to have access to the power that the Tory gentry had by right. The only way to achieve the change they wanted was to create a ground swell of discontent and to do this they needed to enlist the support of the working-class. The working-class joined the frey in a desperate attempt to give some strength to their demands for improved living and working conditions. Throughout this whole period, life and work in Rochdale was characterized by riots and strikes over food shortages, pay and working conditions.

Labour Strife
The Struggle for a Living Wage

There were a number of contentious issues on the increasingly industrial scene in Rochdale around which disagreements raged. The first was the wage rate. After drawn-out negotiations a complicated system of payments was agreed in Rochdale. Known as the Statement Price it was settled in 1824. However, from that point on, wages entered a downward spiral that sparked-off a series of strikes and other labour actions.

Another highly contentious issue was the practice of some employers to pay their workers in kind. Using what were known as Truck Shops workers took their pay in food and goods. The goods were expensive meaning that the worker saw very little return for his or her sweat. Worse than that, they were often rotten or adulterated, with chalk added to the cheese, white sand in the sugar and mud in the coffee.

There was, of course, the problem of mechanization. The replacement of workers by machines was a major issue in 19th century Rochdale, and continues to affect management-worker relationships around the world to the present day. Rochdale, with its emphasis on wool rather than cotton, was somewhat slower to introduce highly mechanized production and relied for much longer than other Lancashire textile towns on hand-weaving, for instance. The new machinery became the target of attacks from frustrated hand-weavers who saw the price they were being paid fall dramatically.

Rochdale weavers fought an ongoing battle during the early decades of the 19th century just to hold on to what they had, in terms of living and working conditions, and to stave-off the efforts of their employers to introduce changes which eroded them.

From 1801 until 1824 it was illegal for workers to form trade unions. In 1824 the weavers and spinners in Rochdale, both men and women, formed the Rochdale Journeyman Weavers' Association.

It wasn't long after the Association was formed that the attacks on the Statement Price began. Over the coming years the workers employed various strategies to combat their employers. When two mill owners began to undercut both wages and prices, the workers convinced twelve other employers to stand with them. The dissenting mills actually took on the workers who struck the two undercutting mills. In the end, the workers earned a reinstatement of the rate and forced the two mill owners to contribute to the union's strike fund.

Forcing divisions between employers came to a swift end and, in fact, the mill owners began to forge their own alliances. The union countered this by seeking the financial support of Rochdale's retail traders. To achieve this they made it quite clear that to not support the union would result in a boycott of the offending business.

The union assiduously denied its part in the workers' action against mills that were introducing mechanization. In May of 1829 twenty workers, involved in an attack on a mill, were arrested. A mob attacked the Rochdale jail where they were being held. Ten people died when the troops guarding the jail opened fire.

By 1830 wages in Rochdale were about 40% below the 1824 rate and a general strike broke out involving six to seven thousand workers. In June of that year John Doherty, of the National Association for the Protection of Labour, made an appearance in town. His address was so convincing that the spinners and weavers voted unanimously to join his national union. However, the promised advantages of belonging to a powerful national association soon proved to be unfounded. When it became clear that Doherty's words were not backed by effective action, and when it was revealed that the Rochdale subscriptions to the union had been embezzled, the association came to an end.

Things were to get worse. By the time the dreadful winter of 1841 hit, the Rochdale workers were trying to cope on one-third of the average wage for working people. Strikes broke out again in August of 1842. Strikers moved in groups from town to town bringing production to a standstill by pulling the plugs on the steam boilers in the mills. They became known as "Plug Dragoons". In the end, though, starvation forced the strikers back to work.


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 © Robert Owen Museum

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 Rochdale 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.

In 1844 the Rochdale economy was in another of those dizzying nose-dives that once again led to wage reductions which in turn triggered strikes. Unemployed weavers meeting at the Socialist Institute and no doubt debating Chartist and Owenism philosophies established a new society.

These Rochdale Pioneers formulated the Rochdale Principles upon which their version of co-operation were founded. These principles were:

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.