Celebratory Keynote Address

Celebratory Keynote Address

by Johnston Birchall

There we were in Rochdale Town Hall, surrounded by the biggest collection
of stained glass royalty in the world; and most of those present had
already noticed by now that all the kings and queens of England were
staring down at them from the windows. Yet we were there to celebrate a
group of humble men and women who probably did more than any of these kings
to improve the lot of their fellow citizens, and yet who lived and died in
obscurity. We were meeting on a Sunday afternoon almost exactly 150 years
after a group of local workmen held their Sunday afternoon meeting at which
they decided to form the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers. They met
in a room next door to the Weavers' Arms, just round the corner from where
we were now congregated, in Yorkshire Street. Picture the scene. They were
all men. Some of them, like Miles Ashworth and William Cooper, were
weavers, who worked in a local mill or on the top floor of their own home,
hunched over the loom for fourteen or sixteen hours a day, six days a week.
They were on their one day off, and even in their Sunday best looked
shabby, and had that pinched look of people who never get quite enough to
eat. They had just had a strike against millowners who refused to pay the
going rate for the job, and had been virtually starved back to work. Some
of them were in better paid occupations: James Bamford was a shoemaker,
John Bent a tailor, James Daly a joiner, and James Smithies a woolsorter,
but for them too this was their one day off in a long working week. We
don't know much about what they looked like; there was that 'energetic
young man' Billy Cooper, with his red hair sticking up like a mop, over in
the corner was John Holt, the oldest of them at 66, and there, making
everyone laugh as usual, was James Smithies. I'm not sure if John Scowcroft
was there, but you would hear him soon enough if he was, because as a
hawker and a unitarian lay preacher, he was reputed to have the loudest
voice in Rochdale.

And there, taking notes, was the legal expert of the group, Charles
Howarth, who was already thinking about drawing up their constitution. He
had been involved around ten years previously in a store which had
eventually failed, and yet here he was trying again. In fact, there had
been at least 300 societies formed previously, nearly all of which had
failed. And this prompts me to ask a question which has been on my mind for
some time. What made these co-operators successful? Why Rochdale, why 1844,
and why these particular people? There are at least three conventional
answers to this question.

Firstly, they learned from the mistakes of previous societies and put
together the classic set of principles which ensured success; they gave a
quarterly dividend on purchases, they paid a modest rate of interest on
capital, and so appealed to people's self-interest as well as their
idealism. Secondly, they discovered new ways of trading, notably through
branch stores and then through a wholesale society, which gave them
enormous advantages over their competitors; the independent traders who
they were up against were in any case pretty disorganised. Thirdly, they
had some luck: after five years of only modest growth, they benefitted from
the collapse of a local savings bank which meant that Rochdale citizens
flocked to put their money in the Co-op. And fairly soon after there was an
upturn in the trade cycle which meant people were beginning to have more
money in their pockets.

But these answers do not completely satisfy me. There was something else
going on here, which we have to acknowledge and learn from. It is
unfashionable in academic circles to say that the character of individual
people makes history, but I believe that it was the Pioneers themselves who
made the difference. G.J. Holyoake was in no doubt about this. He begins
his history of the Pioneers Society with these words:

Human nature must be different in Rochdale from what it is elsewhere. There
must have been a special creation of mechanics in this inexplicable
district of Lancashire - in no other way can you account for the fact that
they have mastered the art of acting together, and holding together, as no
other set of workmen in Great Britain have done.

What was it in their nature which destined them for success?

To an outsider, they would not have seemed very promising material; they
were all more or less poor. Some of the original members had dropped out
quite soon, I think because they could not afford to pay their subs of
three pence a week. (When William Mallalieu offered to invest a pound so
that they could stock tea and tobacco, there was amazement that he could
find so much). But it would be a mistake to assume that poverty meant
ignorance or a lack of pride. We must remember that the weavers had been
the aristocrats of labour before the new factory system had driven them
into poverty. Some of the Pioneers had been to school, if only for a few
years, and all were to a large extent self-educated. Though they lived in a
provincial town, some had seen the world; Miles Ashworth had been in the
marines and had escorted Napoleon to his exile on the island of St Helena.
The town itself was strategically located for traffic between Yorkshire and
Lancashire, and was a microcosm of all the radical religious and political
movements of the day. Nearly all of the Pioneers belonged to one or more of
these movements; they were Chartists, or Owenite socialists, or unitarians,
or promoters of the 'Ten Hours Act' for factory reform, and their education
was continued in the debating halls and committee rooms of these

Among the Pioneers there were men of exceptional ability: James Daly was
said to be a good grammarian, arithmetician, mathematician and musician;
Charles Howarth became the leading expert on co-operative law and
constitutions; and William Cooper corresponded with Gladstone and with
leading academics, being regarded as the best informed man in Britain on
co-operative principles and methods. Some of them were very good
businessmen. Their objections to the competitive capitalist system and
their conviction that a co-operative system should supersede it were based,
not on fear or envy, but on a realistic understanding of economics and of
the way markets were working. Later in life, several did set up their own
businesses: Charles Howarth became a manufacturer of washing soda, Ben
Jordan an innkeeper, and James Smithies owner of a woolsorting business. It
would be understandable if they had decided early on to set up for
themselves and make some serious money, but they always put the Co-op
first. Holyoake records, for instance, that David Brooks 'frequently left
his own employment, at which he could then earn between seven and eight
shillings a day, to work for love of the cause, until the Society could
afford to pay him something like 3 pence an hour for his labour'. Some of
them were extremely good managers. When the Rochdale Corn Mill was making a
loss and about to be wound up, Abraham Greenwood, the President of the
Society was persuaded to manage it and, though he knew nothing about
milling, turned its fortunes round almost overnight. When the Co-operative
Wholesale Society was struggling to survive, Samuel Ashworth was persuaded
to run it, even though he did not want to leave his job as manager of the
Rochdale Society - again the new venture prospered. But none of the
Pioneers died rich, and some died as poor as when they started out.

So they had the ability and they had the knowledge. But why did they want
to use these for the good of all?

I think they were profoundly moved by the plight of their fellow citizens.
They had experienced the regular slumps in trade which had led to near
starvation for the weavers of all the Northern textile towns. They had
noted the dreadful irony of an economy which was producing blankets for the
world, but in which five out of six of Rochdale's population did not have
enough blankets to keep them warm. They had seen the procession of 2000
women and girls through the streets of Rochdale just two years previously,
when, as John Bright described it, the marchers had devoured a loaf with
'greediness indescribable . . . even if the bread is covered in mud'. They
knew that they were already the lucky ones, just because they had survived
into adulthood when, in a town which had grown so rapidly that half the
streets had no sewers or drains, the average life expectancy was about
twenty one years.

They had a rare mixture of realism and vision. A French co-operator, Paul
Lambert, said 'they managed to achieve that blend of the visionary and the
practical, without which nothing great can be done'. A Canadian
co-operator, Alex Laidlaw, used to say about successful co-operators 'They
had their feet on the ground and their heads in the clouds'. On the one
hand, in the winter of 1844 they decided not to buy in winter potatoes in
case they sprouted and had to be sold below cost price; William Cooper,
looking back twenty years later, said if they had done it might have
bankrupted them. The line between success and failure was so thin that they
had to pay attention to detail just to survive. On the other hand, at the
same time they were making plans to set up a wholesale society, to build
houses, to provide work for their members in factories, to mill pure flour,
all of which they managed to do  - but only when they were sure these
ventures would succeed.

At the back of the vision was a commitment to some core values which were
as important to them as the purity of the bread they ate. At a time of
widespread food adulteration, high prices and favouritism by shopkeepers,
they believed in honesty in trading. A child could be sent to do an errand
at the Co-op and get just as good treatment as an adult. A poor woman could
expect to get just as good quality food as a wealthy one. Like the people
of Dublin who were supplied by the CWS in 1913 when they were in danger of
starvation, the poor of Rochdale found to their surprise that being poor
did not mean being palmed off with second rate goods. And unlike the
private traders, the Co-op was open to scrutiny at regular quarterly
meetings, and a general atmosphere of openness prevailed.

They believed, also, in personal freedom. Two examples should suffice.
Firstly, at one point early on when trade was not so good, some members,
led by James Daly, wanted to compel all members to become customers, and
resolved that those who did no trade should be expelled. Charles Howarth
opposed the motion, on the grounds that it would destroy the free action of
members. Holyoake reports 'freedom was a principle he liked absolutely,
and, rather than give it up, he would forego the advantages of
co-operation'. A second example. The unitarians and the freethinkers among
the Pioneers differed fundamentally about religion, while the Chartists and
Owenites disagreed about politics. But they loved to air their views at
regular Sunday afternoon sessions in the Social Institute, and then
eventually in their own reading room which they set up on the top floor of
the Toad Lane store. When, in 1850, some evangelical Christians became
members, they moved that the reading room be closed on Sundays, and that
all religious discussion be banned. The Pioneers stood their ground, and
insisted that they wanted both free discussion of religious and political
topics and toleration of everyone else's views. This is, of course, a fine
line to follow even now, but in the heady days of the 1850s it was almost
unheard of.

They were confident that they could do it because underlying their
disagreements was a fundamental sense of community. Holyoake puts it this

The moral miracle performed by our co-operatives of Rochdale is that they
have had the good sense to differ without disagreeing; to dissent from each
other without separating; to hate at times, and yet always hold together.

Their unity was cemented by a deep commitment to equality, which was built
into the very rules of the Society: one person one vote, the limitation of
rewards to capital, and of course the famous dividend on purchases. It was
not a 'levelling down' kind of equality but a successful attempt to lift a
whole class of people out of poverty. Then, as Holyoake says of William
Cooper, having chosen their principles, they 'advanced them with singleness
of purpose'.

I almost wish they had been easier on themselves, because the hidden costs
of a lifetime of co-operative service must have been borne as much by their
wives and children as by their men. There is very little mention of the
women in the history of the Pioneers, apart from occasional references.
There is Cooper's wife waiting with a sick child on Christmas day, with
nothing but the ticking of the clock to keep her company while her husband
travels to Manchester to help found the CWS. There is Mrs Smithies who
Holyoake has to admit came second to her husband's work 'which in earlier
years cost her many attentions'. This is a polite way of saying she was
neglected. On the other hand, the commitment to equality extended naturally
to women. They were able to become Co-op members, to have their own share
accounts, and the Pioneers insisted that if husbands wanted to get their
hands on their wive's savings (which by law at this time they were entitled
to do), they had to get their wives' approval first. True, it took a brave
woman member to speak at a members' meeting or to enter the reading room,
but these restrictions were mere social conventions which were not built
into Co-operation and which the women, supported by the Women's
Co-operative Guild, were soon to put an end to.

I could go on at length about the Pioneers, their courage in times of
adversity and public criticism, their faith in the idea of Co-operation,
their sheer energy which, considering the length of their working day and
the miserable conditions under which they had to work, is truly remarkable.
Probably the quality which was most hidden in them was their modesty.
Modesty is a quality which by definition a modest person is not aware of,
and I suspect that the Pioneers were simply not aware of the fact that
visitors to Toad Lane were frequently rather disappointed by them. Holyoake
wrote in 1857 that the directors were the same modest and unassuming men
they were thirteen years ago; shining in oil, or dusted with flour, dressed
in flannel jackets and caps, they in no way answered the expectations of
strangers in appearance.

This kind of modesty is, of course, also a kind of pride, because it says
to the visitor 'whoever you are, you will have to accept us for who we

And now we come to the hard questions. Are the personal qualities and the
values of the Pioneers still relevant? And if so, is there evidence that
the modern Co-operative Movement still has these qualities and believes in
these values? I think the answer to the first question is undoubtedly
'Yes'. Poverty may not be stalking the streets of Rochdale like it was in
the 1840s, but since around 1980 we have been going through an industrial
revolution just as profound and just as disruptive as the first one. Some
people call it a post-industrial revolution, but its effects are similar.
Whole sections of the population are being thrown out of work: this time
not the weavers, the agricultural labourers and the lace makers but the
miners, shipyard workers, steel workers, and now white collar workers such
as bank clerks and even nurses. Young people are looking around at a
devastated jobs market and wondering whether they will ever find work. And
we are getting used to a large minority, about a fifth of our population,
being permanently on what the Pioneers would have called 'poor relief'.

For the majority of us, there is also a way of life which I want to call
'modernised poverty'. We are not poor in the conventional sense, but we
suffer from a degraded environment and an alienated lifestyle. We are stuck
in traffic for hours every day, dependent on the car to get us everywhere,
not daring to walk or cycle or to allow our children to walk to school. We
are totally dependent on a monthly pay check in a world in which no-one's
job is really safe, and in which we may have to retrain completely two or
three times in a lifetime. We face a future in which even the elements are
against us: will our children get asthma from the polluted air, is our
water safe to drink, and is the food we eat irradiated, genetically
engineered or just plain adulterated? And, if we are better off than we
were and than other people still are, is it not because we are exploiting
animals, people in the third world and the natural environment, in order to
prop up a consumer society which we know cannot really be sustained?

And now to the hardest question. Do we as co-operators still feel that we
have something to offer to the world? Are we, in a fundamental sense, still
Pioneers? Now at this stage it would be easy for me to point to the
different types of co-ops which are doing good work with some of the
poorest people: credit unions and tenant management co-ops on council
estates, worker co-ops rescuing failed businesses and providing jobs for
unemployed people. It would be even easier for me to point to successful
co-ops in other parts of the world: worker co-ops in Spain, consumer co-ops
in Japan, agricultural co-ops throughout Asia, credit unions in the USA and
so on. But I am going to face up to the hard question as a British
co-operator and ask 'Is the British consumer co-op still up to it?'

The answer is a cautious 'yes'. We have experts who have the ability to run
a business, to take opportunities in the marketplace, even though we face a
competition which is a thousand times better organised than any the
Pioneers faced. We have good managers who can organise large and complex
organisations, even though their abilities are taxed to the limit by the
mergers and restructurings which are necessary if we are to survive.

But do our managers care? Do they want to do something about society's
ills, and do they want to do it in a distinctively co-operative way?

There is some evidence that they do. There are small signs and big signs.
The small ones include a link-up between CRS and Oxfam to develop co-ops in
Africa, and between the Co-op and the RSPCA guaranteeing that animals
raised for food do not suffer unduly. There is the commitment by CWS to let
customers know which foods contain genetically engineered products, and so
on. The big signs include the ethical policy of the Co-operative Bank,
campaigns by CRS and other co-ops to enrol new members and to emphasise the
'co-operative difference' in their trading, the new emphasis on honest and
effective governance of co-ops, and the return of various kinds of dividend
to the members.

What is needed now is a sustained campaign to turn the organisations we
have inherited into ones which deeply express the Pioneers' values, and
this will not be easy. In one sense the Pioneers had it easier. They could
start up new businesses to meet new needs in a natural and evolutionary
process. We in the modern consumer co-operative sector are trapped inside
these large, unwieldy organisations which are not of our own making. We
have to learn how to run national and regional level organisations
democratically, while fostering a sense of community, and demonstrating our
commitment to honest and fair trade. We will not do this by looking
backwards to the last ten or twenty years of mergers and restructurings and
blaming each other for what went wrong. We will only be able to do it by
setting aside the weight of all our recent history, by going much further
back and rediscovering what it was that moved the Pioneers, and by trying
to do the same thing but in a new way.