By Mickey Friedman
September 16, 2017
Even as Rochdale thrived, there were many challenges. In 1850, according to Holyoake’s history: “The rapid increase of the members had brought together numbers holding evangelical views, and who had not been reared in a school of practical toleration.” These members wanted the shop shut on Sundays. At what Holyoake referred to their little parliament of working men, members resolved not to align themselves with any religious or political sect or party, affirming “That every member shall have full liberty to speak his sentiments on all subjects when brought before the meetings at a proper time, and in a proper manner; and all subjects shall be legitimate when properly proposed.”
Holyoake reminds us that Rochdale was as much a meeting place as a store, where “there was harmony because there was equality.” The Board was open to everyone and nothing was concealed “for every member was a master—he was at once purchaser and proprietor.”
One mistake they made was to invest heavily in the Rochdale Corn Mill Society, and their decision to sell no other flour. This turned out to be, Holyoake tells us, an example of “those little crevices in the walls of a popular experiment through which the selfishness of human nature peeps out.” One miller bought cheap and inferior corn while taking a commission on the side, and another miller drank too much and the venture failed and Rochdale lost 440 pounds.
Meanwhile, co-operatives were created throughout the region, some more successful than others. For example, in 1854, Rochdale Co-operative Manufacturing Society formed, rented a mill and 96 power looms for cotton and woolen manufacturing, employing twenty-six men, seven women, four boys, and five girls. Initially based on invested shares with profits divided by the workers, the business failed with the abandonment of worker profit sharing.
Holyoake notes: “The meetings of the Store were quite a family feature during the first few years. Afterwards, when the members much increased, the meetings assumed a more commercial character.” By 1857, with total shares of £303,852 and profits of £19,888, “the Directors of this important and encouraging movement are the same modest and unassuming men they were thirteen years ago; shining in oil, or dusted with flour … [While] they in no way answer the expectations of strangers in appearance, however they surpass expectation in moral and commercial capacity.”
With the establishment of so many new co-ops, the need to maximize wholesaling increased. In 1863, the Pioneers helped establish the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS), serving and owned by 300 co-operatives.
In 1871 a worker’s co-operative with members associated with the Manchester Guardian began the Co-operative News, the movement’s first newspaper. By 1878, there were estimated to be 1,200 co-operative societies in England. 584 of them, with 326,000 members, were affiliated with CWS, buying 12 million pounds worth of goods.
By 1890, CWS had branched out throughout England: Blackburn, Bristol, Huddersfield, Leeds and Nottingham. In Manchester, there was a factory producing biscuits; textiles in Batley; soap in Durham; and boots in Leicester. Holyoake wrote: “Co-operation … has issued like the tortoise from its Lancashire home in England; it has traversed France, Germany and even the frozen steppes of Russia; the bright-minded Bengalese are applying it, as is the soon-seeing and far-seeing American … Co-operation is unaffected by change of climate, and goes well in every land.”
The Rochdale Pioneers could probably never have imagined that in a desire to cut the costs of transportation, the Co-operative Society would acquire its own shipping line, steamship, and tea plantation. That the CWS bank would be able to lend funds to co-ops throughout the nation.
In “The Meaning of Rochdale,” Brett Fairbairn notes: “The number of affiliated societies kept growing until the 1920s, though at a decreasing rate, and finally began to fall as consolidation and amalgamation set in. On the other hand, the parallel trend was for each surviving society to grow larger, open more branches, and bring in more members, so the movement as a whole kept growing in membership through to the 1950s. Rochdale’s movement enjoyed well over a century of uninterrupted growth. As is natural enough in all social movements, growth led to a reinforcement of certain patterns and trends, and thus to an institutionalization or narrowing of the movement.”
The increasing abandonment of the working poor and the shift to rely on a more wealthy clientele took its toll on the movement. Increasingly, there was tension between co-operatives determined to keep their small, local character versus the desire to compete with ever-larger chain grocery stores. As the organization grew ever larger, the more remote real democratic participation became.
Today the British Co-operative Group is a massive consumer co-op with 4,200 stores and 70,000 employees selling food; financial services; legal services, insurance and funeral care throughout the UK.
I suspect the Rochdale Pioneers, rather than shopping there, might be starting all over again.
For more information:
“Self-Help By The People: The History of the Rochdale Pioneers” by George Jacob Holyoake
“The Meaning of Rochdale: The Rochdale Pioneers and the Co-operative Principles,” by Brett Fairbairn, Center for the Study of Co-operatives, University of Saskachewan
http://usaskstudies.coop/documents/occasional-papers/Meaning of Rochdale.pdf
Mickey Friedman’s Berkshire-based I Ching mysteries, “Danger” and “Folly”, as well as his non-fiction “A Red Family” are available on Amazon.com: https://www.amazon.com/Mickey-Friedman/e/B00R4S2MSE/. His films can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/user/bluehillfilms