The Co-operative Movement - A Short History.                home
September 2006
From humble beginnings to a world-wide movement..
The modern Co-operative Movement started in Rochdale in Lancashire in 1844 when a group of impoverished  weavers joined
together to open a small shop in Toad Lane to provide basic foodstuffs and household goods for their members. The shop sold
flour, sugar, tallow for candles etc.  It is from this very humble beginning that the worldwide Co-operative Movement has its origin .
In 1995 the United Nations estimated that the total number of Co-operators worldwide was 800 million with a further 100 million
employed by co-operatives.  Moreover because co-operative enterprises have an economic significance not only for their
members and employees but also for their immediate families, the total number of people whose livelihoods are made more  
secure by co-operative enterprises is about 3 billion i.e. half the world’s population. 
Economic conditions in the early 19th century.
At the start of the 19th century,  the living conditions of working

people in the UK  were very poor.  It was the era of child labour, 
exploitations and desperate poverty.   Those who failed to find
work were forced to rely on meagre parish relief for the poor or  
starve.  Many did.  By the early 1800s, food prices were high and
wages were being reduced.  At that time, the prevailing economic
philosophy was that enunciated by Adan Smith in his book "The 
Wealth of Nations”.   He claimed that the untrammelled operation 
operation of the free market would automatically lead to the  
advancement of the public good. This would be achieved by the
‘hidden hand' of  market forces.  Human beings and their labour
were just commodities like any other to be bought and sold on   
the free market.  The poverty and starvation which accompanied 
unemployment were merely a part of the natural operation of the 

free market.  There was nothing that  the workers could do about 

Working conditions in Victorian England

it, but others thought differently.  Some thought that social injustices
could only be rectified by the abolition of capitalism, preferably by
revolution or other violent means.  This perspective formed the basis of Marxism a few decades later.  Robert Owen and his fellow 
thinkers did not accept this view and believed that capitalism could peacefully evolve into a ‘higher form’ which they called 
Robert Owen

Robert Owen

The founder of the Co-operative Movement was Robert Owen from Welshpool in mid-  
Wales.  Robert Owen was a successful businessman who had made his fortune in the cotton 
industry but he had known poverty in his early life.  He wrote extensively on co-operative 
matters and can be regarded as the intellectual founder of the movement.  Putting his 
Scotland and in New Harmony in the USA .  Both these experiments in creating complete 
min-communities eventually failed.  But from these experiments, Owen identified some of the 
profound underlying values of Co-operation as a means of organising economic activity; 
kindliness, toleration, co-operation, respect for youth and the belief that the right to full 
humanity should be available to all.

Robert Owen

Dr William King

A substantial contribution to the creation of the movement was also made by Dr William King 
a GP from Brighton .  Dr King founded a magazine called the ‘The Co-operator’.  Whilst Owen 
wanted to set up utopian communities, Dr King was more practical and saw the benefits of 
applying Owens’s co-operative principles to small-scale local economic activities mainly food 
shops.  In 1820 he was one of the founding fathers of the Brighton Co-operative Society now part 
of today’s Co-operative Group.  Brighton remains the centre of all kinds of co-operative activity  
to this day
Why the Rochdale Pioneers succeeded

Dr King

Toad Lane Store

The Rochdale Pioneers 1844

The Rochdale Pioneers did not invent Co-operation but they were the first to make it work successfully.  During the 1840s, 
there had beena series of strikes by the weavers in Rochdale but these had failed to have a lasting effect on their wages and 
living conditions.  So the weavers turned to the ideas of Owen and King.  They set up the Rochdale Equitable Pioneer 
Society with a shop at Toad Lane in Rochdale .  It started in a very modest way supplying the basic necessities of life to their 
members i.e. butter, tallow for candles, soap, flour and blankets.  The idea was to supply good quality goods cheaply and to 
return any profit to the members of the co-operative.  The guiding principles of their Society were laid out in a 7 point 
Mission Statement later known as ‘The Rochdale Principles’.  

Previous attempts at setting up co-operatives had failed.  But the Rochdale Pioneers introduced  two new

ingredients: cash trading and the distribution of any surplus in proportion to the amount of trade that any 

individual member had had with the Society.  Cash trading, i.e. no credit, avoided the cash flow problems

which had bedevilled previous experiments.  The limited form of surplus distribution encouraged the

members to trade with the Society thus increasing its turnover.

The success of the Pioneers was incredible.  By the 1870s, the UK Co-operative Movement had its own
wholesale and insurance societies and accumulated capital of £300,000.  Today despite intense com-
-petition from the private sector, UK retail societies still have a turnover of over £8 billion and there is a 
renaissance of interest in all forms of co-operation.  The Co-operative Movement spread rapidly all over
the world.  The International Co-operative Alliance was founded  in 1896. Today the Co-operative
Principles  are successfully applied throughout the world to a vast array of co-ops:- fishing co-ops, 
agricultural co-ops, manufacturing co-ops , retail co-ops, housing co-ops, healthcare, banks, insurance  
and credit unions.