The Rochdale Equitable Pioneers’ store, a cooperative, opened in 1844 in the town of Rochdale, England. The members, 28 struggling felt weavers and other artisans faced with being made obsolete by the Industrial Revolution, organized to purchase untainted products at fair prices. Their first inventory was sugar, butter, flour, oatmeal, and tallow candles. In the store there was a scale, a desk where the accounts were entered, and a few benches for members to sit on while they waited their turn.
The co-op grew steadily and by 1848 had purchased the building next door where a library, classroom, drapery shop and shoe repair service opened, all run by the co-op. People visited them from all over the British Isles to learn more about how they operated. By 1854 there were at least 1,000 cooperatives running.
While Rochdale was not the first consumer co-op in Britain, it is widely regarded as the starting place of the “modern cooperative” because it so explicitly laid out a formula for cooperative success. This success was measured financially, because Rochdale members were concerned about under-capitalized cooperative societies that were failing.
But success was also measured socially, because the Pioneers had concerns and objectives beyond wanting to provide their families a better diet. Many envisioned a more pastoral, locally self-reliant world. Meanwhile, they demanded better jobs, better housing, better futures.
Additionally, the co-op committed to a series of goals familiar to today’s co-ops, regardless of the type of ownership (consumer, worker, or producer): ongoing self-education, equitable member investment, shares at par value, surplus benefits proportional to patronage, democratic member control (one member, one vote), quality goods and services at fair market prices, and ‘transparent’ bookkeeping.
The so-called Rochdale Principles grew from this co-op’s innovative work, specifically from its 1860 annual report, but were in fact authored by a series of subsequent groups and individuals. Today, they form part of the International Statement of Co-operative Identity, a document periodically amended and ratified by co-op delegates from all over the world at the International Co-operative Alliance’s annual assemblies.
- David J. Thompson, Weavers of Dreams: Founders of the Modern Co-operative Movement. UC-Davis Center for Cooperatives, 1994.