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The History of Co-operatives

The Rochdale Pioneers

The co-operative movement has a long and fascinating history. There is a common thread that runs throughout this history: societies improve when people work together to improve their lives and the lives of others in their community.


In 1844, Queen Victoria had been on the English throne for seven years and the country was changing rapidly. The Industrial Revolution was underway, and invention followed invention with unprecedented rapidity, making the growing factories “efficient.” However, the world did not look as bright for the new urban working classes.

There were no social benefits: no public health care, no unemployment insurance, and no pensions. Unemployment was rampant. Only one in seven men in Britain had the vote and, of course, no women at all were enfranchised. In the city of Manchester (population 550,000), there was on average only one toilet for every 250 people and infant mortality was endemic.

Yet progress was being made. Slavery had been abolished throughout the British Empire 10 years earlier. The Mines Act of 1842 stopped children under 10 from working in the mines, and this was followed in 1844 by the Factory Act which prevented children between eight and 13 from working more than six and an half hours per day. Marx and Engels were finishing the Communist Manifesto and Charles Dickens was bringing the plight of the poor to the attention of the general populace with such best sellers as Oliver Twist (1839) and A Christmas Carol (1843). 

And in Rochdale, a working class textile manufacturing town,  a group of 30 people – weavers, tailors, shoemakers, carpenters and other skilled tradesmen – banded together to form the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers. The pioneers were tired of paying high prices for poor quality food at shops run by factory owners. Inspired by the teachings of Robert Owen, an early co-operative proponent, the men pooled their meagre savings to buy food supplies in Toad Lane and sold these staples back to society members at fair market prices. On December 21, 1844, they opened a shop.

The shop sold candles, tea, fuel and basic food stuffs. With the surplus from the store, which was their own, they bought more goods. At the end of the first year their surplus was sufficient enough to increase their stock and set aside reserve funds. It was also enough to issue a rebate to members in proportion to the amount of business each had done with the co-op during the first year. Ten years later, over 1,000 co-operatives operated in Britain alone.

The Rochdale Pioneer Society was by no means the first of its kind. The Fenwick Weavers’ Association in Scotland dated back to 1769 and is generally considered the first co-op ever created. Before that, European artists’ guilds of the early Renaissance approximated co-ops and the ancient Chinese had co-operatively organized memorial societies. The reason why the Rochdale Pioneers were so distinctive was their success. The founders carefully studied past attempts and constructed a set of rules, which came to be known as the Rochdale Principles.

These principles were a turning point in economic democracy, and formed the basis for the growing co-operative movement worldwide. Today, there are thousands of co-operatives all over the world with over 600 million members, all of which subscribe to what are now known as the seven international principles of co-operation:

  1. Voluntary and Open Membership
  2. Democratic Member Control
  3. Members’ Economic Participation
  4. Autonomy and Independence
  5. Education, Training and Information
  6. Co-operation among Co-operatives
  7. Concern for Community

Note: The seminal Rochdale shop ceased operation many years ago. The co-operative merged with other co-ops into a greater union and the original site is now a museum.

Co-operatives in Canada

The optimism and need of the early twentieth century drove growth in many new movements and ideas: the co-operative movement, though often overlooked, was no exception. The first co-ops to achieve stability in English Canada around the turn of the 20th century were farmers' marketing and purchasing societies. They were built on the twin causes of urgent need and the seed of co-operation planted during the previous century. These societies, along with the movement in general, gained a large following in the new Canadian provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and Manitoba.

Soon afterwards, dairy farmers established co-operative creameries. By 1900, there were over 1,200 creameries scattered across Canada, primarily in Ontario and Quebec. The same year laid the foundation for the credit union movements across North America, when Alphonse Desjardins established a caisse populaire (a financial services co-op) in Lévis, Quebec.

As early as 1887 the Manitoba government passed legislation to allow settlers from Ontario to build their own co-operative creameries. The efforts of co-operators between 1907 and 1911 resulted in a stable co-operative farm movement in the Prairies.

In fact, farmers in all regions participated in the development of co-operative movement, but it was the Prairie grain growers who first made co-operative action work on a large scale. In many ways it is the strength of and depth of the co-operative movement in rural Canada that ensured the development and continuity of other co-operative sectors of the Canadian economy. The groundwork laid by the agricultural co-operative movement blazed the trail for all of the other kinds of co-ops in Canada. Today, you can find co-operatives ranging in size from 3 members to millions, operating in nearly every sector.


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