This Day in History – December 21st, 1844

The cooperative movement began in Europe in the 19th century, primarily in Britain and France, although The Shore Porters Society claims to be one of the world’s first cooperatives, being established in Aberdeen in 1498 (although it has since demutualized to become a private partnership). The industrial revolution and the increasing mechanism of the economy transformed society and threatened the livelihoods of many workers. The concurrent labour and social movements and the issues they attempted to address describe the climate at the time.

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The first documented consumer cooperative was founded in 1769, in a barely furnished cottage in Fenwick, East Ayrshire, when local weavers manhandled a sack of oatmeal into John Walker’s whitewashed front room and began selling the contents at a discount, forming the Fenwick Weavers’ Society.

In the decades that followed, several cooperatives or cooperative societies formed including Lennoxtown Friendly Victualling Society, founded in 1812.

Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers 2

By 1830, there were several hundred co-operatives. Some were initially successful, but most cooperatives founded in the early 19th century had failed by 1840. However, Lockhurst Lane Industrial Co-operative Society (founded in 1832 and now Heart of England Co-operative Society), and Galashiels and Hawick Co-operative Societies (1839 or earlier, merged with The Co-operative Group) still trade today.

It was not until 1844 when the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers established the ‘Rochdale Principles’ on which they ran their cooperative, that the basis for development and growth of the modern cooperative movement was established.

Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers

The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers was a group of 10 weavers and 20 others in Rochdale, England, that was formed in 1844. As the mechanization of the Industrial Revolution was forcing more and more skilled workers into poverty, these tradesmen decided to band together to open their own store selling food items they could not otherwise afford. With lessons from prior failed attempts at co-operation in mind, they designed the now famous Rochdale Principles, and over a period of four months they struggled to pool one pound sterling per person for a total of 28 pounds of capital. On December 21st, 1844, they opened their store with a very meagre selection of butter, sugar, flour, oatmeal and a few candles. Within three months, they expanded their selection to include tea and tobacco, and they were soon known for providing high quality, unadulterated goods.

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