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Industrial Co-operation:




Historical Outline



Table of Events

1799 Combination Act.
1800 Combination Act.
1802 Health and Morals (First Factory Act).
1811 Luddite Riots.
1808-14 Peninsular War.
1815 Battle of Waterloo.
1815 Corn Law.
1819 Peterloo.”
1819 The Six Acts.”
1819 Factory Act.
Owen’s work at New
Work for Factory Reform.
1795 Hull Anti-Corn Mill.
1796 Barham Anti-Corn Mill.
1801 Hull Subscription Mill.
1815 Devonport Union Mill.
1816 Sheerness Society.
1821 The Economist.
1821 The London Co-operative and Economical Society.


Introduction to Historical Outline.

IN 1904, at the opening of the twentieth century, looking back into the nineteenth, “our wondrous Mother-age,” each one has a mental picture of the everyday industrial life of the people among whom he has lived.  It is difficult to realise as one looks back that this picture — this scene of busy, restless town life, with, on the one hand, its group of capitalist directors of industry, on the other its streams of clerks, of artizans, and of unskilled “hands;” with its separated areas of suburban villas, and of factories and workers’ cottages — is a new picture, that it represents a new idea of the relation between man and man in the field of industry.  And yet it is the life of one century only: the story of “English Industry under the Competitive System” is a new volume in its history and begins with the nineteenth century.


Before we turn through the pages of this volume to the chapter on Co-operative History, let us glance at the preceding volume, “The Age of Cottage Industry,” and see what was the industrial life of the eighteenth century.  In so doing we shall be learning what had been the life of the average Englishman for three or four centuries; because throughout the country the main circumstances of life were practically unchanged since the Middle Ages.

There were towns, it is true, but these did not then, as now, contain the bulk of the population: spinning and weaving, England’s chief industry, went on in the country.  “A spinning wheel was to be found in every cottage and farmhouse in the kingdom, a loom in every village.”[1]  The home of the weaver or other craftsman was also his workshop.  Farmer and labourer in the country, master and journeyman in the town, worked and often lived side by side; and the man might hope by industry and frugality to become in his turn a master.

The middle of the eighteenth century saw in England the rise of a wealthy class with an accumulation of capital for investment.  The small holdings of the yeoman farmer were brought up by large landholders, the common fields of the villages were enclosed and farming was reorganised on a comparatively large scale with improved implements and methods.

Meanwhile there was a series of inventions in spinning and weaving.  The flying shuttle, invented by Kay in 1733, so increased the weavers’ rate of working that the spinners were unable to keep pace with them, until spinning-jenny and mule correspondingly increased the speed of the spinners.  Then came the power loom, and improvements in machine-manufacture, and in the steam engine.  These were made possible through the improved methods of iron-smelting.  For the transport of the increased output of manufactured goods, early eighteenth century means — pack-horses or heavy wagons on the badly-kept roads
would have been inadequate.  Therefore the introduction of canals was an important link in the chain of industrial development.

Here was the opportunity for the investment of the capital won in the South Seas or in India, by the commerce developed by the successful wars of Marlborough and Pitt and by Walpole’s long-maintained peace.  The cottager had no means to buy the new machinery, nor could he have worked it in his home.  Special buildings were required — factories were built and towns sprang up around them.

We close the book of the eighteenth century on simple medi
val ways of life: yeoman farming disappears, home industry is doomed.  The French Revolution has completed the downfall of the feudal system; no less decisively has the English Industrial Revolution inaugurated a new era.  The last of the medival barriers of privilege and charter, of guild and settlement, are broken down; henceforth the worker is in a new position, free to move where he will, free to make what bargain he can for his services.  He is to test the value of this new mobility of labour and freedom of contract.


The volume of nineteenth century history opens with gloomy pages.  It is true that after her century of warfare with France for colonial supremacy, England emerges victorious at Waterloo from her final struggle with Napoleon.  It is true that landowner, millowner, and merchant are making huge fortunes as food rises in price in consequence of bad harvests and the almost prohibitive tariffs on foreign corn, and that England’s manufactured goods monopolise the world’s markets.  The twenty-five years beginning in 1796 are, we are told by Thorold Rogers, “the worst time, however, in the whole history of English labour.”[2]

In the country prices were abnormally high, wages were low — so low as to need in most cases to be supplemented from the poor-rates — and there were no longer the cottage industries to fall back upon.  In factories, the labour of men was often replaced by that of women and children at scanty wages. Indeed, pauper children, sold to all intents and purposes by the guardians of the poor, supplied the labour in many cases.  Those children worked twelve, fourteen, or even more hours out of the twenty-four, and were herded under conditions unwholesome alike to body and character.  The other workers, too, toiled for low wages under pitiable conditions, scarcely more tolerable than slavery; men, women, and children alike being liable to tyranny and injustice, and kept at their tasks by threats and blows.

There seemed no redress.  By the Combination Laws of 1799 and 1800, workers were prevented from trying to raise wages by means of any form of agreement among themselves.  What hope lay before them of profiting by their new “freedom?”  The answer may, for our purpose, be found in the study of the life and work of Robert Owen.  He alone “seems to have understood what was happening to the entire industry of the country.”[3]


As a young man in Manchester when the foundations of its industry were being laid, Owen became acquainted not only with the business of cotton spinning but with the results, physical and moral, of the methods of the early factory system.  As a manufacturer at New Lanark during the first quarter of the nineteenth century, he worked out remedies for these evils in his own village, humanising the life of the workers and educating their children.  In order that other workers might benefit in a like manner, he advocated the foundation of similar communities throughout the country, but without much response.

He was one of the early leaders of the agitation for factory reform, and was instrumental in getting passed the Factory Act of 1819.  This was a fruitful contribution towards improving the prospect before the worker.  But perhaps his chief contribution to the solution of the difficulties of this gloomy period, was the impetus given to the workers to take into their own hands the control of industry.  As a result of the stimulus given by his teaching from 1820 onwards, there arose, as will be seen in Chapter VI., Co-operative Societies, Labour Exchanges, Trades Unions, and Labour Magazines; and though none of these lasted for any length of time, yet the seed was sown, the direction of advance indicated, and Robert Owen’s right to the title of the “Father of Co-operation” established.  As Mr. G. J. Holyoake puts it, Robert Owen no more constructed co-operation “than George Stephenson did that railway system which a thousand unforeseen exigencies have suggested and a thousand brains matured.”  Yet, “as Stephenson the elder made locomotion possible, so Owen set men’s minds on the track of co-operation, and time and need, failure and gain, faith and thought, and the good sense and devotion of multitudes have made it what it is.”[4]

The opening days of the nineteenth century have been already described as a “period of despair”; the time since the close of those days of gloom may well be divided into four periods of twenty years — the beginning of each of the first three of these of being marked by a significant event.

In 1824 the repeal of the Combination Laws ushered in what we may call the period of “Enthusiastic Experiment.”

In 1844 the founding of the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers was the fitting beginning of the period of “Pioneer Work.”

Whilst the establishment, in 1864, of the Co-operative Wholesale Society marks the entrance to the period of the “Consolidation of the Co-operative State.”

The last twenty years form the “Era of Expansion of the Co-operative Commonwealth.”  They are marked by many important developments, but at present no single event can be said to stand out with such prominence as those which distinguish the earlier periods.

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1. Industrial Revolution. Toynbee.

2. Six Centuries of Work and Wages, page 492.

3. History of Trade, Unionism. Webb.

4. History of Co-operation, Vol. 1., page 70.