1994 - Why the Co-op Has Something to Celebrate

    This document has been made available in electronic format
         by the International Co-operative Alliance ICA 
                         June 1994

         1994 - Why the Co-op Has Something to Celebrate 

                    by Iain Williamson*

It is not the sort of scene where you imagine momentous
history should be made: a small, gaunt warehouse situated half
way up the bleak hillside on one of the cobbled streets
leading out of a grimy Northern town. 

This is a windswept Saturday evening on the longest night of
the year, December 21, and the bells of the parish church are
ringing out a Christmas peal. Outside the warehouse a crowd of
townsfolk has gathered; some just to gawp, others to make fun
and to jeer, and a few to watch with a mixture of anxiety and
pride - mainly anxiety! Inside, as the shutters are taken down
from the windows, a humble shop begins trading for the first

So it was that the first little store of the Rochdale
Equitable Pioneers Society began in 1844. It may have seemed
quite insignificant at the time, but it is no exaggeration to
say that what happened when the Rochdale Pioneers set up shop
changed the course of history for millions of ordinary people.
Now, 150 years later, the Co-operative Movement in Britain is
preparing to celebrate the anniversary of that event and the
aim is to show that Co-operatives are as relevant in the 1990s
as they ever have been.

Today, the Co-operative idea has been taken up by more than
700 million people in over 100 countries, with co-ops
providing jobs for skilled craft workers in India, marketing
expertise for farmers in the United States, healthcare for
Japanese and precious credit for rural peasants in Africa.
It's a great invention which has been refined and improved
upon wherever it has been adopted. And like so many good
ideas, it has been given a new impetus by every new generation
who rediscovers it.

In Britain alone, consumer co-operatives provide thousands of
retail outlets from giant hypermarkets to neighbourhood
convenience stores, and from car showrooms to travel agencies,
enjoying an annual turnover of more than 7 billion. The
Co-operative Insurance Society serves four million families -
one of the largest market shares in the country - while the
Co-operative Bank carves a growing market niche for its
financial services which provide an impressive blend of
ethical concern and technical innovation. Co-operatives work
successfully in many other sectors of the economy too. Worker
co-ops, agricultural co-ops, credit unions, housing co-ops and
many other common ownership enterprises all inherit the
fundamental aims of mutual aid and self-help derived from the

While the story of the Pioneers has certainly never been
forgotten, this year does provide a chance for the remarkable
message of triumph over adversity to reach a new and wider
audience. Life was almost unimaginably harsh in the Lancashire
textile town of Rochdale in 1844. The conditions of the time,
combined with a contempt for consumers which led to widespread
adulteration of food and selling by false weight, persuaded
the Pioneers to seek a radically new approach to the supply of
basic provisions by setting up a retail co-operative society.

Saving a few pennies every week, these 28 working men scraped
together enough capital to rent the ground floor of the
warehouse in Toad Lane and set up a shop selling wholesome
food at reasonable prices. The competing shopkeepers who
watched in derision the first opening on that December evening
may have scoffed at the idea of a shop run by its own
customers, but they didn't laugh for long as the Co-op
business began to prosper.
We should remember, too, that what the Pioneers established
was far more than just a shop. In an upper room of the Toad
Lane warehouse they opened a school and a free lending library
for members and their children long before the state provided
education for working people.

This was certainly not the first Co-operative in Britain, but
what made the achievements of the Pioneers so special were the
decisions and practices that they adopted, which became known
the world over as the Rochdale Principles of Co-operation.
These included voluntary and open membership, democratic
control, the provision of educational facilities and the
return of profits (or surplus) to members in proportion to
their purchases - the famous Co-op dividend.

>From these humble Lancashire origins the idea of consumer
Co-operatives spread rapidly and by the end of the nineteenth
century Britain had more than 1,400 separate societies
adhering to the Rochdale Principles, while the system was also
taking root vigorously throughout Europe and beyond.

Today the legacy of Rochdale is enshrined in the Co-operative
Principles promoted by the Co-op's world body, the
Geneva-based, International Co-operative Alliance. In this
country it lives on directly through two of the Co-op's major
institutions, the CWS and the Co-operative Insurance Society,
both of which owe their very existence to the foresight and
enterprise of the Pioneers themselves. The Pioneers' own
"Equitable Society", meanwhile, has become part of United
Norwest Co-operatives, the largest regional Co-op in the
country with a successful retail presence that extends from
the North Midlands to the English Lake District.

There is much to be grateful to the Pioneers for in 1994, and
appropriately the first shop at Number 31 Toad Lane has been
lovingly preserved and transformed into a museum which is
visited by thousands of co-operators from across the world.
"Some of our visitors literally kiss the walls of the building
when they arrive," says the Museum Curator, Roy Garratt. "In
developing countries the Co-operative system is still
transforming people's lives, just as it did those of our
forefathers, so when they come to Rochdale they regard the
building as something of a shrine."

The Museum contains precious documents and other memorabilia
dating back to the time of the Pioneers and shows the simple
layout of the original store, with bare planks across wooden
barrels forming the counter where the basic commodities such
as butter, sugar, flour, oatmeal and candles were served to
members. Visitors in 1994 can also see a special photographic
exhibition on the upper floor which gives an insight into the
way the Movement has developed in other countries.

Celebrations of the Pioneers' anniversary will begin in May
and -appropriately enough - Rochdale will be the focus for
many of the events that are planned. A national exhibition
running until December in the town centre Esplanade building,
with free admission to schoolchildren and the public, will
highlight the Co-op's modern achievements and latest
developments, in deliberate contrast to the historic
perspective of the Rochdale Pioneers Museum.

On August 13 and 14 a National Celebration of Co-operation in
Rochdale will take the form of a massive carnival-style family
weekend with a mixture of funfair attractions, street
entertainment and a worker co-operative `fayre'. Other events
include sponsored community arts initiatives; an environmental
improvement project which will provide a lasting legacy to the
town; and the inauguration of a long-distance circular walk
starting and ending in Toad Lane.

There will be many national events too, such as a special tour
by Manchester's acclaimed Halle Orchestra, sponsorship of the
1994 National Brass Band Championships, a touring festival of
films on the theme of Co-operation and a musical play for
children which is being offered for performance by schools
throughout the UK.

The celebrations will reach their climax on December 21 - the
actual anniversary of the opening of the Pioneers' first
shop - when all sections of the community in Rochdale will
join together for a memorable torchlit procession through the
town, followed by a fireworks and laser display which will be
a spectacular conclusion to this anniversary year.

The Co-operative Movement has come a long way from its humble
origins of 150 years ago, and the anniversary provides a rare
occasion to celebrate past achievements. More important
though, it reminds us all - members and employees alike - that
even more exciting prospects lie ahead. The Pioneers were
practical folk who looked to the future with enterprise and
vision. Co-operators in Britain and all over the world will
see 1994 as a chance to show their own determination to carry
the spirit of the Pioneers into the next millennium and

NOTE: The Rochdale Pioneers Museum is open daily except
Mondays. Opening hours for 1994 are 10am - 4pm Tuesdays to
Saturdays, and 2pm - 4pm Sundays. A full programme of special
events planned for 1994 can be obtained from the 1994
Celebrations Office, Holyoake House, Hanover Street,
Manchester M60 0AS. Tel: 061 832 4300, Fax: 061 831 7684. 

Diary of Events


1st, 8th       BBC-TV transmit  editions of Mastermind from
               Rochdale Town Hall to mark the 150th
               Anniversary Celebrations

10th, 17th     First performance of Out of the Red,  by
               Cartwheel Community Arts at the Pump House,
               Bridge Street, Manchester

22nd           Inaugural walk of Pioneers Round for
               long-distance walkers from Toad Lane, Rochdale

26th           Opening of National Co-operative Exhibition,
               Esplanade Building, Rochdale 

               Provisional first performance of sponsored M6
               Theatre project Esplanade Performance Area

29th - 31st    Co-operative Congress, Town Hall, Rochdale
               Launch of the book The People's Business

1st            Official opening of the period Co-operative
               shop recreation at The Pump House, Bridge
               Street, Manchester, National Museum of Labour
               History's new exhibition centre.

8th - 10th     Co-operative History Workshop, Co-operative
               College, Loughborough

12th           150th Anniversary Seminar, House of Commons

13th           Co-operative Women's Guild Picnic, Co-operative

22nd - 24th    Women's Celebration of Co-operation,
               Co-operative College

1st - 14th     During this period the Co-operative Film
               Festival will be launched at the South  Bank,
               London, followed by screenings at regional film
               theatres around UK

9th - 13th     International Youth Seminar, Co-operative

13th - 14th    National Celebration of Co-operation Rochdale
               Proposed performance of sponsored AFTER theatre
               project Rochdale Town Centre

          Cartwheel Community Arts perform Out of the Red
          Esplanade, Rochdale

17th - 21st    Music, Drama & Dance Festival Co-operative


10th           Pioneers Round - fun walk and evening

17th - 18th    Staff Sports Finals, Loughborough University


1st - 2nd      British Brass Band Championship Finals, Lower
               Divisions, Wembley Conference Centre

15th           British Brass Band Championship Finals, Premier
               Division Royal Albert Hall, London

21st           Grand Finale of the Anniversary Celebrations,
               Town Centre, Rochdale

Please note that this diary of events is provisional and
subject to change.

* Mr Williamson is Chief Information Officer at the
Co-operative Union Ltd in Manchester (source: Members
Magazine, Spring 1994).