THE STORY OF A PEACEFUL REVOLUTION.
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,  and it can easily be imagined that the effect of these prices upon the food of the poorer classes was very serious.
HULL CORN MILL, 1795
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:-
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, and now carries on the business of farming and breadmaking. 
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,” the earliest record, according to Mr. Holyoake, of a word now so familiar to us.
THE CO-OPERATIVE AND ECONOMICAL SOCIETY, 1821.
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.
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.”
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:—
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.
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.
THE BRIGHTON CO-OPERATORS.
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:—
FUNDAMENTAL RULES OF SOCIETIES, 1832.
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 —
After setting forth methods of raising capital, the rules laid down that the societies —
Another resolution set forth that —
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.
CAUSES OF FAILURE.
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 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!
THE COMMUNITY IDEA.
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.
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.
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.
OBJECTS OF ASSOCIATION AND LAWS.
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.
SUCCESS AND FAILURE OF THE EXPERIMENT.
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. 
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:—
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.
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.” 
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.”  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. 
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.
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.
5. The Economist, 1821, page 15.
6. 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.