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Industrial Co-operation:





Early Co-operative Experiments.

THE earliest recorded experiment in Co-operation dates back to 1795, and was not so much an attempt to carry out any definite theory of association, as a vague groping after some means of escaping from the misery caused by the high prices of food prevailing at that period.

The harvest of the year 1795 had been a short one, and wheat prices were considerably higher than for at least thirty-five years preceding.  The average price in 1795 was 72s. 11d. per quarter, it having at one period of the year risen to six guineas, [1] and it can easily be imagined that the effect of these prices upon the food of the poorer classes was very serious.


It was under these circumstances, more fully outlined in Chapter III., that in 1795 the following historic petition of the “poor inhabitants” of Hull was presented to the Mayor and Corporation of that town:-

We, the poor inhabitants of the said town, have lately experienced much trouble and sorrow in ourselves and families on the occasion of an exorbitant price of flour; that, though the price is much reduced at present, yet we judge it needful to take every precaution to preserve ourselves from the invasions of covetous and merciless men in future.  In consequence thereof, we have entered into a subscription, each subscriber to pay 1s. 1d. per week for four weeks, and 6d. per week for four weeks more, which is 6s. 4.d. each, for the purpose of building a mill which is to be the subscribers’, their heirs, executors, administrators, or assigns for ever, in order to supply them flour: but as we are conscious that this subscription will not be sufficient to bring about our purpose, we do therefore humbly beseech your Worship’s advice and assistance in this great undertaking, that not only we but our children even yet unborn may have cause to bless you.

Various members of the Corporation gave financial assistance to the project, and the Hull Anti-Mill Society was formed with some 1,400 members, and continued its existence with varying success until 1895, when the society was wound up after working for nearly a century.

The example of Hull was followed in several other districts, including the dockyard towns of Devonport and Sheerness.  The society formed in the latter town in 1816 for bread baking is still in existence as the Sheerness Economical Co-operative Society,[2]  and now carries on the business of farming and breadmaking. [3]

It was in 1821, however, that the activity of Robert Owen in advocacy of association, first bore fruit among the working classes.  In January of that year a committee of working men, who had been meeting in London and discussing the principles taught by Owen, issued a report announcing the formation of “The Co-operative and Economical Society,”[4] the earliest record, according to Mr. Holyoake, of a word now so familiar to us.


The proposals of this committee throw interesting light on the ideals of this period, which favoured the formation of a communal centre in the heart of London, without waiting for the organisation of a complete and separate village community so strongly advocated by Owen.

The new society was to consist of 250 families, who were to occupy contiguous dwellings.  It was proposed that every male member should contribute one guinea weekly to the general fund, out of which would be provided food and clothing for himself and family, education for his children, and all the other advantages afforded by the association — such as a common hall for meals, common kitchen for preparing food, and joint methods of cleansing the dwellings.  Commodious schools and a teaching staff were to be provided by the society.  It was also expected that each member of the society would be provided for in sickness and old age, and relieved from all anxiety as to the future of his offspring, who would be provided for, trained, and educated by the society in the event of the parent’s death.  The communists were to manufacture for themselves many of the articles to be consumed by them, and such members as were not employed by the society were to remain at their present employment.

The following interesting estimate was published, showing (1) the cost to the society of providing lodging, food, and clothing for 250 families; (2) the then cost under ordinary conditions of life; and (3) the estimated saving by the associated system of living, which it was shown would amount to nearly 8,000 per annum.

Table continued

The committee further stated that “on the supposition that each male adult member pays one guinea weekly to the general fund, therefore we are satisfied that the collective sum will provide the whole establishment with all the necessaries and many of the comforts of life in abundance, and at the same time furnish a power for the purposes of production and traffic, which we feel confident will gradually lead to independence.”[5]

The scheme, however, appears to have been too large for the number of converts to the principle of associated life, and a more modest programme was decided upon at a general meeting of the society held four months later, when a series of resolutions was adopted in favour of establishing a store more upon the lines of present-day societies.

These resolutions are interestingly stated in their original terms as follows:—

That, as the present object of the Society is the purchase of such articles as are necessary for family uses at wholesale prices, and at the best markets, a stock be formed to enable the Society to market with ready money — such stock to be raised in shares of 5s. each — each member to take at least one share, and as many more as he may think proper — and that should the sum in the treasurer’s hands at the end of each quarter be more than is necessary for the purposes of the Society, a portion of the shares be successively repaid with interest until the whole of the shares be extinguished.

That, with a view to facilitate the distribution of the goods, and for other social purposes, as many of the members as can conveniently quit their present residences, do live as nearly as possible together, in one or more neighbourhoods.

That a house or warehouse be taken for receiving and serving out the stores of the Society, where a salesman, aided by such assistants as shall be found necessary, shall be in constant attendance.

That to provide for the expense of this establishment, and of the wages of the salesman, &c., as well as to form an accumulative fund, 5 per cent shall be charged on the prime cost of all the articles sold at the store.

That the public, as well as the members, shall be at liberty as soon as the arrangements are sufficiently advanced, to purchase goods at the store.

That, in order to prevent any degree of partiality and all feelings of jealousy respecting the division of the goods, the manner of their distribution shall be in the ordinary course of trade 
that is to say, the members shall purchase such articles as they require, in such proportions as they please, whether great or small, and with the same freedom of choice as now attends the conduct of similar transactions in the shops of private traders.

That the salesman be required to give security to the Society for such sum as the committee shall think fit.

That such portion of the funds as shall at any time not be required for the transactions of the Society be lodged in a savings bank.

That the salesman, aided by such members as shall at any time think proper to accompany him, shall purchase the goods for the use of the Society, but that all payments shall be made by the committee, to whom the accounts must be presented on behalf of the parties acquiring demands against the Society.

That, so soon as the number of the Society is completed contracts be entered into, after public advertisements, for some of the articles required by the Society; and that shoemakers and tailors be employed by the Society on its own account.

That the members undertake to study in all things the interest and welfare of the Society at large, and engage to induce their wives and families to do all in their power to promote the general domestic comfort and happiness of themselves and their co-associates.

That, with this view, such of them as reside near together be encouraged to form arrangements for co-operating in the care of their dwellings and the superintendence and education of their children; and that, as soon as possible, arrangements be made for periodical meetings of the whole Society, with their families, for the purposes of mutual instruction, and of rational recreation and amusement.

That the Society keep constantly in view, as one of their ultimate and most important objects, next to the general extension and introduction of the principles on which they are united, the acquisition of an establishment in which they may unrestrainedly proceed upon the plan of social arrangements projected by that great benefactor of mankind, Mr. Owen, of New Lanark.

Several other resolutions were entered into relative to the management of the concern, to the security of the property, and the appointment of the committee.

Any member attending the meetings of the committee (and all the members are at liberty to do so) are entitled to vote in the same manner as the regular committee.

Little information is available as to the success of these first experiments, but it is certain that the ideal became popular among workmen, and that several hundreds of distributive and productive societies, closely following this plan, were established during the following ten years.


In 1828 The Co-operator, — a periodical established at Brighton by Dr. King, an enthusiastic co-operator, after describing the aims and methods of working these societies gave what has proved to be a very accurate forecast of the future of the co-operative distributive store.  It says:—

But as the wants of the members are limited, there will be a time when capital will exceed what the shop requires.  When this period arrives the Society will ask themselves this question — What shall we do with our surplus capital?  The answer will be — Employ one of your own members to manufacture shoes, or clothes, &c., for the rest; pay him the usual wages, and give the profits to the common capital.  In this way they will proceed, as the capital increases, to employ one member after another, either to manufacture articles consumed by the members or by the public.  Beginning to manufacture for the members, the sale is sure.  When the capital is able to produce more goods than the members can consume, they must manufacture those articles which are in demand by the public at large.


As the societies grew in numbers, the leaders began to hold meetings and conferences for mutual help and encouragement, and at the third Congress of delegates from co-operative societies of Great Britain and Ireland, held in London in 1832, a series of Fundamental Rules for the guidance of societies was agreed upon, from which the following extracts are made as indicative of the aims and ideals which had been evolved from the earlier ideals of 1821:—

The first statement agreed to was —

That it be universally understood that the grand ultimate object of all co-operative societies, whether engaged in trading, manufacturing, or agricultural pursuits, is community on land.

After setting forth methods of raising capital, the rules laid down that the societies —

Would purchase at wholesale price articles of ordinary consumption of the most genuine description in order to be retailed at the market prices for the purpose of further accumulation.

Another resolution set forth that —

It is the unanimous decision of the delegates here assembled that the capital accumulated by such associations should be rendered indivisible, and any trading societies formed for the accumulation of profits with the view to the merely making a dividend thereof at some future period cannot be recognised by this Conference as identified with the co-operative world, nor admitted, into that great social family which is now rapidly advancing to a state of independent and equalised community.

None of the societies, however, appear to have attained any great or prolonged success.  The difficulties in the way of association at that time were undoubtedly great.  The absence of education among the workers, and of legal protection for the funds of the societies; the necessity of carrying on their trade through irresponsible agents, and the general inexperience of the workers in the technicalities of buying and selling, together with the natural opposition of the private traders, render it a matter for little surprise that very few of the societies survived, and that none developed into the self-supporting communities aimed at by their enthusiastic promoters.


There were also other causes of failure such as are not unknown among present day co-operators.  A leading co-operator reporting to the Congress of 1832 upon the failures which had then taken place, spoke at some length on the subject, and enumerated the causes of failure as follows:—

The first cause has been a want of union and active co-operation among the members.

They have neglected their meetings, failed to make themselves properly and familiarly acquainted with the principles and proceedings of their Society, and left the management of their concerns to a few individuals.

Another cause of this failure has been the existence of a spirit of selfishness amongst them — a spirit which has been engendered in some degree, perhaps, by those societies themselves.  Shopkeeping has no tendency to improve either their principles or their morals.  In the next place there has been a general neglect of business on the part of the members.  They have not audited their accounts, diligently looked after the purchases made for them, or superintended and regulated the stock.

Another cause has been the members not dealing at their own stores.  It was not to be expected that the trading societies should answer their ends if the shop were deserted by its own proprietors.

Another difficulty attending these societies, and which has tended to render them abortive, is the great responsibility that attaches to the trustees, whilst there is no bond of union with the members.

The trustees take upon themselves the responsibility of paying all accounts, and answering all demands upon the Society.  The members, on the other hand, take upon themselves no responsibility; and if the Society should be found unprosperous they walk themselves out, leaving the trustees with all the responsibility and a losing concern.  The incapacity or dishonesty of storekeepers or managers has also been a cause of loss and failure.

The picture of members who “walk themselves out” when things appear to be going wrong is as fresh as if painted today, and as true to life!


Although, so far as is known, none of the societies already referred to succeeded in their ultimate aim of developing into self-supporting communities, a considerable number of Owen’s followers in various parts of the country were persistent in their advocacy of the community idea, and many committees were formed for the purpose of raising the necessary capital.  Elaborate schemes were prepared, and much impatience was exhibited at various meetings and conferences, because of the slow progress made in obtaining the necessary funds.  Owen, with his business experience, knew that a considerable capital was necessary if a successful community was to be formed.  He insisted that at least 200,000 must be raised, while his less experienced but enthusiastic followers constantly urged that a start should be made in a small way, and that the immediate success would be such that capital would at once come in and their example be followed on all sides; an argument familiar to present day co-operators when both distributive and productive societies are being organised, but one which, if acted upon, usually ends in disaster, as experienced co-operators know.

Various attempts were made to establish communities, the most important and best known of which were at Orbiston, near Glasgow, at Ralahine, in county Clare, Ireland, and at Queenwood, in Hampshire.

ORBISTON 1825-1827.

The Orbiston experiment was begun by Abram Combe, who with a few friends formed a joint-stock company, with a capital of 50,000, in shares of 250 each, payable in instalments.  The community had a religious basis, although the tenets of the founders, who declared themselves to be “adherents to Divine Revelation,” were not enforced upon intending tenants of the community.  An estate of 290 acres, about nine miles from Glasgow, was secured, and the buildings were begun on March 18th, 1825.  The community had very few elements of lasting success in its organisation or management; people were ready enough to subscribe to the idea of “equal distribution” and to join the community, but not so ready to carry the idea out into actual practice.  Many difficulties arose, and three months after the death of the founder, Abram Combe, in August, 1827, the community disbanded.

RALAHINE 1830-1833.

In 1823 Owen delivered a series of lectures in Dublin which so impressed an Irish landlord, John Scott Vandeleur, that he made Owen’s personal acquaintance and resolved upon an attempt to carry his views into practice.  Vandeleur had two estates, one of 700 acres and another of 618 acres, at Ralahine, Co. Clare, where he resided and which he himself cultivated through a steward.  For a few years nothing was done beyond discussing the project with his family and friends, all of whom strongly opposed the scheme, but in 1830 Mr. Vandeleur began his experiment.  A number of comfortable stone cottages, a dormitory for single women and another for single men, together with a store, a school, a large dining-room, and a meeting-room were commenced.  The country around was at the time in a very disturbed state, outrages and murders being prevalent, and while the buildings were in progress the steward at Ralahine, who showed much harshness to the labourers under his control and had raised their indignation by a number of petty yet stinging acts of oppression, was one night shot dead in the presence of his young wife.  This determined Mr. Vandeleur to put his new system into practice at once, and as no one about him was sufficiently in sympathy with his plans to be placed in charge, he went to England, where in Manchester he found a young disciple of Owen, Mr. E. T. Craig, who had studied the principles of co-operative colonisation, and whom he engaged to organise the co-operative system at Ralahine and to act as secretary.  In the spring of 1831 Mr. Craig arrived and found matters in a most unpromising condition.  The labourers were suspicious and moody, and for the moment Mr. Craig’s appearance among them tended rather to intensify this state of things than to impart confidence.  The first few months, therefore, were spent in ascertaining the condition and wants of the people, and in gaining their confidence.

In November the whole of the labourers and artizans on the estate and others in the neighbourhood were assembled, and after Mr. Vandeleur had explained his plans for the future, they proceeded to elect by ballot the members of the new Ralahine Agricultural and Manufacturing Co-operative Association.  Fifty-two members were elected, none of the persons on the estate being rejected.  There were, however, only eighteen efficient labouring men among the number, and among those elected were a widow and six children, one of whom was a feeble hunchback, while the old woman herself was only fit to look after poultry.  No objection was taken to this by Mr. Vandeleur, he being determined that the experiment should be made with a fair average of the population as then existing.


The objects of the association were stated in its laws to be —

(1) The acquisition of a common capital.

(2) The mutual assurance of its members against the evils of poverty, sickness, infirmity and old age.

(3) The attainment of a greater share of the comforts of life than the working class now possess.

(4) The mental and moral improvement of its adult members.

(5) The education of their children.

A long list of rules or laws was drawn up, providing for all the details of government and for the conduct of members, provision being made, amongst other things, for the absolute prohibition of all spirituous liquors, tobacco, and snuff from the colony, and of gambling of any kind.  The wages were fixed by rule for each agricultural labouring man at eightpence, and for every woman at fivepence per day, these being the ordinary wages of the country.  The secretary, storekeeper, smiths, joiners, and a few others received rather more, the excess being borne by Mr. Vandeleur.  The wages were expected to be spent at the store for such articles as were kept there or were produeed by the society.  No member was to be expected to perform any service or work but such as was agreeable to his or her feelings, and such as they were able to perform, but power was given to a general meeting to expel any useless member.  Each individual was given perfect liberty of conscience and freedom in the expression of opinions and in religious worship.

An agreement was drawn up between Mr. Vandeleur and three trustees on behalf of the association, for the rental of the land for twelve months, this being stated as 320 barrels of wheat, 240 of barley, 50 of oats, 10cwt. of butter, and various other articles to the nominal value, at the prices then ruling, of about 700.

The agreement provided that if after stocktaking at the end of a year a profit appeared to have been made, the wages of the men should be raised to ten pence and of the women to sixpence a day, any surplus being accumulated until the capital value of the stock and implements had been paid off to Mr. Vandeleur, who, until such payment, was to receive interest, upon the capital value thereof at six per cent per annum.


The progress of the colony was from the first rapid and satisfactory.  After the members found that the committee of their own body had really the sole power of telling off the members to their several labours, thus getting rid of the hated commands of a domineering steward, and of deciding what work should be done, the change wrought in them was at once seen.  The industry and skill of the hitherto sluggish and silently sullen labourer became apparent and was freely manifested for the benefit of all.  From this moment suspicion gave way, and the affairs of the community progressed harmoniously.  Its doings quickly became known, and the influence it exerted in the neighbourhood was little less than magical. [6]

The community was able to pay a sum of 900 a year as rent and interest, to the perfect satisfaction of the landlord, and at the same time the labourers were able to enjoy an amount of domestic comfort, contentment, and happiness which they had never deemed it possible to experience in this world.

Another point of interest in this experiment was the use of labour notes instead of current coin, in most of the internal transactions of the association.  Wages were paid in these notes, which were accepted at the store in exchange for goods or for current coin whenever this was required for outside purchases, &c.

At the end of 1833, however, this successful community came to an end, through an incident wholly unexpected.  Mr. Pare, an active colleague of Mr. Owen in England, thus describes the catastrophe:—

I crossed from England to to Ireland in the month of October, 1833, in company with the proprietor, to visit and examine the colony of Ralahine, then in the third year of its existence, with the special view of acquiring knowledge, derived from practical experience, to aid me and my co-trustees in carrying out the design of my lately deceased friend Thompson as propounded in his will. [7]  At the urgent request of Mr. Vandeleur I visited Ralahine first, and remained a guest in his mansion sufficiently long to enable me to make a complete and searching investigation of the affairs of the association he had founded; and it may be supposed, as the fact was, that for the reason just given my survey was a critical one . . . . Afterwards on my way back to England I doubled through Limerick to deliver a promised lecture on the “Equitable Labour Exchange Bazaars,” then flourishing in England . . . . and on this occasion I again and for the last time met Mr. Vandeleur, who seemed in high spirits.  Judge then of my surprise on arriving home early in November — filled with delight at the great good I had seen effected at Ralahine, and with gratitude to its excellent founder — to find heading one of the columns of a Dublin newspaper the words “Flight of John Scott Vandeleur.”  This otherwise respectable and really amiable man was addicted to one damning vice, unknown until then to me, as to many other of his friends.  This was the vice of gambling.

Mr. Vandeleur had indulged this passion to such an extent as to involve all he possessed, and, realising his position, took advantage of a vessel then leaving for America, fled to that country and was not again heard of.  A fiat in bankruptcy was taken out; there was then no “tenant-right,” the law did not recognise the holding of land in common by an association of labourers, and the farm stock was sold up to satisfy the claims of the sheriff.

“The way,” says Mr. Craig, “in which the people received the intelligence was painful and distressing in the extreme. Upon its confirmation I heard women, and stout men even, grieving piteously, and bewailing their loss, as if the dearest friend or relative had been snatched from them by sudden death. As the room occupied by myself and Mrs. Craig were over the cottages of two of the married members the wailing of the people in the night had a sad and heart-rending effect. [8]

Before finally separating with Mr. Craig, the members assembled in general meeting and placed on record a declaration of “the contentment, peace, and happiness they had experienced for two years under the arrangements introduced by Mr. Vandeleur and Mr. Craig, and which, through no fault of the association, was now at an end.” [9]

QUEENWOOD, 1839-1844.

The community at Queenwood enjoyed a longer career of over five years.  The estate consisted of two farms, one at Queenwood and the other at Buckholt, together about 533 acres, of which “possession was obtained on October lst, 1839.”  Temporary premises were erected for the members who quickly gathered upon the estate, and Robert Owen consented, after considerable pressure, to become “governor” of the community.  Owen protested from the first against the inadequate financial basis upon which the experiment was planned, and in the end his protests were fully justified.  The community embodied in their association all the fundamental principles which might have led to lasting success, if their financial resources had been equal to overcoming the early difficulties involved in settling a large number of persons upon a new social plan, which should be “self-dependent, self-governed, and responsible to no external power.” [10]  The building of Harmony Hall 
as the residential quarters of the community was called  made large inroads upon the capital of the supporters; the farms proved unprofitable; the various manufacturing ventures recorded heavy losses; enthusiasm waned, and many persons left the establishment, and in October, 1844, the trustees brought the community to an end. [11]


The use of a paper currency or of labour notes in place of the ordinary currency as a method of exchange, has for many years exercised a great fascination for social and political reformers among the working classes.

Here, it was urged, is a method by which the workers may supply each other with their requirements without the intervention of the capitalist.  Why should not the shoe-maker and the tailor, for example, work for each other, the shoemaker producing shoes for the tailor in exchange for the coat made by the latter?  This system of exchange of goods, rather than payment on purchase by cash, is indeed the basis of all commerce.  Why should skilled workers remain idle in times of so-called trade depression when they are themselves in want of the articles which each can produce, provided only the raw materials are supplied to them?

In 1830 the distress among workmen from want of employment was acute, and Owen, who in 1820 had explained the idea of Labour Exchanges in his report to the County of Lanark, had in subsequent years frequently pointed out that here was a means by which every unemployed hand might be brought into employment, in supplying the needs of others who were in a similar position.  So long as men could produce what they mutually required there need be no such thing as want.

The idea of the exchanges was to establish centres where raw material, manufactured goods, provisions, &c., could be deposited, the depositor receiving in exchange “labour notes” representing the value of the article deposited, calculated upon the basis of the time occupied in its production.  The depositor could then purchase with his labour notes such articles from the general stock as best suited his requirements, paying in addition a small percentage to cover the working expenses of the exchange.

Several exchanges were established, the most important being that opened in Gray’s Inn Road, London, where a building free of rent was pressed upon Owen and his followers by a man who professed to be enthusiastic in the cause of labour.  The business was started, and very speedily a turnover of goods to the value of 1,000 a week was reached.  The success of the experiment then excited the cupidity of the landlord, who put in a claim for 1,700 a year for rent.  The managers refused to pay this, and having no legal tenure of the building they were promptly turned into the street.  The business was removed to Blackfriars, and subsequently to Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square, but the interruption consequent on the removal, and want of capital for carrying on so large a concern, led to collapse and failure.

All these futile efforts to reorganise social, commercial, and industrial relationships helped to build up that experience which has given us to-day a vast movement, highly organised, marvellously successful, but tending to forget the bitter need which impelled these early experiments, and the faith that made them possible.

The period of seeming apathy which succeeded these efforts appear to us, at this distance of time, as one of those useful pauses in life when men’s ideas and hopes gather strength in silence for fresh and more mature expression.  The leaven of the co-operative faith, apparently discounted and discouraged by the failure of these early experiments, and obviously overshadowed for the time by the more militant force of socialism, was yet working in the minds of men, preparing the way for the new experiment of which the next chapter tells, and upon which is built the solid permanent structure of our present-day Co-operative Commonwealth.

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1. The Progress of the Nation. G. R. Porter, 1838. Sec. III., Chapter XIV.

2. Sheerness Economical Co-operative Society had at end of 1902 1,892 members; share capital, 22,825; trade, 40,152; profit, 3,915; employees, 57, to whom bonus amounting to 47 was paid.

3. For detailed particulars of these societies the student may usefully consult Mr. Benjamin Jones’ book on Co-operative Production, Chapter XIV , and page 159.

4. The Economist, 1821, pages 13 and 235.

The Economist, 1821, page 15.

Co-operative Agriculture in Ireland, by Wm. Pare.

7. Mr. Wm. Thompson had left an estate in Ireland for the purpose of a similar experiment.

8. Co-operative Agriculture in Ireland, W. Pare.

9. The experiment attracted much interest among English Co-operators, and up to his death in 1894 E. T. Craig was known among them as “Mr. Craig, of Ralahine.”  In his later days he became, through old age and illness, involved in financial difficulties, and a fund was raised by the Co-operative Union to provide him with an annuity, which was continued to his widow until her death in 1897.

10. Herald of Progress, page 17. (Quoted in Co-operative Production, page 76.)

11. For a full account of these experiments see Life of Robert Owen, by Lloyd Jones, Co-operative Production, by B. Jones, and History of Ralahine by E. T. Craig.