10.9. Co-Operative Societies

In 1844, 28 hand-loom weavers in Rochdale, who had only intermittent employment, decided to set up a co-operative shop, where there would be no profit to third parties. They gave it the legal name of “The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers”. They needed 3 months to save up one Pound each, to subscribe the capital, and begin buying some groceries. They rented the ground floor of a warehouse at 31 Toad Lane, and on 21st October 1844, they started sales through a window; the wares were small quantities of flour, butter, sugar and oatmeal. 

For the first years they sold only groceries. In 1846, they started selling butcher’s meat; in 1847, they opened a drapery business; from 1852, they offered services of shoemaking, clogging, and tailoring. They also introduced a drawback from profits to finance an educational fund. The co-operative stores had fixed principles of honest dealing, good quality, “full weight”, cash payments only (no risk of a client getting into problems with his debt). By 1851 there were 130 similar shops. By 1861 the yearly sales volume in the country was 176,000 pounds. The co-operative system in Britain increased in size during the rest of the nineteenth century.        

(Holyoake, 1893, p. xvi)

We have a description of a typical day’s business around 1855:

“At seven o’clock there are five persons serving busily at the counter, others are weighing up goods ready for delivery. A boy is drawing treacle. Two youths are weighing up minor articles and refilling the shelves. There are two sides of counters in the grocer’s shop, twelve yards long. Members’ wives, children of members, as many as the shop will hold, are being served; others are waiting at the door, in social conversation, waiting to go in. On the opposite side of the Lane, three men are serving in the drapery department, and nine or ten customers, mostly females, are selecting articles. In the large shop, on the same side of the street, three men are chopping and serving in the butcher’s department, with from twelve to fifteen customers waiting. Two other officers are weighing flour, potatoes, preparing butter, etc., for other groups of claimants. In other premises adjoining, shoemakers, cloggers, and tailors are at work, or attending other customers in their respective departments. The clerk is in his office, attending to members’ individual accounts, or to general business of the Society. The news-room over the grocery has twenty or more men and youths perusing the newspapers and periodicals. Adjoining, the watch club, which has fifty-eight members, is collecting its weekly payments, and drawing lots as to who shall have the repeaters (manufactured by Charles Freeman, of Coventry), which the night’s subscription will pay for. The library is open, and the librarian has his hands full in exchanging, renewing, and delivering books to about fifty members, among whom are sons, wives, and daughters of members. The premises are closed at ten o’clock, when there has been received during the day for goods £ 420, and the librarian has lent out two hundred books. In opposite districts of the town, the Society has now open four Branch Stores for the convenience of outlying members, where, on a lesser scales, the same features of sale are being repeated.”

(Holyoake, 1893, p. 39; this chapter was first published in 1857) 

These paragraphs are inserted to show that in some circumstances, the inflationary increases in prices actually paid by the working classes for their necessary articles, could be less than the increases in the wholesale prices. It was possible to reduce the sales margins, to the benefit of the workers. 

The information about the Co-Operative Movement shows that the workers in the industrial towns were not just passive wage-earners, but were capable of initiative and business organization. We also see that the “sons, wives, and daughters of members” are interested in reading books; this was in general not the case of their grandparents, 50 years earlier.  

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