A short history of the UK Co-operative Movement

    This document has been made available in electronic format
         by the International Co-operative Alliance ICA
                         15 September 1995
     The big idea that grew from a tiny shop in Rochdale
       A short history of the UK Co-operative Movement
The official birth of the Co-operative Movement in December
1844, marked by the opening of a little store in a grimy mill
town in the North of England, can hardly have seemed like a
significant and historic event to the 28 founding members of
the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society.
For them, this was an obscure and inauspicious beginning.
Their shop in Toad Lane, Rochdale, was selling the barest of
essentials - butter, sugar, flour and oatmeal - to a small
band of sceptical customers. Yet the Movement they established
was destined to change the lives of millions of ordinary
working people, not just in Great Britain but throughout the
With the aim of selling pure food at fair prices and with
honest weights and measures, rather than simply for profit,
the Pioneers pointed the way for like-minded men and women to
start similar co-operative societies. And so it was that
consumer co-operation became firmly established.
The Rochdale Pioneers were certainly not the first. There are
plenty of examples of co-operative experiments inspired by the
writings of William King, a Brighton physician and
philanthropist, and Robert Owen, a Welsh manufacturer and
social reformer, long before the Pioneers first set up shop.
After 1844, however, the spread of the Co-operative idea was
truly phenomenal. It was as if a great dam had burst in
Rochdale on that December night, providing the precious water
to irrigate a desert of poverty and deprivation,
disenfranchisement and prejudice, and allow green shoots of
co-operation to flourish in the most barren soil of the first
Industrial Revolution.

The Rochdale style of consumer co-operative became the norm,
and the model for others to follow, quite simply because it
demonstrated for all to see that it worked so effectively. The
"Rochdale Principles", formulated from the decisions and
practices of the Pioneers, included voluntary and open
membership, democratic control, and profits returned to
members in proportion to their purchases - the famous Co-op
=46or the Rochdale Pioneers Society itself, trade and
membership grew falteringly at first, but the success of the
venture soon gained an unstoppable momentum. By 1880, national
membership of consumer societies had reached over half a
million people - a figure that was to triple to 1,700,000 by
the turn of the century.
A spur to this remarkable growth was the establishment in 1863
of the Co-operative Wholesale Society. For the CWS, supported
in its early years by a strong band of activists from the
Rochdale Society, business began modestly in a few rented
rooms in Manchester, but it quickly developed into a major
food importer, establishing supply chains for Irish butter,
Danish bacon, Indian tea and American wheat at prices working
people could afford. Within a relatively short while the CWS
opened depots on five continents to buy directly from the
growers; it built its own fleet of ships; and it established
factories to produce and sell on to societies the vast range
of products which a more prosperous working class was now
While the CWS expanded into other activities such as banking
and insurance, retail societies diversified beyond food
retailing into elaborate department stores, coal distribution,
productive units for dairy and bakery output, members' death
benefits and funerals. It was societies' proud boast that they
could give members a comprehensive service from the cradle to
the grave, and by offering the traditional cash dividend on
purchases their position on the high street seemed invincible.
This success went far beyond the Co-op's business interests,
however. With members playing an active part in running
"their" societies, co-operative guilds giving working-class
women a first taste of empowerment, and educational programmes
broadening horizons away from the drudgery of everyday life,
the Co-operative Movement was becoming deeply enmeshed in the
social fabric of the time.
By the early part of this century, consolidation in the number
of separate societies began - a process which has reduced the
total from 1,464 in 1900 to around 50 today. The growth in the
size and strength of the Movement meanwhile continued unabated
through two world wars and during a subsequent shopping
revolution which saw retail food outlets transformed first
into self-service supermarkets and later into out-of-town
By the 1950s, though, it became clear that co-operative
retailing could not continue unopposed forever. Rival chains
began to rally their forces and seized the post-war boom in
consumer spending as an opportunity for rapid growth at the
expense of co-operative societies. Urgent reforms were
implemented and strategies developed to meet competition in a
rapidly changing retail environment. As one historian has
recently remarked, the key message of the last few decades is
that the Co-op has weathered the storm. "As an example of
organisational survival in a turbulent environment, it is
probably without parallel; private firms faced with a tenth of
the Movement's problems would long ago have gone out of
Of course, mere survival is not enough. Today, co-operative
retail turnover has grown to $37.5 billion a year and many 
consumer societies have consolidated their positions by
merging into strong regional units. The Co-operative Insurance
Society, meanwhile, serves four million families, trading on
those Co-operative Principles first developed in Rochdale and
ensuring that the interests of its policyholders always come
first; The Co-operative Bank has carved a significant niche
for itself with its distinctive ethical policy which proudly
harks back to the philosophy first espoused by Robert Owen;
and co-operation has developed in many other forms too - from
agricultural co-operatives to credit unions and a multitude of
common ownership enterprises.
If the Rochdale Pioneers were able to look down at the
Co-operative Movement today, they would find it difficult to
believe how the idea has progressed since those tiny
beginnings in Toad Lane.
Iain Williamson,
Chief Information Officer,
Co-operative Union Ltd
September 1995