The Rochdale Pioneers 1844

The Rochdale Pioneers.

A brave new world of co-operation.

Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers

The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, founded in 1844, was an early consumer co-operative, and one of the first to pay a patronage dividend, forming the basis for the modern co-operative movement.[1] Although other co-operatives preceded them,[2] the Rochdale Pioneers’ co-operative became the prototype for societies in Great Britain. The Rochdale Pioneers are most famous for designing the Rochdale Principles, a set of principles of co-operation that provide the foundation for the principles on which co-ops around the world operate to this day. The model the Rochdale Pioneers used is a focus of study within co-operative economics.

Thirteen of the surviving Rochdale Pioneers, photographed in 1865.

The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers was a group of 28 men and women that was formed in 1844.[3] Around half were weavers in Rochdale, Lancashire, England. As the mechanisation 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 £1 per person for a total of 28 pounds of capital. On 21 December 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. By the end of their first year trading, the Pioneers had 80 members and £182 of capital.[4]

By 1900, the British co-operative movement had grown to 1,439 co-operatives covering virtually every area of the UK.[5] The archive for the co-operative movement in Rochdale is held by Local Studies, Rochdale Boroughwide Cultural Trust.[6] Rochdale Pioneers traded independently until 1991, with name changes inspired by mergers with neighbouring co-operatives, as Pioneers from 1976, and Norwest Pioneers from 1982, based in Wythenshawe, Manchester by 1991. In 1991, then Norwest Co-operative Society transferred its engagements to United Co-operatives, that was run from Rochdale when it in turn transferred to the Manchester-based national hybrid society, The Co-operative Group, in 2007.[7][8][9][10][11]


At the outset, the Pioneers had a clear set of what we now would call objectives – in 1844 they called them ‘Objects’.

The objects of the Society were stated in “Law the First” of their rules and were:

  • The objects and plans of the 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 £1 each, to bring into operation the following plans and arrangements:
  • The establishment of a store for the sale of provisions, clothing, etc.
  • The building, purchasing or erecting of 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 the 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.

Many aspects of these objects can be seen directly in the modern-day co-operative movement.[12]

The original Toad Lane Store

The Pioneers rented their first store at 31 Toad Lane and moved out in 1867 but the co-operative movement later purchased it, and opened it as a museum in 1931.[13][14] The museum resurrected the legal name Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society in 1989, the name having been abandoned by the original co-operative in 1976 on merger with the Oldham Co-operative.[14][15]


Open Membership

Democratic Control

Dividend on Purchase

Limited Interest on Capital

Political and Religious Neutrality

Cash Trading

Promotion of Education

The principles were set down in 1844 and updated by the International Co-operative Alliance in 1966

The Rochdale Pioneers store opened on 21 December 1844 with the following stock:

Butter, 1 qr 22lbs

Sugar, 2 qrs

Flour, three sacks at 37s 6d and three at 36s

Candles, 2 doz

Oatmeal, one sack

The total cost of the goods was:

£16 11s 11d

The Rochdale Pioneers Museum has been awarded £1.5m to redevelop itself and show off the importance of the co-operative movement that started there.

As important as the building is, it was the guiding rules laid out within it that truly impacted on the wider world. Known as the Rochdale Principles, the seven rules still have a radical ring to them, 166 years after they were first written down. They included guidance on equality, political neutrality and trading. The Rochdale Principles were born out of the meetings of the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, a consumer organisation that was one of the world’s first co-operatives.

The idea of a co-operative is that the business is owned by its customers and everyone works together for a common goal, that of good service over the pursuit of profit. The Rochdale Society was no different. The small number of textile mill workers who formed it did so with the hope of serving the community around them with goods they couldn’t usually afford. The Industrial Revolution was expanding technology at a mind-boggling rate and, as a result, more and more skilled workers were falling into poverty, their jobs taken by machines.

In 1844, they decided to make a stand against the capitalist ideologies of the Industrial Revolution and set about writing down a list of rules by which they would run their new society. The principles were based on both the Society’s members’ ideals and the experiences of similar organisations, which had failed to achieve their co-operative aim. They were simple ideas, but they had a radical ring to them, in keeping with the general atmosphere of radicalism that was bounding round England’s North West at the time.

The Rochdale Principles

The first two principles were those of Open Membership and Democratic Control, meaning that the co-operative was open to everyone and everyone had a vote in it. Given that it would be another 74 years until women achieved suffrage and that, at the time, only around 1 in 7 men in the UK had the right to vote, such equality was practically unheard of. These two principles are backed up with a later list entry, Political And Religious Neutrality, which ensured that the society and the co-operative was open to all the local workers.

The next two principles, Dividend On Purchase and Limited Interest On Capital, deal with the monies earned by the co-operative. They ensured that any money taken by the co-operative was mostly either ploughed back into the society or held in reserve to help at a later date, instead of the norm of the time, which was to divide profits amongst shareholders. Another later list entry, Cash Trading, added to this with the underlining of nothing being allowed to be sold ‘on tic’. This ensured that debts and bills couldn’t be run up against the limited funds of the co-operative and, as such, put it at risk financially. The final principle was possibly the most important for the wider world, as it promised a commitment to the communities the co-operative served in the form of Promotion Of Education.

Opening the shop

With these rules decided upon, the Rochdale Pioneers set about creating their co-operative store in an old warehouse on Toad Lane. It opened only four days before Christmas Day in 1844 with the most meagre of offerings.

In stock were a few pounds of butter and sugar, six sacks of flour, one of oatmeal and 24 candles. Within a few months, they were able to add the luxuries of tea and tobacco to their shelves and, despite the small amount of goods, the shop was a success. By 1854, the British co-operative movement had taken up the Rochdale Principles and over 1000 such stores were open.

Another decade on, the North of England Co-operative Society, the group that would become the modern Co-op, was born out of the local successes. The Rochdale Principles had changed the world forever, bringing a social conscience to business which echoes loud into the modern world, as all over the globe, co-operatives use the rules set down by those original Pioneers as a basis for their own trading.

Below are two links to video explanations about the Pioneers. I recommend you have a look and hopefully you will agree that the efforts they inspired can be used effectively today. And specifically for the creation of our Share-It Community project.