People 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.