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Industrial Co-operation:





The Rochdale Pioneers and their Work.

THE story of the starting of the Rochdale Pioneers is the heritage of every co-operator, and has been vivified into a romance of national import by the pen of Mr. G. J. Holyoake, from whose History of the Rochdale Pioneers the following descriptive passages are gathered.

At the close of the year 1843, on one of those damp, dark, dense, dismal, disagreeable days, which no Frenchman can be got to admire, such days as occur towards November, when the daylight is all used up, and the sun has given up all attempts at shining, either in disgust or despair — a few poor weavers out of employ, and nearly out of food, and quite out of heart with the social state, met together to discover what they could do to better their industrial condition.  Manufacturers had capital, and shopkeepers the advantage of stock; how could they succeed without either?  Should they avail themselves of the poor law? that were dependence; of emigration? that seemed like transportation for the crime of having been born poor.  What should they do?  They would commence the battle of life on their own account.  They would, as far as they were concerned, supersede tradesmen, mill owners, and capitalists: without experience, or knowledge, or funds, they would turn merchants and manufacturers.  The subscription list was handed round — the Stock Exchange would not think much of the result.  A dozen of these liliputian capitalists put down a weekly subscription of twopence each — a sum which these Rochdale Rothschilds did not know how to pay.

These “poor weavers” were engaged in the flannel weaving industry, and in 1843 there was considerable discontent among the workers and a desire to improve wages.  Agitations amongst the men; futile negotiations with the employers; strikes, lockouts, and subsequent acute distress followed in quick succession.  On any but the sturdiest hearts despair and dull acquiescence in ill-balanced social conditions might well have fallen.  The men of Rochdale were, however, of the sturdy kind, and in the twenty-eight weavers who formed the nucleus of the Pioneer Society was found common sense as well as grit.  The meetings of these men were frequent, and, says Mr. Holyoake—

In the end it came about that the Flannel Weavers Committee took the advice of the advocates of co-operation.  James Daly, Charles Howarth, James Smithies, John Hill, and John Bent appear to be the names of those who in this way assisted the Committee . . . . At length the formidable sum of 28 was accumulated, and, with this capital, the new world that was to be was commenced.

A ground-floor warehouse in the now famous Toad Lane, Rochdale, was the place chosen in which to open the first store.  One more quotation from Mr. Holyoake’s graphic story will suffice to bring these homely enthusiasts vividly to life before our mental vision.

On one desperate evening — it was the longest evening of the year — the 21st of December, 1844, the “Equitable Pioneers” commenced business.  It had got wind among the tradesmen of the town that these competitors were in the field, and many a curious eye was that day turned up Toad Lane, looking for the appearance of the enemy; but like other enemies of more historic renown, they were rather shy of appearing.  A few of the co-operators had clandestinely assembled to witness their own denouement; and there they stood in that dismal lower room of the warehouse, like the conspirators under Guy Fawkes in the Parliamentary cellars, debating on whom should devolve the temerity of taking down the shutters, and displaying their humble preparations.  One did not like to do it, and another did not like to be seen in the shop when it was done: however, having gone so far there was no choice but to go further, and at length one bold fellow, utterly reckless of consequences, rushed at the shutters, and in a few minutes — Toad Lane was in a titter.  Lancashire has its gamins as well as Paris.  The “doffers” are the gamins of Rochdale.  The “doffers” are lads of from ten [1] to fifteen, who take off full bobbins from the spindles, and put on empty ones.  On the night when our Store was opened, the “doffers” came out strong in Toad Lane — peeping with ridiculous impertinence round the corner, ventilating their opinion at the top of their voices, or standing before the door inspecting, with pertinacious insolence, the scanty arrangements of butter and oatmeal: at length they exclaimed in a chorus “Aye, the owd weaver’s shop is opened at last.”


The first “laws” set down by the Pioneers as a statement of their “objects” and plans were as follows:—

The objects of this Society are to form arrangements for the pecuniary benefit and improvement of the social and domestic condition of its members, by raising a sufficient amount of capital, in shares of one pound each, to bring into operation the following plans and arrangements:—

The establishment of a Store for the sale of provisions, clothing, &c.

The building, purchasing, or erecting a number of houses, in which those members desiring to assist each other in improving their domestic and social condition may reside.

To commence the manufacture of such articles as the Society may determine upon, for the employment of such members as may be without employment, or who may be suffering in consequence of repeated reductions in their wages.

As a further benefit and security to the members of this Society, the Society shall purchase or rent an estate or estates of land, which shall be cultivated by the members who may be out of employment or whose labour may be badly remunerated.

That, as soon as practicable, this Society shall proceed to arrange the powers of production, distribution, education, and government: or, in other words, to establish a self-supporting home colony of united interests, or assist other societies in establishing such colonies.

That for the promotion of sobriety a Temperance Hotel be opened in one of the Society’s houses as soon as convenient.


On fundamental questions of religion and politics the Pioneers established the following practice:—

lst. — Not to inquire into the political or religious opinions of those who apply for membership with ours or any of the various co-operative societies in our town;

2nd. — That the consideration of the various political and religious differences of the members who compose our Societies should prevent us from allowing into our councils or practices anything which might be construed into an advantage to any single one of each sect or opinion. [2]

In the almanac of the Rochdale Pioneers published in 1860 is the following statement:—

The present co-operative movement does not intend to meddle with the various religious or political differences which now exist in society, but by a common bond, namely, that of self-interest, to join together the means, the energies, and talents of all for the common benefit of each. [3]


Even more than the acceptance of these main objects and rules of conduct, the points of organisation most conducive to the permanent success of the Pioneers, were those touching the regulation and conduct of business transactions which the society laid down for itself, principally as follows:—

(1) That capital should be of their own providing and bear a fixed rate of interest.

(2) That only the purest provisions procurable should be supplied to members.

(3) That full weight and measure should be given.

(4) That market prices should be charged, and no credit given nor asked.

(5) That “profits”  should be divided pro rata upon the amount of purchases made by each member.

(6) That the principle of “one member, one vote” should obtain in government and the equality of the sexes in membership.

(7) That the management should be in the hands of officers and committee elected periodically.

(8) That a definite percentage of profits should be allotted to education. [4]

(9) That frequent statements and balance sheets should be presented to the members.

In order to apportion the profits due to each member, a metal token or check was given, denoting the amount of each purchase made at the stores.  These were returned periodically and the total amount of each member’s purchases ascertained, and the “profits” divided at so much per pound of such purchases: thus, the member who spent 20 per annum would be entitled to twice the amount of dividend due to the member who spent 10.


It may be noticed, however, that the practice of dividing “profits” upon purchases did not originate with the Rochdale Pioneers; several other societies, notably Springburn Society, and several societies in the west of Scotland, claim to have followed this practice in the thirties, and one Scottish society about 1822.  But “it is to them (the Rochdale Pioneers) we owe the inauguration of the present system upon a basis which has proved to be so sound.” [5]

At the end of December, 1902, the trading position attained by the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers’ Society, as expressed in the following round figures, makes a record of surprising success.

Number of Members . . . . . . . . . . . . . .12,239
Amount of Share Capital . . . . . . . . . .262,882
Reserve Fund . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7,981
Year’s Trade . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 277,242
Amount of Dividends to Members . .31,768
To Education . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .827
Amount of Production (Tobacco and Baking) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .40,524
Work-people Employed in Production 123
Work-people Employed in Distribution200
Salaries and Wages Paid . . . . . . . . . . . 12,043
Of the value of their early principles the whole movement is witness.

The plan of association adopted by the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers, by reason of its equity, its adaptability to co-operative transactions, and its almost immediate success, has become the distinguishing feature in the development of consumers’ co-operation since 1844.  A society following this plan is said to be established under the “
Rochdale System,” and is accounted a genuine unit in the British co-operative movement only in so far as its rules and practices approximate to its model.

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1. Since this history was written (in 1857) successive Factory Acts have raised the age of admission of children into factories for full time work from ten years to fourteen years, and by the Act of 1901 the age of half-timers is raised to twelve years.

History of the Rochdale Pioneers. Holyoake. Page 161.

3. Ibid.

4. They had arranged their rules so that they could devote one-tenth of their profits to educational purposes.  But when sent to the Registrar (for registry under the Friendly Societies Act) he refused to certify them.  The contest with him lasted many months.  The rules were altered again and again.  The Society tried to edge in the question of education in several different ways: but he always struck it out, — History of Rochdale Pioneers, page 73.

Co-operative Production. B. Jones. Page 2.