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A unique collection capturing the stories and struggles of ordinary people's efforts to improve their world
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Co-operative movement

Woman with a basketPeople  have been creating co-operative societies for centuries - the earliest society for which records still survive is the Fenwick Weavers. Early societies tended to operate separately and did not come together to form a movement until the early 19th century, during the Industrial Revolution. Industrialisation brought the rapid growth of towns and fewer people producing their own food.

Robert Owen is regarded as the founder of the Co-operative Movement. His vision was for villages of co-operation - a 'New World Order'.  A successful businessman, Owen set up a model community around his cotton mill at New Lanark between 1800 and 1820. He paid higher wages for shorter hours than his competitors, provided housing and education, and still made profits.

In the 1840s Rochdale was second only to Manchester and Leeds as a centre of working class activity. The many strikes against the falling wages of cotton and woollen workers failed to improve wages and conditions.  28 weavers turned to the ideas of Owen. They started the first successful co-operative enterprise, the Equitable Pioneers of Rochdale.

Over a year, each saved £1, and with the £28 rented a property in Toad Lane, and started trading on 21 December 1844.  At first the shop only sold five basic items – butter, flour, sugar, oatmeal and candles - but after very many difficulties expanded very quickly.   

In the following years the Rochdale Pioneers opened new branches and many other societies were formed. By 1900 there were 1,439 different co-operative societies and around 2 million members.  In 1883, the Women’s Cooperative Guild was formed. In 1917 the Cooperative Party was founded, with an electoral agreement with the Labour Party.  

Over the last century there have been many mergers, and in 2000 the Co-operative Group was formed, and now has 5½ million members and sales of £13.7 billion. There are around 39 Co-op retailing societies as well as worker, housing and agricultural co-ops and credit unions.

Sources on the Co-operative Movement in our collection

We have an extensive collection of books on Robert Owen and histories of a wide range of Co-operative societies, as well as a facsimile reprint of William King’s  The Cooperator, published in the 1820s.  Search the library catalogue
There are a number of Co-operative organisations on our links page.

Explore 200 years of working class movement activism

Timeline slider
  • 1791

    Thomas Paine publishes 'Rights of man'

  • 1798

    Irish Rebellion

  • 1819


  • 1834


  • 1844

    Rochdale Pioneers

  • 1848

    Chartist banner, 'More pigs and less parsons'Kennington Common Chartist meeting

  • 1867

    'Manchester Martyrs' executed

  • 1868

    First meeting of TUC

  • 1871

    Fall of the Paris Commune

  • 1893

    Foundation of the Independent Labour Party

  • 1906

    Creation of the Labour Party

  • 1908

    Formation of the Plebs League

  • 1913

    Cat and Mouse Bill cartoon : Cartoon from Votes for Women, 1913
    Cat and Mouse Act

  • 1924

    Ramsey MacDonald
    First Labour government

  • 1926

    Arthur Cook_1926General Strike

  • 1931

    Red Megaphones first performance

  • 1932

    Kinder Scout mass trespass

  • 1936

    Map of SpainSpanish Civil War

  • 1944

    Education Act

  • 1945

    National Coal Board notice : National Coal Board noticeNationalisation of the coal industry

  • 1948

    Birth of the NHS

  • 1956

    Tanks on Hungarian street, 1956Hungarian uprising

  • 1958

    CND symbolAldermaston marches and birth of CND

  • 1968

    Prague Spring

  • 1971

    Upper Clyde Shipbuilders : Poster depicting demonstration in support of the ship workers

    Upper Clyde Shipbuilders

  • 1976

    Grunwick dispute

  • 1982

    Falklands War : Cover image from pamphlet 'Resist the Falkland madness: a pacifist response'

    Falklands War

  • 1984

    Miners' strike

  • 1990

    Nelson Mandela's  release from prison

  • 1998

      Good Friday agreement

  • 1999

    Minimum wageIntroduction of national minimum wage

  • 2001

    Stop the War logo
    Stop the War campaign

We need your support

To maintain the momentum of the huge increases in usage of the Library over the last few years, we need to raise an extra £86,000 each year.

Can you help? Click here for news of our 'Future Fund' fundraising appeal.

Wonder Women

The Library's contribution to this Festival, a talk by Tansy Hoskins about her book Stitched Up - the Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion, takes place on Saturday 7 March at 2pm.

To find out more click here.

Object of the Month

Our Object of the Month is a tailor's notebook from 1907.  Find out more here.