Early British consumer co-ops

The British co-operative movement is usually traced back to the Rochdale Pioneers, a group of textile mill workers who set up a consumer co-op in 1844, but let’s go back to 1761, when sixteen (or fifteen–it depends who’s counting) Scottish weavers and apprentices “manhandled a sack of oatmeal into John Walker’s whitewashed front room and began selling the contents at a discount, forming the Fenwick Weavers’ Society.”

Weavers worked at home–this was before weaving was industrialized–and the co-op they formed wasn’t just, or even mainly, about oatmeal. They bought food in bulk and sold it affordably, plowing whatever profits they made back into the society, but the society was also, or maybe primarily, about setting the price they’d pay for their yarn and accept for their cloth. Its members pledged to be “honest and faithfull to one another . . . and to make good & sufficient work and exact neither higher nor lower prices than are accustomed.”

Irrelevant photo: Davidstow Moor, near the ruins of a prehistoric village (notice the line of stones)

They set up a fund to lend money to members and to give money to the poor–and they kept records, which means their history has come down to us in a way that the stories of earlier co-ops haven’t.

They also set up a library and in 1812, along with the Freemasons and a friendly society, built a school. Schools and libraries weren’t free yet, and schooling was anything but universal. Creating them so working people could educate themselves and their children was radical.

In the early 1800s, they created the Fenwick parliament–open meetings to debate local issues. The meetings were held at the village water pump, and someone would keep watch, because local landowners were hostile to–well, whatever it was the local working class might be getting up to. The meetings weren’t exactly secret, but they weren’t exactly not secret either.

In 1839, they set up an emigration society, which speaks to the limits of what any co-op can fix, and in 1846, “as members of the Secession Church” (in a small village, everybody who fills any role at all fills more than one) they brought the anti-slavery campaigner and escaped slave Frederick Douglass to Fenwick to speak. 

Fenwick’s population these days is a bit over 1,000. At some earlier point, it had 2,000 residents, then it dipped to 500, but at any of those sizes they were bringing an internationally recognized figure to a village at, roughly, the end of the earth, to speak about an issue that, however important, affected the town only indirectly. Or directly, but only if you had the vision to see how. It speaks to the organization’s connections and breadth of vision, not to mention Douglass’s generosity in speaking someplace so small and out of the way.

That the co-op survived as long as it did marks it as a surprisingly stable organization. It was killed not by internal problems but by the collapse of hand weaving in the face of industrialization. In 1873, it had only three members and they wound up the society, but its emigration policy had planted co-operators in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa, and at least some of them would have carried its ideals with them.

I’ve focused on Fenwick, but other co-ops and friendly societies came and went. See all those little dots flickering at the edge of your vision? There’s nothing wrong with your eyes. What you’re seeing is the spirit of an age: the co-op model answered a need, even if not many of the coo-ops lasted. It strikes me as important to remember the ones that didn’t last as well as the ones that did. 

Now let’s pick up the tale of the Rochdale co-op. It started in 1844. The industrial revolution was chewing up all those skilled, small-scale crafts, pushing their practitioners first out of work and then into factories. Working conditions were somewhere between abysmal and worse than that–child labor, inhuman hours, early death, industrial scale poverty–and a year before the Rochdale co-op was founded (that would be 1843; I’m unreliable with numbers, but I can subtract 1 from any number you throw at me and be reasonably sure of getting the right answer)–

Where were we? In 1843 a strike failed and mill workers were looking for some other way to improve living standards. Enter the 28 Rochdale Pioneers. (Trumpet fanfare here, if you please.) What they settled on was creating an alternative to the company store. 

I haven’t found any information specifically on Rochdale’s company store–or stores: I don’t even know how many we’re talking about. What I can tell you is that company stores in general were known for high prices and bad–often adulterated–merchandise. They were run by the same companies that their customers worked for, making a secondary source of income for the owners and a secondary point of exploitation for the workers. They stayed in business because their customers had nowhere else to go. Often no other store was within reach, and workers could often buy on credit (that’s the thing about working for lousy wages–you’re always broke) or were paid in company scrip (or chits–same thing, different word), a form of money issued by the company instead of actual cash and accepted in no other place else on the planet.

This was a time when store owners in general were known for adulterating their goods. We can’t blame company stores alone for that. But gee, everybody was free of all that pesky regulation and red tape that annoys us so today. And if people ended up buying tea that included recycled tea leaves from someone else’s brew along with a bit of new tea and some leaves picked from the hedge and colored in imaginative and occasionally poisonous ways? What the hell, it’s the price of freedom, right?

The Rochdale co-operative store (which opened, memorably, on Toad Lane) started out with about £16 worth of goods: flour (6 sacks), oatmeal (1 sack), sugar (44 pounds), and butter (22 pounds), plus 24 tallow candles because the gas company refused to supply them, so they lit the place with candles and sold whatever was left to their customers. 

The store was only open two nights a week, but within months it was keeping a five-day week. Before long they’d added the luxuries of working-class life, tea and tobacco.

The founders were conscious of the problems other co-ops had run into and set out some founding principles, which went on to form the basis of the co-operative movement in Britain and elsewhere. The business would be owned by its members, who would control it democratically. It wouldn’t sell on credit. Profits would be first plowed back into the business and then, when possible, returned to the members. It would be politically and religiously neutral. It would promote education.

This was radical stuff. No woman had the vote yet and neither did 6 out of 7 men–and mill workers would have been among the 6, not the 1. But here was an organization opening its membership up to everyone and giving them a say in how the thing would work. And religious neutrality signaled an openness to everyone, because religion was still an important dividing line. 

By 1854, over 1,000 co-operative stores were basing themselves on those principles. Ten years later, the North of England Co-operative Society had formed. 

In 1872, the society formed a division for loans and deposits. This eventually became the Co-operative Bank, which–well, it’s still going but during the years that led up to the credit crunch it decided to stop being so boring and it got crunched when the markets crashed. In 2013, only 30% of it was still customer owned. The rest was owned by private investors and–ouch–hedge funds. So yeah, there’ve been a few hiccups here and there.

But long before all that happened, the co-ops branched out in other directions as well. In many towns and cities, you can still get yourself co-operatively funeraled, pharmacied, or (regardless of your town) insured. 

In 1917, the Co-op formed a political arm, the Co-operative Party, which became a sister party to the Labour Party. How that sits with political neutrality I can’t begin to explain. What I can say is that you’ll find a Co-op store in just about every town near where I live, even though Cornwall wasn’t the heart of the co-op movement. They’re still governed by members, who elect area boards, which in turn elect regional ones and so on up the ladder. 

The stores maintain some of their community spirit and are known as good places for local organizations to turn if they need a donation or a stack of mince pies for a Christmas event.