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Last updated:30 April 2015

The Co-operative movement

People have been creating co-operative societies for centuries - the earliest society for which records still survive is the Fenwick Weavers, formed in 1761. 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. It was an age of child labour, exploitation and poverty.

Portrait of Robert Owen by J Cornerford

Robert Owen

Robert Owen is regarded as the founder of the Co-operative Movement. He believed that character is formed by environmental influences such as, on the one side, educational opportunities and on the other side, poor working conditions.

His vision was for villages of co-operation, a "New World Order" of mutual help and social equality and brotherhood. His followers were called co-operators or socialists.

A successful businessman, Owen set up a model community around his cotton mill at New Lanark, on the Clyde, between 1800 and 1820. He paid higher wages for shorter hours than his competitors, provided housing and education, and still made profits.

Owen's ideas were taken up by William King of Brighton, who founded a monthly periodical The Cooperator in 1827, urging the formation of small local co-ops to tackle poverty.

In the 1840s Rochdale was second only to Manchester and Leeds as a centre of working class Front cover of The Co-operator, 15 August 1866activity. 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 and King. They started the first successful co-operative enterprise, the Equitable Pioneers of Rochdale.  Over a year each saved £1, and with the £28 they leased 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.

The founders drew up what are now known as the Rochdale Eight Principles:

  1. Democratic control : one member , one vote

  2. Open membership

  3. Fixed or limited interest on capital

  4. Dividend on purchases

  5. Trading strictly cash

  6. Selling of pure and unadulterated goods

  7. Provision of education of members in co-operative principles

  8. Political and religious neutrality

In the following years the Rochdale Pioneers opened new branches and many other societies were formed. By 1900 there were 1439 different co-operative societies and around 2 million members

To be able to buy in the best markets, the North of England Wholesale Society was established in 1863, and soon became the Cooperative Wholesale Society (CWS). It extended activities into manufacturing, farming and importing.

Women's Co-operative Guild, Wilbraham Branch bannerIn 1883, the Women's Co-op Guild was formed. A "Women's Corner" had been started in Co-operative News, and one letter urged the formation of a women's organisation within the Co-operative movement. Launched in June with a membership of 50, the first branch was set up in Hebden Bridge in September.

In 1917 the Co-operative Party was formed, with an electoral agreement with the Labour Party.

Over the last century there have been many mergers and in 2000 the largest retail society and the CWS merged to form the Co-operative Group, with 5.5 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.


Resources about 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 copies 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.

Sources on the Co-operative Movement at other repositories

National Co-operative Archive
Located in central Manchester, the National Co-operative Archive is home to a wide array of records relating to the history of the worldwide co-operative movement. The collections include rare books, periodicals, manuscripts, films, photographs and oral histories, and provide researchers with an unrivalled resource for the development of the co-operative movement, from the initial ideas of the eighteenth century to the present day. To find out more click here.